Well, not really. But hey, a girl can dream right? But we did trek the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, in search of the incredible mountain gorillas that call the dense vegetation of Bwindi their home. And found them.
There are fewer than 900 of these mountain gorillas left on the planet (let that sink in for a moment). So if you're thinking that an experience such as this might be a mind-blowing and somewhat life-altering experience, you would be correct.
But let me backtrack for a bit. I've been trying to organize my thoughts, and images, to prepare a blog post about this for quite some time (since our trip in September of 2017). I discovered that I also needed a bit of time to process the experience as well. I mean - GORILLAS.
So, how this came about was an email sent out to The Giving Lens alumni, inviting us to apply for an upcoming scouting trip to Uganda. The trip would involve volunteer work in partnership with Beacon of Hope, Uganda (specifically, photography workshops with disadvantaged youth in Uganda), as well as some visits to other NGOs throughout Uganda, including Africa Sustainable Tourism Care Foundation to learn about what services they provide for local communities and to do some pro-bono photography work for the NGOs to use in promotional material. As an added bonus, we would have the opportunity to go on safari, do a bit of chimpanzee trekking, and, finally, to do some trekking to photograph the mountain gorilla population in Southwestern Uganda.
I leapt at the chance to apply, but didn't hold out a huge amount of hope of actually making it onto the small team that would be selected to go. I mean - again - GORILLAS.
But, as my husband came through the front door one day, he found me seated at my desktop computer with an unreadable look on my face.
"What?" he said, warily.
"You remember that Uganda trip I told you about? With The Giving Lens?"
"Yeeeeah...?" again, warily.
"I just got the email! I'm in!!"
So. What followed was a flurry of planning, ticket booking, getting travel vaccinations, Ugandan visa, and re-thinking my summer plans. I had already rented a VW Campervan to road trip down the Oregon Coast into California with my daughter for the summer. My husband would be joining us for one leg of the trip and then flying home. And THEN, after that - I had another road trip planned with a friend up to Barkerville BC. So, basically, between trips, I had a total of about 3 days to pack, get mentally prepared and hop a flight to Uganda on August 31st! No sweat. Ha.
Now, fast forward to our last few days in Uganda (I will do a separate blog post about the incredible kids and NGOs we worked with during our time there) and we're on the longest bus ride in history, headed to Southwestern Uganda to realize a dream that had been circling around my mind all summer long.
The night before our trek, we stayed at Bunyonyi Safaris Resort, on Bunyonyi Lake, a welcome and beautiful respite after the long and bumpy bus ride. We snatched a couple of hours of sleep, and then rose early the next morning for the 3 hour bus ride into the mountains to meet our guides and trackers at the gorilla trekking base camp.
Have you ever seen the movie Gorillas in the Mist? Yeah. That's EXACTLY what it looks like, winding up the bumpy, cliffside, and in some places dangerously washed-out roads into the mountains. It's incredible. The mist rolling over the dense vegetation spread out below you, the sun angling low on the horizon as it rises to pierce the mist. We were all hanging out of the bus windows, clicking madly away, and sometimes begging our driver to stop for the insane photo-ops.
I can't properly explain it. So let me just show you. How I wish that I'd captured better shots of the area. And how I wish I'd noticed sooner that the kids of Beacon of Hope had inadvertently set my camera settings to shoot jpeg instead of RAW. Que sera, sera, right?
Anyways. You get the picture. So to speak.
We arrived at base camp to meet with our team of guides, trackers and porters (our team leader, Colby Brown, had issued a mandatory edict that we all hire local porters to carry our camera gear for the duration of the trek. And I will be eternally grateful that he did so.)
A brief rundown of the do's and don'ts of gorilla trekking:
- Keep a 7 meter distance from the gorillas at all times. Sometimes this isn't possible because they may range closer to you and you have nowhere to back up to, but do the best you can.
- You are allowed a maximum of ONE HOUR to observe the gorillas in their natural habitat. This is strictly enforced.
- If you are feeling ill, or carrying a contagious disease, volunteer to stay behind. Humans and gorillas are closely related and a simple cold has the potential to trigger an outbreak among the gorillas, with devastating consequences.
- Keep your voices low and stay in a close group with your fellow trekkers.
- Do not eat or drink near the gorillas.
- Sometimes the gorillas charge. Follow the guides example (crouch down slowly, do not look the gorillas directly in the eyes and wait for the animals to pass)
There were a few more rules to go over, but these cover the most important ones, and the rest were (I would hope) common sense, such as "don't touch the gorillas" or "no smoking near the gorillas".
You must also have obtained a gorilla trekking permit 3 -5 months in advance, which the Giving Lens was kind enough to have organized for us, once we provided the necessary information and the fees required.
A maximum number of 8 visitors may visit a group of mountain gorillas, for one hour, per day. We split into 2 teams of 5, plus our guide (and trackers and porters) for the trek.
The trackers were sent out early in the morning to locate the gorilla family they had trekked the day before and would radio back to our guide with an approximate location. We would be trekking the Bitukura Gorilla Group.
Now. The trek. Colby had given us a rundown in preparation for what we were about to embark upon. He warned us that it was incredibly difficult. Not impossible, mind you, but difficult. Colby had already been on two separate treks before the entire team landed in Uganda. He explained that gorillas, true to their wild nature, did not know or care that we would be slogging through the jungle to see them, so they wouldn't necessarily make it easy for us. They follow their own wanderings, in search of plentiful food or secure nesting sites.
On one trip, Colby and his group trekked for TEN HOURS to see the gorillas. Agh. I can't even imagine.
If you've ever been to Vancouver, BC and experienced the Grouse Grind (or, as I like to call it, sheer hell on earth), then you'll have some sort of idea as to what we were in for. Now multiply that by, like, a thousand. And add mud. And thick vegetation (I guess there's some sort of reason it's called the "Impenetrable Forest" or something), and humidity, and little swarms of gnats. The trackers and porters would trek in front of, and behind us, some armed with machetes to hack away at the thick vegetation, some armed with rifles in case of marauding elephants, something I fervently hoped not to encounter.
But, fun fact; Colby also told us about what's known as an "African Helicopter". An African Helicopter is for anyone that decides, mid-trek, that they just cannot possibly go one more step, a team of porters will literally *carry* you on a stretcher so that you may view the gorillas, and then carry you out of the jungle and back to the bus, for a price (which can vary). Apparently this happens more often than you would think, and there is absolutely no shame in it. Gorilla trekking is HARD. (But TOTALLY worth it!) Still, I was bound and determined not to be *That Guy*.
You can imagine my relief then, after an hour or so of scrambling up steep muddy slopes and then literally falling back down the inclines on the other side (I was pretty much head to toe mud within 20 minutes -just ask my teammates:), our guide looked back at us and announced that the trackers had spotted the gorilla family we were trekking, and that they were perhaps 20 to 30 minutes trek away. If I had any breath left in me I would have cheered.
Buoyed by the prospect of imminent gorilla sightings, I fairly sprinted for the remainder of the trek. Ha. Ha. Ha. Not really. But I was incredibly excited. So much so that I nearly walked into the back of our guide as he suddenly stopped short in front of me. Untangling my boot from a particularly stubborn vine, brushing some more mud off my camera lens, and waving a cloud of gnats away from my face, I looked up. And that, I can assure you, is a moment I will never, as long as I live, forget.
There, about 15 feet away from us (I guess their proximity had surprised even our guide, and we ended up closer than we meant to. The gorillas didn't seem bothered though), were 3 infant gorillas, playing atop a grizzled looking old silverback, who lay on the thick jungle carpet, the very picture of long-suffering patience. They rolled and jumped and played and beat upon their little chests, which was seriously adorable. Eventually the silverback stood up, shook them off like flies, and lumbered away. Another, younger male lay in the foliage off to the left of me and I lowered my camera and just watched his incredibly alien, yet human-like features as he gazed back toward us.
The trackers had spotted some more of the family in some trees and we wound down the mountainside to find them. As the trees thinned out a bit and we arrived into an area where we could view them a little more clearly, we were startled by a loud "thump" that I swear I could feel resonating through my feet on the jungle floor. What I had just missed seeing (but Colby had witnessed and later explained to us) was a fight in the treetops between an older and a younger, alpha silverback. The younger literally slapped the older one around and threw the elder from the treetop, about 30 feet up. The older one, clearly winded, lay were he landed for a long time, one arm cradled across his chest as though favouring it. The look in his eyes made my heart ache to see. He looked bewildered, startled, and defeated, all at once. Eventually he too, rose up and lumbered away, slowly. I still wonder what became of him after that day.
That hour went by unbelievably quickly, but I don't feel that I wasted one second. We watched a mother swing from branch to branch, her tiny baby clinging to her back with little hands clutched onto fistfuls of her hair. We watched some adolescents climb up, beat their chests, and climb back down. And of course, we took photos. Many many many photos. But mostly we watched.
Before we even knew it, our time with the gorillas was up, and our guide signalled us that it was time to go. We were on such an intense adrenaline high, the trek back felt like nothing at all. Just kidding, it still sucked! But we were on a high, and upon our arrival back to our bus we fairly exploded with stories to share about our experience, and ooh'd and ahh'd over each other's shots.
The mountain gorillas of Uganda and Rwanda are a very special, and endangered species. I urge you to do whatever you can to help maintain their survival, and go see them, should the opportunity present itself! Or, better yet, *make* the opportunity present itself. I promise you, it's something you will never regret doing, and you will be a changed person for it.
Here is a link for The Giving Lens, if you're interested in both giving back and having an amazing volunteer experience (they have a Uganda trip coming up!) http://thegivinglens.com
And here's a link to Ellen Degeneres Wildlife Fund, which is building a permanent home for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, if you'd like to get involved! https://ellendegenereswildlifefund.org