Mountain Gorilla trekking in Bwindi National Park
Every kid find that monkeys are funny. Small monkeys appeal to small kids when they look at them with expressive faces, long tales and arms and the playful way they jump from tree to tree. I am born in 1952 and we did not get television before the sixties. So my firs meeting with monkeys were in the books at home. Books like “Animals of the World” were worn out after 3 kids having looked in them for many years. We where never bored by the big black and withe pictures of chimpanzees and gorillas in the jungle. The shock was therefor even bigger when I as a child went to the Zoo in Copenhagen and met a big male gorilla sitting in a cramped cage and stared out at us. The experience was so unpleasant and grim that I on to this day still can imagine his wise, but sad eyes. My father dragged us children away from the cage at once and tried to get us occupied with other things.
But then we got a television and could watch the nature programs from BBC. I cant remember exactly when I saw David Attenborough meet Jane Godall in Africa among the chimpanzees, but I believe it was late sixties. Later he made a program about Dian Fossey and her work and life with the mountain gorillas. These programs and the book ”Gorillas in the Mist” that Fossey wrote in 1983 and the film with Sigourney Weaver in the lead role some years later, created my dream. I wanted to see by my self, these fabulous animals in their own environment, the rainforest. But I did not really believe it was ever going to happen! How could normal people ever get close to these threatened gorillas that Fossey studied until she was murdered in Rwanda in 1985.
Mountain gorillas are only found in 3 countries, Uganda, Congo and Rwanda. Its only a little more than 700 individuals left. The population is increasing and it’s a serious saving program going on in Uganda and Rwanda. Mountain gorillas live in an impermeable rainforest and in Congo they live with political unrest and war. Just ten years ago Wild Life authorities in Uganda had to close down Bwindi for foreign tourists. Rebels from Congo came over the border and killed random tourists and rangers. So it was a lot of obstacles for my dream to come true.
But during a dinner in 2009 I was placed beside a man who told me had visited the mountain gorillas many times. He said this was possible for most people if you where willing to pay and was in normal physical shape. You had to apply for a gorilla visa with the Uganda Wild Life Authorities and start planning the trip. My trip was starting there and then and with good help from my sideman at the table, Ulf Rugumayo Amundsen, the trip was planned. In December 2010 me and my husband, his brother and 4 more friends left for Uganda to fulfill my dream!
After travelling north in Uganda we came to Bwindi late in the evening. After just a few hours sleep we had to get up at 4.00 and get some breakfast before we left at 5.00 to do the gorilla trekking. We had to drive 48 km to the other side of the park. It took nearly 3 hours on very bad roads, or more like dry rivers after the rain season. Gradually it lightened and we could enjoy the beautiful landscape and see the steep hills we where driving on. Bwindi is at about 2400 m above sea level and is the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen. Deep valleys, steep hills, sugar top after sugar top with tea plantations and banana palms before the rain forest dominated and the vegetation became dense.
A visit to Bwindi National Park has to be planned. There are limitations of how many allowed to see the gorillas each day and a group can not be bigger than 8 persons. It’s a lot of organization behind, to enable that you as a tourist can experience this adventure. We where 7 in our group, and in addition we had 7 young men helping us to carry our gear. We had 3 armed soldiers, several wildlife rangers and trackers and a very nice leader of the gang that had devoted his life to the park and the mountain gorillas.
After a thoroughly review of how to behave, what was permitted and not in the meeting with the gorillas, we could start our expedition into the dense vegetation. The first 2 – 3 hundred meters were a very steep path and I had problems breathing and my heart was beating because of the height. I was afraid I had to give it up so close to the goal of my dream. Somewhere out there in the jungle was the big primates I have dreamt of seeing in their real environment. Luckily we walked slowly and soon my pulse was back to normal. Before we went trekking we were told that it could take up to 6-7 hours to find the gorilla group that we had permission to visit. And there was always a small chance that we never would find them – there were no guaranties!
After about 2 hours climbing up and down steep and slippery hillsides with rangers in front clearing the path with machetes, we suddenly stopped. We had crossed a marsh following the tracks of forest elephants, we had stumbled through lianas and old roots, the sweat was dropping and the breath was heavy, mosquitos and other strange insects swarm around our heads and our eyes were nearly falling out trying to spot the great primates through the thick wall of green. Then suddenly the trees moved, my heart stopped beating for some seconds and a big greyish body came towards us with great speed. In that moment I felt a big contentment and smiled. At last I was here and everything was exactly as in the TV movies, only much more real.
When you meet the mountain gorillas you are allowed to spend 1 hour with them and on a distance of 7 meter. But the gorillas do not know this! The wildlife rangers know each animal and showed us with careful arm movements how we could move to get the best view of the gorillas. They speak with low and calm voices while they moved branches so we could take the best pictures. They told us about each animal “There is one of the young silverbacks. Can you see his finger? And up in that tree is one of the females. She loves to show off”. And in the same moment she jumps even higher in the tree and shakes it violently. A lot of small and hard fruits fall down on us and one makes its way into my trousers.
We are sitting there in the rain forest on a soft bed of rotten and withered leaves in a field of fern and I can clearly imagine Attenborough, may be at the exactly same spot, with a baby gorilla tumbling on his belly. Our gorilla baby is more reserved. A 2-year-old baby is climbing in a small tree catching fruit and enjoying life just 15 meters away. But a big silverback is sitting only 2-3 meter from us and just cooling it! He is very relaxed and with his big belly he looks just comfortable. I just want to give him a big hug!
“We have a young male who likes a friendly boxing match” the boss speaks quietly and makes sure we all are safe behind him. The young male 200 kilos, rush towards us. His arm is lifted and he hit one of the rangers with a heavy clap on the shoulder. Then he disappears in the forest. “He only wants to be friendly, but do not know how strong he is and how much damage he can cause”, the boss tells us.
Its like time has stopped. The sound of the jungle is full of exotic bird song. Sudden roars indicate some disagreement in between the group. There are 13 individuals in the gorilla group and we can count 8 gorillas in the very near surroundings, some only 2 meters away. The moment is perfect and will forever be remembered as the greatest experience in my life!