Eye to eye with the biggest primate in the world
An activity which for many is probably in their top 10 bucket list. For me it has been on my mind since our previous world trip 3 years ago and it was finally going to happen. Today we would come eye to eye with the biggest primate in the world, the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park (also called “The Place of Darkness” due to its dense treetops) is an ancient lowland forest. The region was named a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its biodiversity and the large number of endangered species that call it home. The gorillas where until recently (1980’s) the most endangered species with just barely over 250 living in the world. Luckily the population is slowly growing, and estimations are that today, in Bwindi NP alone you will find over 400 mountain gorillas.
We woke up early in the morning and after a small breakfast we drove off to Bwindi NP for an extensive briefing. Around 80 people in total where listening while one of the rangers informed us about the park, the gorillas and, most important, the rules when facing the gorillas up close. One rule in particular caught my eye….
”DON’T RUN AWAY WHEN A GORILLA MAKES A CHARGE ON YOU”
Now every sensible person would do just that and run faster than Usain Bolt on the 100 meters, especially when a gorilla of 200 kg is coming for you, but it was clear that whatever the gorilla did, we had to stand firm and face fear head on.
After the briefing we were divided into groups of maximum 8 people. Every group would visit 1 of the families in the park that where habituated, which means these gorillas are used to human presence. As we were one of the youngest present, we were put in a group to visit the Kahungye family, named after the mountain where this family has been spotted first. The reason why, would soon be clear.
Another half an hour driving to the south part of Bwindi NP, we finally met our guide and ranger. We left our cars and continued on foot. We climbed up the mountain using the “normal” road. On top of the hill we had a breath-taking view over the surrounding area all the way to the border with Congo; dense forest as far as the eye could see, with small villages and patches of farmland in between. It just showed us again how green Uganda is.
An hour of climbing passed by whereas the road made way for a small muddy track that led into the Bwindi NP. We where now in the dense forest we only saw minutes ago. It is one of Uganda's oldest and most biologically diverse rainforests, which dates back over 25,000 years and contains almost 400 species of plants.
Slowly we walked deeper and deeper into the forest. We were getting a little bit uneasy though as there was still no sign of gorillas (Keep in mind that we are talking about wild animals here and although the guides and rangers gives a 95% chance to see them it is still possible to miss the gorillas).
After three hours of making our way through the forest there was finally a sign of the gorillas. A team of trekkers had found the family we were looking for. The “bad news” (if you can call that bad news) was that we had to leave the muddy track and had to make our own way through the dense forest. With machetes the guide and ranger slowly made their way up. It was a tough climb with barely any foothold but as a result our dream would finally come through.
After we left our bags and other gear, accept for cameras and phones, we continued further up. Left and right we saw bushes moving. We knew it was them, but still they were not in sight. Another few meters climbing up, a few “small” gorillas suddenly showed themselves (Although they are small within their family, they are still as tall as a child of 10 years). Overwhelmed by this sight we almost missed the first glimpse of the second in comand, silver back nr 2. Almost 2 meters tall and weighting over 150 kg, this big male was showing himself like a real macho.
The silver back was moving up while looking for the best branches to eat. And once he found it, he leisurely sat down with not a care in the world. Like we weren’t there. Of course, we were no threat to him, he could easily break us in two, like a twig.
Our guides slowly chopped their way through the forest in search of the rest of the family. Some where heading up in the trees and could only be seen from a distance, while others moved under the bushes trying to find a spot where we couldn’t see them.
The moment we found another gorilla we moved as a team and closed in to make the best pictures. Although not all gorilla’s felt comfortable with that as we would soon find out.
With 8 cameras in total we found the leader of the pack. He was under the bush taking a nap, but woke up by the noise we made while making our way through the bush. Our will to take the best pictures took over and we slowly moved forward towards the leader.
Out of nowhere another gorilla jumped in and made a charge. Inge, the closest, jumped back and was planning to run away.” DON’T RUN AWAY WHEN A GORILLA MAKES A CHARGE ON YOU”, was out of her system. Luckily the guides where sharp enough to shout STOP loud enough, which made Inge stop her run. She was already in safety, meaning she was behind the rest of the tourists. The charge of the gorilla was just a waning that we where coming to close and after that we kept our distance.
After an hour, which for us felt like 30 minutes, it was time to leave the pack. With mixed feelings we left them behind as we had finally seen gorillas which had been lingering on our minds for years, but we had hoped to see them better and longer. And who wouldn’t want to stay longer with this big and amazing primate? He is in our eyes the true king of the jungle.