February 2003: Impossible to leave our three year posting in Uganda without tracking the Gorillas: so here we are.
By 8am Erik-Jan and I are about to set out in our best safari gear to brave hours of tracking in sweltering conditions, slithering in foul smelling swamps, clambering endless gravity-defying slopes in an attempt to find the Gorillas, when disaster strikes.
My faithful camera refuses to operate. I must specify this has NEVER happened before. I try and try again, dismantle it, change the batteries, the special low light film but to no avail. I panic, rant, fume, beg, cajole and try very hard to not set off on an already negative note.
A clear bold blue sky, crisp air brimming with energy, a gentle warming sun: the elements are in our favour and dispel my frustration.
First step: a short instruction session. The mountain gorilla, the worlds most endangered ape (only 650 then left ) are only found in small portions of protected afromontane forests in northwest Rwanda, eastern Congo and southwest Uganda. Here at Bwindi there are three groups receiving each day a maximum of 6 visitors for a period of one hour. All precautions are taken to protect them from their biggest threat: human borne disease.
8:30: we follow our guide who is in radio contact with the trackers ahead of us. We are sandwiched between three soldiers in the front and three in the rear, armed, not against the Gorillas but against possible encounters with Interahamwe militia. Bwindi was better remembered in 1999 for the tourists abducted and killed than for its ecotourism.
The forest, dazzling in its fluorescent greenery is bursting with life at every level. We clamber enthusiastically up hillsides aided by lianas, surrounded by monkeys and birds chattering gaily, and somewhere in there serval cats and forest elephants. The air is full of the freshness of leaves, the slightly musty smell of swamps and the musky scent of Africa.
A sudden static crackle and we are all attention: the trackers have found them! No more eating, drinking, sneezing, coughing; talking is limited to whispers. We abandon bags and walking sticks with the army and follow our guide, all nerves on edge.
“Thack, thack” the machete frays us a way through the dense foliage. My heart is pounding so hard I feel quite nauseous. The guide stops. We approach. I can barely breathe…and there they are. A mother peacefully breast- feeding her three month old baby: the most beautiful sight in the world. Oblivious to our presence she conscientiously strips leaves with her teeth from the branch she holds down, a bundle of soft grey fur and two sparkling eyes clinging on. We are so close we can hear her chewing.
But the magic is suddenly interrupted by a commanding parting of the undergrowth. My heart skips a beat. It’s the Silverback, the alpha male. Two hundred kilos of sheer power and nobility. He is magnificent. As if on command a shaft of sunlight pierces the thick forest right above him showering his glossy black fur with light. His incredibly broad back, rippling with muscles, shimmers silver. He is 29 years old, 7 meters away and with one powerful swipe of his bulging forearm he could rip my head off. But he doesn’t. He looks up. He looks straight at me. Through me. As if in that split second he absorbs all of who I am, who I was and who I will become. I am spell-bound.
Two females keep a watchful eye over three juveniles as they prance around, climbing their mother’s backs, which they bear with indulgence, amused and sometimes irritated like any mother would be. An adolescent male rests to the side.
For one unforgettable hour we follow this family, keeping an average distance of seven meters. When they settle, we crouch down and watch, and I am overwhelmed by how privileged we are to be allowed a glimpse of their life. It feels almost voyeuristic prying on such an intimate family scene but they seem to absorb us as a rightful part of their environment.
I can not believe now that a few hours ago I felt all was ruined as I had no camera. It enabled me to fully feel the privilege of the moment. No focusing and clicking and experiencing through a lense but directly and so much more powerfully. I have no photos to show but that experience is more ingrained in my memory than any photo could have done.
What the army, trackers and porter who had stayed aside had not realized was that we had walked a full circle. Our hour is just about up when we hear a terrific, blood curdling roar followed by human squeals. The Silverback had encountered the other half of our party on his road, and whereas he is used to having one group with him for an hour a day, he did not expect two, especially not in his path. So he charged, the guards scattered and thankfully the Silverback didn’t follow suit, he just wanted them out of his way!
And so, on a high adrenaline note, ended our unforgettable visit to the Gorillas.
Some things just happen for a reason and what a silver lining that cloud turned out to have….