Safari Travel Stories – 1 –
Mountain Gorilla Trekking by Shelley Hrdlitschka
In single file, eight tourists and two porters followed our guide through the dense Ugandan jungle. The going was tough and I relied on my porter to push and pull me up the steepest slopes. Thistles bit into my sweaty skin. The guide’s machete hacked away at the lush green vegetation.
The crackle of a walkie-talkie brought us to a halt. After a quick conversation with the trackers who were ahead of us, scouting out the direction in which the mountain gorillas had been moving since yesterday, our guide said, “We’re almost there. Take out your cameras and leave everything else here. Remember, seven meters, that’s as close as you may get to them.”
My heart was pounding, partly from exertion, but mostly from excitement. Were the gorillas really just ahead of us? Was my long-time dream of observing them in the wild actually coming true?
After a few more minutes of slogging through the jungle we entered a natural clearing, and there he was, just a few meters away ~ the magnificent silverback mountain gorilla. I heard someone gasp – maybe it was me. He was ambling along, followed by a couple smaller females and juveniles, as well as a mother with a small baby clinging to her chest and another with her baby riding piggyback. A branch snapped. We looked around to see that we were surrounded by gorillas. Could this really be happening?
The gorillas took very little notice of us as they went about the business of munching leaves. We stayed bunched together, cameras clicking, silently marvelling at how similar their expressions and behaviours were to us, humans, who share 98% of the same genetic make-up. For a moment I locked eyes with one of the females, and we observed each other. The lines that divide our species felt tenuous.
For exactly sixty minutes we watched the gorillas going about their daily routines. The young ones played tag, like four-year-old boys. Mothers monitored the antics of their young while grooming each other. All of them chomped on leaves. Although he’d partially turned his back to us, we knew that the huge silverback was acutely aware of us and was keeping a watchful eye on his extended family. One mother growled and put out her arm, barring us from getting any closer to her baby.
After exactly one hour the guide told us our time was up, we had to retreat and leave the gorillas in peace.The trek back to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Camp was a quiet one as we each processed what we’d just witnessed. The dozen or so gorillas we saw were among the 720 remaining Mountain Gorillas left on the planet. They were one of four families in this park who have been habituated and are observed daily by tourists. In Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo there are other groups of habituated gorilla groups, with ecotourism and other conservation-focused enterprises working together to protect the remaining populations.
Knowing how fragile their existence is, how just one virus passed over from humans could wipe out their entire species, I will forever savour the hour I was allowed to spend in their company.