Friday, October 18, 2013

Gorilla Tracking. Who Would Have Thought?

I recently spent, with PK, 26 days away from Ordinary Life, mostly in Uganda or South Africa. Of those, three rate as among my best days ever. I will attempt to describe them in this and coming posts, plus offer more glimpses into life beyond how it's usually experienced in rural Oregon, or the USA in general. First off...Gorilla Tracking!
This is a 350-400 pound silverback gorilla photographed from perhaps 7 meters, or 21 feet) with my new and already beloved Panasonic Lumix camera with its nifty 24-300 zoom. Looking this magnificent creature in the eye (he couldn't see my eye behind the camera, and we were told to avoid eye contact) was a highlight, competing with several other stellar moments from this vacation, or as they would say in Africa, this holiday
Slipping and sliding on a steep tropical mountainside searching for gorillas never occurred to me as even a remote possibility until a few months back when "gorilla tracking" was offered as an option by our volunteer itinerary planner, anthropologist, cultural/historical consultant, and all around brilliant person, Kara Blackmore. Did we get lucky, or what? Not just for seeing gorillas really really close, but in having a learned person such as Kara planning our trip and spending several narrative-packed days with us. We said Hell Yes! to gorillas, and Kara paid the $500 per person permit fee on our behalf. (A portion of that fee goes to the surrounding impoverished communities for education and healthcare, and to encourage habitat preservation.)

Looking in the direction of the Biwindi Impenetrable National Park from the Silverback Lodge, where we stayed, some 52 kilometers (32+ miles) from where tracking began. We got up at 4:30 a.m. to drive THREE HOURS on what PK describes as a Class 5 FWD road to arrive on time for the gorilla tracking briefing. 

During the briefing, our guide gave us the lowdown: If gorillas are found, we have one hour with them. Flash photography, eating, and drinking are no-nos. Unless a gorilla approaches us, we are to stay about 23 feet away. If anybody has cold or flu symptoms, they can't come into gorilla territory. Boots are recommended, but trousers tucked into long socks will also ward off safari ants that climb beneath pant legs and chomp. Gloves are recommended to protect against stinging nettles and other jungle things designed to tear flesh, produce welts, or otherwise ruin your day. Walking sticks are provided, but taken away once gorillas are spotted. The sticks could be construed as threatening by gorillas. Navigating without walking sticks, however, could be construed as threatening to trekkers. 

Our guide roughs a map into the dirt. The Biwindi Impenetrable 
Forest is in the far southwestern corner of Uganda bordered by Rwanda 
with the Democratic Republic of Congo close by. This general area is the only 
habitat for the endangered mountain gorillas of Dian Fossey fame. 
About 400 live in the Biwindi Impenetrable (don't you love that word?) Forest.
Ok. Where's the path?
I was thrilled and surprised to actually swing on a jungle vine!
Lucky I was wearing my Life is Good hat. Our trek was short compared to many I've heard described. If you decide to go, be sure you're physically prepared. The terrain is demanding.  
Here's one of the NINE Ugandans who accompanied us. In addition to the main guide and two men carrying AK 47s in case of a charge by a rogue gorilla, were a couple more with machetes to chop a path through the indeed "impenetrable" forest. Also at our bidding were porters who carried our packs for $10 per person. This is a lot of money in a country where the average wage is around $1 a day. A young Irish couple were the only other tourists that day. They reported that one of their parents tracked gorillas recently and hiked for nine hours! I can't recall if they found gorillas (sightings are not guaranteed) but one of the two had to be carried by porters and rangers in some of the steeper sections on the return trek. At around 6,000 feet elevation, the rain forest mountainsides are steep and slick. Real gorilla tracking was going on, but it was not by us. Four trackers were ahead of us in the forest radioing our guide regarding the gorillas' whereabouts. The gorilla group we came upon reportedly had 23 members. I saw only the handful I photographed, but PK sighted at least 10. Lucky for us, we had only slipped and slid for about a half hour into the forest before we stopped to enjoy our one unforgettable hour with mountain gorillas.
Expressions of delight and awe play on our faces as gorillas move around us. 
We were only a half hour into the trip when we spied this guy.
Seeing him so close took my breath away. 

This fellow, a young male, made a noisy and spirited charge in our direction, but backed off quickly,
as young males of many species are known to do.

A baby gorilla, mama nearby, cavorts. 

A ranger with a machete and a Bob Marley backpack helps clear the way with his machete.
Gorilla tracking provides much-needed jobs for villagers.
Porters rotate, sharing the wealth of $10 to $20 a day, 

For most trackers, it's all about photography, and the guides go out of their
 way to clear visual lines to the gorillas. 

PK having the time of his life. It was magical indeed.
Next up: Bush camping and game sightings in Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park with TIA (This is Africa) Adventures.