There is a picture of me from when I was 4 years old on a trip to Universal Studios Orlando. The picture, taken just after going on the King Kong ride, features the smiling faces of my mom, my dad and my brother. I, on the other hand, look petrified. My dad is holding me and I am hysterically crying. Obviously, being near a gorilla was the worst thing that has ever happened to me, then and since.
Growing up I just figured I must have been scared of gorillas. Never did I think that I would see them in the wild. But I did! In Bwindi, Uganda. And I didn’t even cry.
Choosing to go gorilla trekking was an easy decision. Everyone we knew that had done it said it was a once in a lifetime experience. It was the first thing of the entire trip that we booked since it came highly recommended.
It all happened rather quickly. We took a small Aerolink plane from Entebbe Airport to a landing strip in Kihiki. Then we jumped in a beat up corolla and drove on a dirt road for over an hour, praying we were actually being taken to the right place. After some trouble starting the engine, getting stopped by the traffic police because the brake lights weren’t working and getting a flat tire, we finally made it to Buhoma Community Rest Camp in Bwindi National Park. I was more scared of getting back in that car than I was of interacting with the gorillas the next day.
There is more to do in Bwindi National Park than the gorilla trek but it seemed like most people staying at our camp went about it the same way. You stay 3 days, 2 nights. The first night you set up camp, the next you go “play” with gorillas, and the last day you leave. I do wish, for all the trouble of getting there, we would have spent more time in the national park. I really enjoyed camping out, having the gorgeous view of the steep Ugandan mountains, being surrounded by so much greenery and waking up to the sound of chimps.
The actual day of gorilla trekking is spectacular and worth the visit alone. It went something like this: We woke up, had breakfast, got all our essentials ready (packed lunch, water, gloves, long sleeve shirts) and went out to the meeting point to register and meet our guides/guards for a briefing.
Trackers go out early in the morning to find out where the gorillas are that day. They walkie-talkie the guides on the ground to tell them how hard each hike will be; we were placed in groups depending on how well they thought we could hike (according to things like age, equipment, stage like presence, etc.). I like to think we were the best group but Jack and I didn’t invest in walking sticks, so, I don’t know.
Then we started our hike into the impenetrable forest of Bwindi National Park!
It took us about two and a half hours to get on top of the mountain. The terrain was steep and bushy. The view was breathtaking. We needed a few breaks going up but the excitement pushed us through the high inclines.
At one point our guide turned around and got very serious. You could tell we were close. Before we continued he reminded us that the gorillas “are wild animals and that they are dangerous. They are habituated, but that means nothing if you disrespect them”. He paused for dramatic effect and then continued, “they are the kings of the forest so if anything should happen, you must back down”. He added, “Do not run. They will catch you.” He was smiling; I was sweating.
We left our bags behind and only went in with essentials: cameras.
There is no track around the top of the mountain so walking around gets a lot harder. That’s where the guides with machetes come in. The bushes are plentiful and equipped with thorns. It is no place for mere humans. I was so nervous and scared, I completely forgot to put on my long sleeve shirt before going in. The thorns got the best of me. There was blood and sweat everywhere, but as soon as we saw the first gorilla I was all like, what thorns?
The gorillas are incredible, to say the least. They are so like us. Their mannerisms, their face expressions, their interaction with one another. I loved the way their deep red eyes made eye contact and the way they would sit back, grab the bottom of their feet and stretch. I love that they actually picked plants off each other. I could have watched them for hours. I tried keeping my distance but it was impossible. They don’t care where you are, if you are in their way they will step over you. Jack almost got trampled by one. Our friend Andy almost got his phone taken and then was licked on the hand by another gorilla. Obviously, we were all jealous we weren’t the ones that were “touched”.
The weather started to change by the end of our time with them. Rain was coming. I think it made them a bit anxious. We spotted a large group under a bush. One of them was the Silverback, the leader of the group. We got closer for one last look, but he didn’t like that. He charged the guards as a way to warn us that we had out stayed our welcome, I think. Fair enough. That’s when our time with them ended and my fear in gorillas was restored.
The hike down was even better than the one up. Gorillas might not like rain, but we were loving it. It was a tropical rain forest at it’s best.