The distant rumbles from a few minutes before reached a five-alarm threat. Piercing the thick wall of green vegetation, a full-grown male black back gorilla barreled toward us. Hit the deck! Plastering ourselves against the rich valley floor, we offered passive submission. No eye contact, no movement, hardly a breath.
My heart was pounding out of my chest, yet I couldn’t unglue myself from the sticky ground. Intoxicated by his jungle cologne – a mixture of sweat, mulch and urine – I did my best to avoid eye contact yet felt completely drawn to him. Perfectly poised, less than five feet away, I had the best view of his majesty. And, as I lay there, I couldn’t help but wonder how I got myself into yet another daring adventure.
One of life’s most exhilarating and humbling experiences is tracking the largest primate on the planet – the famed mountain gorilla.
Home to over 800 mountain gorillas, the East African nations of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are the only places in the world to see mountain gorillas in their natural environments. I chose Uganda for two reasons – self-preservation and economics. The DRC was under civil unrest, and Rwanda raised its permit price from 500 to 750 U.S. dollars.
Considered one of the steepest and densest regions in East Africa to track these popular primates, Uganda’s “Bwindi Impenetrable Forest” promised a challenge I could hardly comprehend. “Impenetrable,” I thought. “Yeah, right. The gorillas are probably just inside the canopy snacking on bananas and awaiting their movie star snaps.” Thankfully, and all too painfully, I was wrong.
Jimmy, a witty young Ugandan chap, introduced himself as our tracking leader along with the gorilla family we would be visiting, Orozogo, a family of 14, living in an area known as Ruhija. The trek, he explained, could be anywhere from one hour to the entire day, depending on the gorillas’ location. Once (if) we found them, we would have only an hour together. Then came the all-important safety briefing:
1) Always keep a 20-foot distance.
2) Don’t eat or drink anything.
3) If the gorillas charge, hit the ground.
This last piece of advice proved vital a few hours later.
Confident and excited, our tracking group of eight (the maximum number of tourists allowed per family per day) literally sliced our way into the jungle. The foliage that initially seemed so beautiful morphed into volatile verdure.
Any doubts I had as to “impenetrable” being an apt description came slapping back at me with every broken branch, serrated leaf and stinging nettle. Where was the path? There was no path! All sense of direction was lost to this vegetation vortex. We were squeezing, crawling, and in many cases, tumbling down the steep 75-degree, mud-slick embankments.
With the help of Jimmy’s ever-ready machete, we blazed a path. Clambering up and down, up and down, we penetrated further into the depths until almost three hours later we heard an energetic HOWL!!!
Not the howls of animals, mind you, but of other park trackers. Specialized trackers deploy every morning, before the tourists arrive, to locate the gorillas. The howl meant we were getting close!
Anticipation and nerves were at an all-time high when finally, a loud roar rang out! This time, it was not the trackers. Regrouping on a narrow, crumbly embankment, we listened intently to Jimmy’s final warnings. “Remain quiet and never, NEVER stray from the trackers.”
Like a scene from “Congo,” we couldn’t see the gorillas but we knew they were there. At times, I could almost feel the Alpha Male breathing down my neck, waiting for the most opportune moment to strike. And then, as instinct suggested, he did.
Pounding to a halt just a few feet in front of our trembling, downturned faces, the black back rose to his full, menacing height. Eyes wild with rage, he pumped his gigantic fists and thumped his wide, burly chest – a display of brawn used to frighten the intruder. Well, it worked.
Eventually classifying the threat as a false alarm, he let out a final spine-tingling growl, followed by a few mocking snorts before returning to his disrupted lunch. He snapped twigs, ripped open branches and sucked nutrients from every possible surface. Snap, crack and pop (into the mouth it goes).
Attempting to create a better viewing platform of the black back gorilla, our trackers moved on, leaving us to do what tourists do best – take photos! As we snapped, they hacked, forging a new path with their razor-sharp machetes. A few quick swipes and the leafy curtain opened, revealing the main event! Perfectly exposed, the bright sun bounced off our hardy black back’s chiseled pecks, and his beady black eyes glinted to life.
But it seemed like I wasn’t looking at an animal; he was more like a person. Sure, we don’t have canine teeth, weigh 400 pounds or need a full-body wax. But the gorillas’ actions and emotions evoked an extremely familiar being. From their large, calloused fists to their perfectly rounded human-like ears; and from their flattened molars and wide grins to their almond-shaped, bright eyes; we seemed almost one and the same.
Too focused on eating and foraging, the black back, along with the rest of his family, paid our advances, cameras and hushed conversation no mind, and one hour flew by quicker than a Ugandan Olympian. Gathering my final thoughts and impressions, I waved goodbye to the Orozogo family and began the clumsy climb out, back to what seemed a distant but parallel universe to the one shared by the rest of “us.”