There are rare moments in life where we have to remind ourselves to pause and take it all in. To realize that what is happening right now is unlikely to ever be repeated. When the extraordinary overpowers the ordinary and leaves us in awe. This is how I felt while trekking through the tropical rain forest of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park en route to visit a group of endangered mountain gorillas. The 13 mountain gorillas of the Bitukura family are among the 710 or so left in the world, all of which reside in either Bwindi or the Virunga Volcanoe range in the region bordering Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Referred to by Lonely Planet as "One of life's great experiences", seeing a family of mountain gorillas close range in their own domain is truly awe-inspiring. Only eight visitors per day are granted permits to track each family of gorillas. Since they are often sold out far in advance, I was thrilled to pick up one of the coveted permits at the Uganda Wildlife Authority only six days ago. This usually happens only when there are cancellations so it is far better to book in advance. Joining our guide near the park gate at Ruhija we learned the rules of the trekking experience, including helpful hints like stand still if they charge and do not run away or they may pick you and carry you off into the forest. As funny as this may sound, mountain gorillas are much larger than imagined but fortunately docile and vegetarian.
While explaining the cases in which the permits might be refunded, our guide mentioned that if anyone was too weak to go on trekking, he would send them back with escorts. "Then you can go back to the US or Italy and make some joggings and come back and we will take you trekking." In other words, make sure you are in good enough shape to trek gorillas because you will not be refunded if you overlooked this minor detail.
There is a reason that they call Bwindi an "Impenetrable Forest." This dense tropical rainforest underbrush makes for slick footing and I've never been more grateful for a walking stick. Four Spaniards, two Aussies, one Irish lass, and an American, all followed our guides with great anticipation along the path being created as we trekked. Several trekkers from the Wildlife Authority had gone on before us, returning to the spot where the gorillas were the day before and then tracking them to their new location to guide us. Although it can sometimes take all day, we encountered the gorillas within an hour. Laying down our bags and walking sticks so that we were only carrying our cameras, we slowly inched forward into the world of the mountain gorilla. The first gorilla we discovered was a silverback named Rukumu, leaning against a tree and munching on branches and leaves. The fur on a mail gorilla's back turns silver at around age 12. Rukume occasionally glanced over at us but seemed unconcerned with our presence and went on eating. Across the way, two females, Betina and Kumuga, and and Kumuga's infant Kudogo, rested on the leaning trunk of a large tree that had fallen over but remained propped up by other trees. The three of them positioned along the tree trunk made for beautiful photos. When the branches started rustling above, we looked up to see Obia, a curious blackback (young male) hurrying down the tree trunk before disappearing into the underbrush. This would be far from the last that we would see of him.
Less than twenty feet away we encountered 30-year old Karamuzi, a bulging silverback and the former group leader in his younger years. The back of his head still bears the scars from the days in which he fought to protect his family. Twakire, a young female, picked through his fur and the two of them relaxing together seemed quite close. Karamuzi moved a few times but not far, sticking around long enough to afford us the best photo opportunities of the day. From a distance we saw a mother dart by with her infant on her back. Another silverback walked through with only his back showing. While climbing to find another view, Obia, the previously mentioned curious young male, suddenly came charging through brush only a few feet away from then bumped against a large vine and turned back. It all happened so quickly that there was no time for photos or to even consider just how far he intended to come. We watched as he spun his way through several 360º turns back into the brush.
Ndahura, the current group leader, suddenly and followed closely by a female darted away quickly before we had much of a chance to see him. Trekking further we found our curious charging friend, Obia, taking a rest to eat some lunch. Finally still, we were able to observe him for awhile and capture some great photos before being told by the guide that our one hour with the gorillas was up and it was time to start trekking out. What an amazing one hour with the gorillas!
The trek back was significantly harder than the way in. Walking down the mountainside to get to the gorillas obviously meant that to get out would mean that we would have to go back up. I enjoyed trekking and didn't feel too exhausted although given a chance I would probably pick up some hiking boots before taking my Nike running shoes into the Impenetrable Forest again. There would a few falls on my backside to teach me that lesson quite well. Back at the gate, the guide gave us all certificates to commemorate the event and we took a photo with this impromptu group with which we had shared this amazing experience. If you are ever in East Africa, I highly recommend setting aside the time and money for this once in a lifetime opportunity. Beyond the pictures, I only hope that I have truly taken this all in.