I am very aware of and appreciate this amazing life I have, living and working around the globe, experiencing once-in-a-lifetime moments more than once in my lifetime. Trekking to find the mountain gorillas in Uganda this month, I believe, was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Firstly, we went with my sister and her husband, which was their first time to Africa and helped us to see the wonders in a fresh light. Secondly, although some mountain gorilla families are habituated to humans they can only be seen in the wild and cannot survive outside of their natural habitat. By being habituated it means that these families have slowly gotten used to the trackers and guides and then tourists over years of careful conservation efforts. It doesn’t mean they are tame, not by any stretch! It just means they don’t see us as a threat, as long as we follow the rules, the guidance of the trackers, don’t challenge the silverback and keep a safe distance from the babies…which can be difficult as they are naturally curious!
There are only 880 in the world and are found in a small pocket of dense rain forests in Africa- in Rwanda the Volcanoes National Park, in Uganda the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and in the DRC the Virunga National Park. Just to put it into perspective…
Our experience with these large, strong, eerily human and beautiful creatures was incredible. Our trackers had found the group before we got to them and were following them through the thick dense forest. Single file behind our guide and the primate doctor, we chopped our way through the thicket, slipping downhill, trudging up steep hills, clothes catching on thistles, thankful for gators protecting our shins and ankles, hanging on to vegetation and our porters hands, balancing on slippery logs over swift flowing streams, and then stop! A large, dark, furry head is seen watching us intently through thick bush. We stop, catch our breath, hold our breath, stare wide-eyed at each other and focus on the bushes in front of us.
Let’s be honest, the silverback heard us coming from miles away, we were not exactly stealthy! He was keeping us away from the rest of the family, getting to know us a bit first before allowing us any further. He watched us, eating vegetation and calling softly to his family. When he decided we were getting to close or didn’t see all of us at once, he charged, reminding us who was the boss! There were a few heart- in- throat moments!
After this powerful and dark creature decided we were no threat, he allowed us to approach and follow him to the rest of the family. Juveniles hung from vines and trees above our heads, dropping leaves and staring at us intently. Mamas with babies on their backs walked through the bush to find the most succulent and tasty leaves. Babies played with each other, lolled around, staying close to mama. I had expected to feel anxiety or even fear being so close to the large mountain gorillas, but it was peaceful and exhilarating.
Even if we do get to go see the mountain gorillas again during our time in Rwanda, it will be a different once-in-a-lifetime experience as one cannot predict the behaviour of animals in the wild!