24.10.2014 - 24.10.2014 25 °C
Seeing the gorillas was AMAZING. Probably one of the highlights of my life.
We headed out from camp at 5.30am, still dark and still half asleep we piled into two awaiting vans, little did we know these would be our trekking teams for the day. I lucked in. A wicked crew of 8, and only one slow person... To test my patience, and teach me to be more tolerant... Yeah that didn't happen, she was from the US.
We set out from the village climbing through tea plantations and tiny settlements on a windy path up to the mountains and to our final destination, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. With children banging on the vans and yelling 'Muzungu!', we slowly crept through the mist toward a couple of amazing sunrise vistas.
It occurs to me now how odd it is that everyone yells 'muzungu' at you in Africa. They basically point at you and yell 'foreigner' in your face. If you tried to do that in London (or anywhere in the western world) you would get locked up. Or at least given a high five in the face... with a chair.
Anyway, once we arrived we were given a briefing explaining the day. No guarantees. If you trek all day and you don't see gorillas then they will give you a 50% refund. A bloody expensive day to hike in a forest to see nothing and almost certainly ruin every item of clothing you are wearing. I understand why it is known as impenetrable now... This place is not meant for humans.
The jungle is dense, muddy and untracked. As you will see in some of my photos, our team is just dodging vines, trees and roots as we scurry up and down the valley. In the morning we set out in one direction, and about half an hour in get a call over the radio that turns us 180 degrees, and back past where we started. Starting again, we head straight down the slope into the bottom of the valley to head up the slope on the other side.
This was not done elegantly. It was a hilarious process. At one stage during the day everyone ended up covering themselves in mud. Sometimes on multiple occasions. Not purposely. It was a full day of classic Fawlty Towers slapstick humour. People grabbing trees while both legs were in the air, people relying on branches that disappear under them, someone doing a full pirouette spin before landing on their front, one person sliding down to take out another, just a full day of side splitting hilarity. Seriously my stomach actually hurts today from laughing so much.
As fun as the process of getting to and from the gorillas was, obviously the gorillas were the stars of the show. As we approached the ridge, the front runner trackers came back and gave us one last brief. Put the walking poles away, stay 7 metres away, you have 1 hour. No more.
We arrived at the group and the first thing we saw was a massive Silverback. This male was sitting pulling vines down, delicately tearing them apart and putting them into his mouth. As I was lying in the undergrowth mesmerised by the human like features of this enormous animal, a baby appeared from the trees above, throwing itself to and fro in the vines. Jumping, swinging and falling. This baby was about 18 months old according to our guide, and was so playful. So much so that in our hurry to get away at one point, she grabbed the leg of one of the girls on our trek and gave her a cheeky bum pinch.
Over the next hour we watched the silver back, 3 females, a juvenile and the baby play, eat and even watched the mum breastfeed the baby. It was an extraordinary experience. Although they were cautious of us, it was almost like this was their opportunity to show off for the day. We were positioned right in the middle of the group and they sort of came and went as they pleased. Although we had to keep moving away from the baby who kept wanting to play, the 7 metre thing seemed to be a vague memory. It was like we we were adopted as part of the group.
And as magically as it began, with 6 minutes left on our 1 hour stopwatch, it started to gently rain and the troop slowly moved into the undergrowth cowering from the impending deluge, disappearing from sight. Then they were gone.
It was a sobering realisation that this would probably be the only time I will ever get to experience this, and it was so much more than I could have ever imagined. I always head into things with low expectations, so as to not be disappointed, but I needn't have worried in this instance. It was incredible.
I am so glad I did this at the end of my trip, for two reasons. Firstly, it is one of those experiences that is so Africa, and so NOT Africa at the same time. The setting - rain and lush forest is not how you picture typical Africa. But also the gorillas themselves, Africa is a hectic place, but the gorillas are patient, calm and methodical. They are relatively quiet and move with grace and purpose, something I could only dream of for my own life back in the real world. The second reason I am glad I saw them at the end of my trip is I like to think I have mastered my lens. Without trying to sound like a complete knob, I managed to get some legendary photos. I am happy enough with my camera skills in general settings, but I was a little concerned that I might miss the opportunity if I was still learning about how to get the shot I wanted. Some of the photos I am the most pleased with have not been altered in any way from the original... Not even cropped.
I woke up this morning, and the first thing I thought was I fricken saw gorillas yesterday. It was a pretty cool way to start the day.