Published: February 21st 2010February 21st 2010
Trusty steed for 3 days of intense cross-country driving.
First of all, I'm sorry that I've been so remiss with entries over the past few MONTHS. After being here for 3 years, things have begun to seem like "daily life" to me, whereas I should remember that some of you might still be interested in reading about my routine adventures and seeing the photos. I would love to be able to do a post about my weekly work with the local orphanage that I bring students to, but we are not allowed to take photographs there, and I don't know if my words alone will do it justice... we will see.
In the meantime, I finally got to check off one of my big life goals last weekend.... Seeing the Endangered Mountain Gorillas in their natural habitat! It may have been a crazy way of going about it, but I was determined to see those gorillas, and one of my colleagues, Denise, was willing to go through the adventure with me!
So, we left school right with the bell on a Friday afternoon, raced to the airport and hopped on a 3pm flight that had a brief layover in Kenya before landing us in Entebbe, Uganda. We got through the
At the Equator!
Yep, on both sides of the world.
passport/visa area with no problem and had only carried on our luggage, so the airport process was quick and painless. We checked into our Entebbe hotel and enjoyed a quiet night in, catching up on sleep from the week, and preparing for a long day on Saturday. We were met by our driver-guide Nathan at 6:30 on Saturday morning (we'd already dressed and had breakfast by this time) and hopped in our chariot for a 10 hour drive to the Impenetrable Forest. We stopped 2 hours into the drive to see where the equator crosses in Uganda and take some photos, obviously. Then we continued on our drive all the way to ruhija Bwindi National Park. The usual tourist spot for the gorillas in Uganda is Bwindi National Park, but the permits in this park were totally sold out, so we went 2 hours further from this park to the Ruhija portion, to try and view a family of gorillas that weren't even listed in the brochures- the Bitukura Group!
We arrived at our hotel around 5:30, showered and relaxed- enjoying the views of the forest and surrounding farms, and then had a lovely dinner and briefing from Nathan before
another early night in preparation for our hike the following morning. We began our day at 6:30, with breakfast and gathering our belongings for our day packs. Then we drove over to the gorilla station to get our permits and receive our briefing from our gorilla guide. We were joined by 6 other people, reaching the maximum of 8 people allowed into the park per DAY to see the beautiful creatures. We hopped back into the cars to head to our starting point for the hike, now joined by our guide, 2 porters, an assistant guide, 2 researchers, and 2 men carrying guns to protect us from the "other wild animals." We got out of the cars, on a dirt road, with trees surrounding us to the left and right. As I looked down the road, trying to determine which direction we would walk down it (I'd been forewarned by friends that the first 30 minutes of hiking were on an easy country road and then suddenly the difficulty begins)... well, apparently our hike was completley different! Our guide said "c'mon, let's go!" and headed straight into the overgrowth on the side of the road, disappearing from sight. OK... so
Even from the plane, we were taken aback by how lush and green the whole country looked.
off we all followed him.... the path went straight for 2 steps and then straight DOWNHILLL for the next hour.
It was not an easy hike. Not at all. You are sliding on leaves and vines, wet from being in the rainforest cover, half of the time you aren't even walking on the ground, but on a meter thick of criss-crossed vines just bouncing beneath your steps. Walking sticks aren't as useful as we were lead to believe, and holding on for dear life to the vines on either side of you helps... as long as the vines don't snap. After the first 3 falls, I became more comfortable with the fact that this was in no way going to be an elegant hike for me, and I began to see the humor in my complete clumsiness every time I slid onto my bum. Unfortunately our group had some different paces going on, and 3 of us in the back got LOST from the front half of the group. We had one porter and man with a gun with us and they did their best to direct us in the correct direction, but really none of us knew where to
Entering the Park!
From here we still had to drive for 1.5 hours to our hotel.
go, and there was no path to follow so we just kept climbing over and under vines in hopes that we would find the group, and not accidentally wander into some wild animals that weren't ready for us! Luckily, at one point our guide came back to find us, where I was quick to tell him off about the lack of safety in his hiking approach, and from then on, we stayed together as a group and all was right in the forest!
After merely 1 hour of hiking, we came upon the gorillas- SO lucky! We then had to leave all of our daypacks, walking sticks, camera bags, etc. with the porters and men with guns, and continue into the next part of the forest with just our cameras. We spent 20 minutes watching the group laze around in the trees, interacting with one another, swing from branches, choose the wrong vine and fall just like we did, etc. Then the lead Silverback climbed down from the tree and out of site...all of a sudden we heard a low noise and then a pop pop popping noise as he beat his chest in a signal to the other gorillas
that they were to follow him to a new location. It was amazing to watch the gorillas slowly climb from their spots, one by one, in obedience to the Silverback.
Well, we waited a few minutes and then cut a path to try and find the Group again... and we did! We spent the next 40 minutes (our 1 hour limit was split up into two pieces due to having to find the gorillas again) watching the babies of the group eating and playing with one another. We couldn't find the lead silverback, but kept hearing rustling behind us, so we knew that he was close, very close, by.
Watching the gorillas was so amazing. They have so many human tendencies in the way they eat, move, communicate with one another, and even how they look. The little ones were especially amusing in their clumsiness and little fights over space and food, and the "teenage" ones were just as tempermental as our human teens can be! I could have sat there and watched the goings on for days, not just one hour.
After watching the babies and being so amused, we had to leave and hike back up to the
Not our rooms.
road. On our way out, there was a younger silverback that had positioned himself right where we had to walk, and was laying there watching us as we walked by... kind of like lying in wait. We were given strict instructions not to look at him, not to point, and not to take photos, as he was looking for any excuse to lash out. I was the last one in line, so I was able to get a good view of the male as the rest of my group walked by and he was definitely laying there watching us one by one. It was intense!
So then we had an exhausting hour long hike back up the mountain. Straight up. Add in the 2,300m of altitude that this sea-level girl was battling with, and it was not a pretty site. But we made it back up to our drivers who drove us back to the briefing station. We ate our lunches and then received our certificates for successful gorilla tracking.
We went back to our hotel then and spent the rest of the day relaxing, reading, touring the local village, and being thankful as the sky broke open and the
Two steps and then...
Straight down into the forest.
rain poured down AFTER our hike was finished!
The following morning we had another 10 hour drive back past the equator and to Entebbe for our flight back to Dar Es Salaam (which was much more eventful than the way out, including missed connections, and overnight in Nairobi, and many many tears...). I am so glad that I got the chance to see the beautiful gorillas and would be quick to say yes to going back and seeing them again and again!
There are more photos below