The adrenaline rush caused by a charging mountain gorilla in the wild will forever live in my memory, and maybe nightmares. So, too, will images of the troop over which the huge silverback ruled.
Eight visitors and a handful of guides watched in silence as adult male “blackback” and female gorillas, several with an infant clinging to them, perched in treetops overhead, munching on leaves and tender shoots. A few juveniles were swinging on vines and frolicking on the ground, pausing occasionally to peer at the group of human interlopers.
Trekking for mountain gorillas had been touted as the highlight of a 16-day safari trip to the African country of Uganda sponsored by ElderTreks – “the adventure of a lifetime.” In many ways it lived up to that reputation. At the same time, my reaction was tempered somewhat because so many other encounters with a virtual Noah’s Ark of wildlife also were extraordinary. So were opportunities to interact with people whose lifestyle is very different from mine.
For example, Deo Karegyesa, a farmer, explained that he often sleeps near his fields so he can ward off foraging bush pigs. Alfonso Bifumbo, a traditional healer, demonstrated how he uses herbs and plants to treat a variety of ailments, and to drive away evil spirits that he said sometimes possess people in his village.
Along with the variety of enticing attractions in Uganda, there are good reasons why the opportunity to trek for mountain gorillas tops many a visitor’s “must do” list. Of the estimated 880 of those magnificent creatures in the world, about 400 live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in that country.
The way it works is that a local trekker ventures out early in the morning, climbs to where a troop of the animals was seen the day before, and follows the trail of broken branches and matted grass that they left. When he spots the gorillas, he uses a walkie-talkie to call the main guide who sets out leading a group of eight people, the maximum allowed to join the hunt.
Before embarking upon this expedition, we had received a brief but somewhat intimidating tutorial about what was in store. While the average time spent finding a group of gorillas, observing them for the allotted hour and returning is four-to-five hours, we were told the entire experience could last as little as two hours and as long as seven. More about that later!
Depending upon how far we would have to trek, the maximum increase in elevation could approach 1,600 feet. We were advised to wear gloves as protection against the spiky thorns of stinging nettles along the way, and to bring a walking stick and plenty of water.
Then came gorilla etiquette. Stay at least 25 feet away from the animals to protect both them and us. Because those gentle giants share more than 95% of human DNA, they’re susceptible to our diseases, so stifle any coughs or sneezes. And because they’re wild animals, we had to be kept safe from them.
Setting out on our venture, it didn’t take long for my wife Fyllis and me to learn why they’re called mountain gorillas, and why the forest is named “Impenetrable.” The trail soon disappeared and the guide began swinging his machete to cut a shoe-wide path through thick underbrush. The ground was slippery and unbreakable vines clutched at our feet. The hill near the start of the hike, steeper than any we had climbed before, became even more so.
Fortunately, several guides with bulging muscles accompanied the group. At times, they literally gave us a hand, pulling, pushing and doing whatever was necessary to help us up the hills.
As we continued to climb, we recalled the potential two-to-seven hour time frame mentioned during the briefing. Unlucky us! The troop we were seeking was on the prowl searching for food. By the time we caught up with them, three hours had already passed.
Settling down to watch from the proscribed distance, we sat in silence. The only sounds were those of leaves being munched, an occasional branch being broken off and the clicking of cameras.
The real excitement came when the mammoth “silverback,” the dominant male identified by a whitish saddle across its back, turned from chewing to charging. Emitting a growl that might have caused Tarzan to cower, he began to move toward the group of now cowering visitors. Our guide quickly stepped in front, waved his arms and machete and the hulking beast turned away. Just in case, guides also are armed with AK-47 rifles. Ours explained that the gun would be fired in the air to frighten off a gorilla and assured us that he had never had to use it.
The return hike, while downhill, was almost as challenging as the climb had been. We slip-slid our way back to the starting point, at times clinging to the guides to stop our fall, and returned to our rustic but comfortable accommodations.
Once there, insult was added to injury. We learned that shortly after another group of trekkers had left the lodge, following a road toward a mountain path, they came upon a small banana plantation that 19 gorillas were happily dismantling. The lucky hikers watched in wonder – and comfort – as the troop consumed its fill of fruit, and were back in their rooms two hours after they had left.
These experiences, both extreme in terms of length and challenge, shared a common feature. That was the thrill of a close-up encounter with one of Mother Nature’s most noble creatures. Despite the challenges that Fyllis and I had faced and overcome – perhaps in part because of them – we agreed that we did, indeed, have the adventure of a lifetime.
If you go
A safari trip to Africa isn’t best taken as a do-it-yourself affair. Fyllis and I went with ElderTreks, which since 1987 has conducted off-the-beaten-path trips for people 50 and older to more than 100 countries. Among benefits it offers are small groups, highly efficient trip preparation, outstanding local guides, and inclusion of all meals in the price, which isn’t true to some tour companies.
Our accommodations ranged from a sophisticated lodge overlooking hillside tea plantations to luxurious, spacious tented wilderness camps with a private bathroom.
For more information, call ElderTreks at 1-800-741-7956 or log onto eldertreks.com.
Victor Block recommends that if you can’t visit a destination you’d like to, read about it. He’s happy to be your eyes and ears.