Into the Forest
Breakfast was early in the morning, a hearty meal to set us up for the day that I gladly wolfed down. Once cleaned up and ready for the day - a few of us headed over to the Kibale National Park Headquarters nearby for a briefing before embarking on the chimp tracking. There were important things to cover - general safety and courtesy regarding the forest and the primates.
The thick air of the day had already set in, and I was thankful for the small gusts of wind that would make their way between the trees to meet us. The hike itself was not a steep one compared to others I had trekked in the past, but it still required close attention. A shower of rain in the night had made areas of the path muddy and loose underfoot, and some balance was required to remain upright.
Ahead, our guide listed off facts they impressively recalled from their memory. Chimpanzees and humans share up to 98% of the same DNA. They create and use tools more than any other creature except for us. They laugh when they play, their hair stands on end when they’re frightened.
Mid-fact, our guide trailed off, crouching slightly as they edged forwards, beckoning us to follow them, slowly. In a small clearing of their own creation, a group of chimpanzees sat. It was more peaceful than I had imagined it would be - nobody said a word, simply taking in this incredible first sighting so early on in our adventure. The chimpanzees made little noise, a small grunt here and there in between grooming, what sounded like a giggle as they shifted about. They paid us no mind except for a glance from time to time, their attention focused on grazing on the shoots and leaves they had nestled themselves amongst.
We spent an hour here, watching them closely, smiling as they smiled, moving slightly into the forest as they did. Barely ten words were spoken by anyone during this time. Every now and then, a click of a camera would go off. kibale
Our time in the jungle was up, and in high spirits, we began the trek back to the lodge. By now, the mud had dried for the most part, and it was a relatively stable journey back. Here and there we stopped, pointing upwards into trees where a chimpanzee or two would be lounging, snoozing in the afternoon heat.
Bwindi National Park Lodge
A new day and a new forest. Early breakfasts are something of a given during safari expeditions, and by now it feels like second nature to me. The sun had barely risen and we were headed to Kasese airstrip once more. From here, we boarded a light aircraft that took us a short way to Kihihi airstrip, the entry point for northern Bwindi.
We were met warmly by a representative from the lodge. She gestured to the clear sky above us and said we were in for a good couple of days, and I couldn’t help but agree. It was brighter than usual, the leaves glinted on every tree, the birds sang a little bit louder in chorus. We all knew that the next couple of days would be unforgettable.
Relaxing on the veranda as the day began to dim, I took in my surroundings for what felt like the first time since arriving here. A small group of people emerged from the bush, tired but noticeably buzzing with happiness as they walked with heads craned towards one another’s cameras, recounting the success they had no doubt had with their gorilla trek.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
I woke up before my alarm went off, and was ready to start the morning by the time its shrill call filled the room. I arrived first for breakfast but was quickly joined by a couple who went into the forest yesterday afternoon. Eagerly, they showed me their pictures - they were quite beautiful. It never ceased to amaze me how crisp and pristine the forest looks compared to the smoggy suburban town I was so used to.
A short drive and we arrived at the national park offices. From here, we were allocated a gorilla family that we would trek behind in the forest, and a guide to help us track them. Shoulder to shoulder, we were informed about the ecology and history of gorillas, and what the future held for them. How they are selective feeders, how they help spread seeds throughout the forest, and how important it was to ensure their conservation.
After being thoroughly informed about everything we needed to know, we piled into the car and headed towards the beginning of the trail. With the entrance in sight, we had begun our adventure.
From the beginning, the trek was steep, much steeper than any of us had imagined it would be. The path was narrow, and the trees on either side of us leant towards one another in a slight arc, welcoming us into the dense forest. Last night had seen some rain, large droplets would occasionally fall from a leaf above onto our heads and the path underfoot was slick with mud. Within an hour of walking, I had fallen once, the woman behind me twice.
Here and there, the route was punctuated with small presents left behind by primates. We took this as a good sign, stepping over and around them, our excitement to spot our family of gorillas mounting. Another hour passed until we were told with a hush to gather round. Shuffling into a small huddle, we followed the path of sight that our guide held. Through the dense greenery, dashes of black moved slowly in a trail. They were some distance away, and we had to squint to keep track of their movements, but it was definitely the gorillas that we had come to see.
There was a light air of chatter until our guide put his hand up in a fist: stop. After a beat, our guide silently motioned us to follow him, and we continued on the path parallel to the primates. Communicated via Chinese whispers, we learnt that the plan was to follow them until they came to rest in a clearing our guide predicted they would stop at. Then we would gently approach them, always keeping a safe distance, and watch them for a while.
This plan proved to be foolproof, and within half an hour, the family of gorillas had stopped at a small glade and began to play. No cues were needed, we all saw them straight away. Bundles of black wool rolling over one another, shuffling dried leaves on the forest floor, playfully dodging and darting.
Occasionally they would pause, hoot and bark at one another, and reach out to touch one another's faces. As I watched a young female gorilla touch the nose of her friend, I remembered a fact I had read about their nose prints being completely unique to them, much like our fingerprints are to us.
These weren’t the kind of gorillas you can find in your nearest zoo, they’re larger, their fur denser and darker, and can only be found in a few select places like this forest, favouring the ground more than the treetops. In fact, half of the mountain gorilla population resides here in this park.
Although their numbers are rising, these primates and close human relatives are still on the critically endangered list. The civil war in Africa, illegal charcoal harvesting, poachers attempting to illegally sell baby gorillas as pets and land developers competing for the territory that gorillas need to thrive have all hurt the gorillas' already dwindling population. How anyone could think of hurting these gorillas was beyond me.
Slowly we edged impossibly closer. If I wanted to, I could have reached out and touched a small gorilla who had paused his play just in front of me.
The largest of the gorilla family sat with his back against the trunk of a tree, watching stoically as the younger primates moved around him. Occasionally, he would reach up, scratch his head, and inspect his fingers before resting them at his side again. Once, he reached out and plucked a shoot from the ground, savouring each bite as he chewed. We watched in awe as he did. Is that the silverback? Another in the group asked. The guide nodded once in confirmation. As if on cue, the gorilla stood and turned from us slowly, edging back into dense trees and eventually out of view.
It was breathtaking. It had been mentioned in our briefing that there was a slim chance we may spot a silverback, but I had never thought we would be so lucky. The moment reminded me of a passage from Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist; “It was their individuality combined with the shyness of their behaviour that remained the most captivating impression of this first encounter with the greatest of the great apes.’’
Nomadic in nature, it was time for them to move on in search of more food. One by one, the gorillas formed a trail, following the silverback into the forest. It was an indescribably beautiful sight, to see them so calm and at peace in their home, and that they had allowed us in. With breath held, we watched them until the very last one was finally out of view.
Before long, the forest became still again, as if the gorillas had never been there and we had simply imagined them. I looked at each of the people in my group, and they all had the same look of sheer happiness plastered on their faces.
After some time, we made it back to the clearing where the car was waiting to take us back to the lodge. The day was over as quickly as it had begun. The drive was smooth, and I dozed with my forehead pressed against the cool glass of the window. The day appeared to have been much longer than it had actually felt. Now back at the lodge, I tick the gorilla and chimp safari off of my must-do list.