Gorillas – Mountain gorillas, in particular – What springs to mind when you hear that word? King Kong, Gorillas in the mist, extinction, Dian Fossey, Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, adventure, excitement, and rainforest… For me, it is all of the above. As a child I was reading very early, probably because I spent a lot of time on the ‘naughty chair’ at preschool, with my back to the goings on, and the only thing to do there was look at the books that were in the box. After a few sessions, the pictures got old. So read I did, voraciously!
Before I was 10 years old, I was already reading about the Rift Valley and of the wildlife writers and explorers for example Dian Fossey, George Durell and many others. Drinking in the pictures of all the strange beasts that I would never get to see in my life. One didn’t do these things or go to these places, this type of exploration and adventure was for other people, not the children of a New Zealand army sergeant and his wife.
So, with my strange reading habits ongoing, my family was eventually posted to Waiouru in the North Island of New Zealand, and then on to Singapore, and I realised that people from my background could and did travel, so I resolved to do so when possible, but on leaving school and landing back in NZ, at 16, my main focus became putting a roof over my head and food in my belly.
Years later and many moves, I was living in Matamata when a friend asked me to go with her to Australia, and so we ditched our jobs and set off, landing in Sydney then hitchhiking our way around the bottom of the country, caught the Ghan up to Alice Springs, Ayers Rock and then on to Katherine in the Northern Territory. I had found my passion and never stayed anywhere long, never putting down roots and only having enough stuff to fit in my car with ease.
And so I come to today, writing about my taking advantage of my niece’s presence in Africa, Uganda to be precise, and the opportunity to visit her and spend a few weeks seeing the world through her eyes. Hopefully seeing the Mountain Gorillas of my childhood dreams would become a reality, but if it didn’t, I would be having an adventure anyway.
After many long hours on planes and waiting in airports, sitting on tarmac in 45 deg heats, here I am in Entebbe, a bit later than anticipated. Danielle and Mike are right there at the door waiting for me, Yay! They didn’t give up and go home.
Skip to Gorilla Day.
Now here we are a week later and today is Gorilla day. We rise early and have a funny African tea (very weak milk tea) for breakfast with an Omelette. Yum, but my stomach is all over the place with excitement. Across the road we go, to the Ranger headquarters, to have a little info chat, get a porter and a pole, and head off into my adventure!
The night before we had looked over the edge of the precipice, down to the jungle below…uh oh, it’s a bit scary – but what the heck, too late to chicken out now, I will give it my best shot!
So Lawrence is my porter and Benson is the Ranger, we have two armed guards, a scientist and seven other paying guests, a porter for most of the guests, and the trackers are already down there doing their thing. The armed guards come with us as we are on the edge of DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of the rebels like to borrow the tourists and ask for money to let them go home again. I don’t particularly want to go and visit with them, so I am more than happy to have these guys with us.
We set off heading up the hill, along the road, and I am thinking, oh goodie, we’ll be using the track that is up here, to go down the mountainside, how easy is that? My glee is short lived, a radio call and we turn around, head slightly past the ranger station, and turn off down the hillside, some really scary stuff.
I shan’t bore you with the trials and tribulations of the horrendous physical demands made on our bodies on the way down, suffice to say it is stinking hot, very humid, the vegetation is up to 5 feet tall, we stamp it down as we go and it is very wet and slippery. Everybody falls at least once, some of us many times, the walking sticks we took are a godsend sometimes but do become caught in the vines and other bushes etc. The steepness of the slopes is about 45 degrees and it takes us about an hour and a half to get down.
We miss the chance to look at the view of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest though it is directly in front of us, just because we have to concentrate so hard on every foot placement, a broken leg is a huge possibility. By now I have had a big slip, taken out my porter in the slide, and hurt my knee and my foot. My twisted knee doesn’t allow me to walk properly, even on flat ground. It’s also quite painful, making me reconsider how the hell I was ever going to get out of there? I wonder aloud if there is a helicopter somewhere. Next thing I know, there is a little stream in front of me, and we turn left and are told the gorillas are only a few minutes away. Oh my gosh! It is really happening!
After waving Chriss goodbye like a girl heading off on her first day off school, with enough money in her pocket to pay for the porters and some spare for any tips she may feel like giving. Mike and I had slipped across the road to the most expensive hotel (min $600USD a night) in the area which was just next door to our relatively cheap guesthouse ($5 camping). We were on the hunt of a good coffee. One we had missed because they only had African Tea available at our guesthouse. We sat on a beautiful patio with our plunger coffee, casually discussing the facts of Uganda with the managers. My mind wondered to my Auntie wondering how she was getting on going down that incredibly steep slope that I had nightmares about hoping she won’t hurt herself.
As I am lagging behind and am slower than everyone else, my porter is allowed to come with me even though all the other porters stop at the river. We have to leave our poles and bags behind as well. Being a bit slower becomes a bonus very quickly though, as Lawrence (my porter) and I come upon a baby gorilla hanging in a tree right beside the trail. No one else is around so we stop and watch, and I am so completely mesmerised by this little thing playing happily by itself, I forget to take out my camera and when I remember, it is almost too late!
Lawrence says we have to catch up, so off I limp and catch up with the rest of the group, where the most amazing experience awaits me. Gorillas are everywhere we look, so I crouch down and just watch. The vegetation is very lush and wet, so we have to still be very careful of our footing, trying to see everything that is going on and not slip or fall over and disturb these magnificent animals. We are in their environment and they are truly wild, just habituated enough to tolerate us if we behave appropriately and only then for one hour.
Lawrence (my porter), learns how to use my camera pretty quickly, so I can sit and look. I do take a few photos myself, but really just want to observe. I am thrilled to bits when one young female and then a juvenile wants to pass very close to us. The bigger adults have just walked past but these two obviously feel either threatened by or submissive to us (one of the Swedish girls and myself are standing right next to the path!) so we slowly crouch down and move away so they could pass. It is a very emotional moment for me.
The gorillas start to move away after a while, and we are much slower moving than them, which is quite fortuitous, as there is a bit of yelling, screaming chest beating and argy bargy emanating from the jungle in front of us! Scary stuff. Benson is very good at making these lovely low reassuring sounds that help settle things down. Two of the Silverbacks have had a difference of opinion, and he doesn’t want us to walk into a bit of a physical disagreement between them. I miss a lot of this as we are separated by a juvenile and older female playing in the way to join the others, then a silverback cames back to see where they are, and sits on the far side of them, having a little snack, and keeping an eye on proceedings.
He is very polite and let me photograph his face and seems very calm and settled, and I know enough not to look him in the eye or make any sudden moves or noises. Lawrence put himself between me and the silverback, my protection! But I never felt in any danger or apprehensive at any time while with these magnificent creatures. Eventually we catch up with the others after the gorillas have moved off, and our hour is nearly up.
After several cups of coffee, Mike and I decide was should go and pretend we did something other than lazing around in this beautiful resort. Just as we walked outside, this man approaches us, asking if we were Mike and Danielle. I take a sharp breath in, wondering what has happened. “Yes, that’s us, whats wrong?” “Just wait here” he tells us walking off to the building. “Mike, something is wrong! What are we going to do if she had hurt herself?” Mike reassures me that nothing is seriously wrong. It seems like ages when the guy with the walkie talkie returns to us. “Your Auntie can not make it back up the path so we are sending down a stretcher. How much are you willing to pay for the porter fees? How about $300?” I balked at the price. Mike kept a cool head and said we just didn’t have that sort of money. “How many people do you think it will take to carry her up?” Mike asks. After a discussion through his walkie talkie they decide on ten men and we agree to a price of $10 each, a price which is the normal porter fee. I felt kind of bad negotiating the price of my Aunties return, but they were trying it on.
Somebody (probably me) wondered about my ability to get myself up that hillside, well, within about 24 hours or so, if I am lucky. Walking back along the river bank, we get separated into two groups again by my inability to keep up. My knee is screaming at me by this time, climbing around with the gorillas hasn’t done me any favours, I can’t move into or out of some positions when necessary. I was certainly not going to miss anything, so my high pain threshold was a bonus in this instance, but the body being in pain is telling you something….namely, stop, don’t do this.
Benson, Danielle and the guy at the Ranger station negotiate the porter fee out for me, and by the time I catch up with the others at the lunchbreak, I am feeling pretty stupid. I thought I would manage this expedition reasonably well, but nothing I could have done at the gym was going to sort me out for the physical challenges I faced today. Even without the knee damage, I would have been struggling to get out.
When Mike and I saw ten men rush down the hill with a stretcher in hand, we had to laugh, hoping my Auntie could see the funny side of this and completes the adventure! Mike and I sat on our fold out chairs next to our tent which overlooked the beautiful cannon and waited for my Aunties return, sweat free.
The other guests are very encouraging, laughing and joking with me when we see the basket/stretcher I will be riding in for my trip up the mountain! I am a little dubious, but secretly saying – thank goodness for that!
So 10 guys take turns at carrying me – at a run most of the time- in this stretcher affair, made of woven local reeds and grasses and tied to poles with the local grasses as well. It is quite a comfortable trip, a little unnerving at times as they have to negotiate around some tight turns and up some very steep places. I do wonder once or twice if I am going to tip out! But I never did, and on the last section, the guys all decide they need a rest, and while we are having a chat, the word is called up the slope in relays, that they need to hurry up as the stretcher is needed for another guest!
I am loaded back in and lickity split and off they took, basically at a flat out gallop! I don’t think they really needed to hurry much, as obviously, that person wasn’t going anywhere, but they are keen to get back down and get them out.
Danielle is there to meet me, and took care of the cost of the porterage, which could never have been too much as far as I am concerned, the experience of seeing the Gorillas was worth every penny, and every ache, groan, and painful twinge for the next week or so until all the broken bits sorted themselves out again. It was a BIG day out. Thank you Danielle and Mike for making it happen for me.
Mike and I had already decided to take my Auntie out for dinner at the flash hotel next door. A special day needs a special evening!