“Be patient” the armed guard said to our guide “I will run with the radio back up there and try again. Then if we still don’t hear, that’s it, we failed and will go back to the office.”
These were not the words I wanted to hear while tracking gorillas in Uganda. Our guide was having some serious problems contacting our two trackers-the two-way radio was not picking up their signal. Apparently this had never happened before. Our guide was confused, concerned and, judging by his face, increasingly overwhelmed with negative thoughts.
As I watched the guard run away with the radio, I thought to myself if he comes back and has not heard anything, I will not see any gorillas. It was a terrible feeling, and it seemed all too likely.
Some of our group members were becoming verbally frustrated. Frustrations were being taken out on our 24-year old guide, John. I felt sorry for him, he looked so worried, sad, and defeated.
We stood in the rain for a long time, slipping into the seemingly evident reality of a failed gorilla trek, and a $350 loss.
“It worked, I communicated with them. This way.”
We moved on with a new found confidence and bounce in our steps. Soon we learned that there were several mountains between us and the trackers, and there fore the radios could not reach each other.
Looking for radio waves
We went off track and bush-bashed our way to the top of a valley. John was trying the radio every few seconds, for 30 minutes, with no success. Soon we found ourselves lost again in desperate need for the radio to work. The forest seemed impossibly large and dense.
On top of a valley we waited, listening to John repeat the same (African) phrase over and over in to the radio. After 15-minutes of this, for no obvious reason at all, the radio kicked in, the trackers gave directions, and we set off again.
The radio immediately stopped working again, of course.
After another 30 minutes, with every step we became more reliant on finding the trackers. John was now desperate, howling into the air-yeeeeeow!!
They ran off with the radio again. We wanted another 15-minutes.
On the right track
They came back and, finally, made a lot of sense “we communicated with them, they are coming to find us, we wait here”
3 hours into our trek, the trackers did what they do best and tracked us down. They told us they had been with the gorillas and that it would take 3 hours to get to them. I did not care how long it was going to take. Being with the trackers had convinced me enough that I was definitely going to see the gorillas. I was over the moon!
The trackers were very impressive. I absolutely loved following and observing them as they chopped a waste-to-shoulder high trail through the extremely dense jungle. every direction looked the same but they knew exactly where they were going-without a compass, the sun, or anything at all.
Finding the gorillas
We arrived at the area where they had left the gorillas that morning. There were clear signs the large animals had been around, including large patches of eaten, crushed, and flattened jungle. But the gorillas were gone. So we continued walking.
The trackers moved very quickly. At one point I noticed them up ahead arguing. They were talking loudly and appeared to be disagreeing on something. I thought maybe they were lost or divided on whether to go this way or that way. I’ll never understand why they were arguing. I never asked because behind them was the first mountain gorilla I ever saw in the wild. And there were 22 more nearby.
Being with the gorillas
We were surrounded by 23 gorillas. The jungle is so dense that we would only be able to see 5-7 of these at one time. The others made their presence known by their groans, chewing noises and shaking branches.
It’s a surreal experience standing within a few metres of a mountain gorilla. They look at you with their friendly eyes and continue on with their every day ways; they are not phased.
One second you see nothing, the next a great beast powers through the wall of jungle beside you. Babies mimic their mothers. While the silverback walks and sits where ever he wants, and mates with whomever he wishes.
Time goes quickly. 1 hour is the official dedicated time slot. The trackers were very helpful. They chopped down the jungle directly in front of the beasts so we could have a clearer view and pictures. I was amazed that the gorillas were not phased by a slashing machete within their arms reach. They obviously know the trackers very well.
The trackers spend 2 years with the gorillas before they allow tourists to accompany them. These years are obviously crucial. A large male did not flinch at a tracker slashing his machete, but when I held my camera above my head to get a high shot of him, it freaked out and charged at me.
The long way
When we arrived back at the car it had been 9 hours since we had set off that morning, A man told us that the other group in our area (Rahija) found their gorillas within an hour and were back by 11am. It was now 5pm.
Some people moaned at this and didn’t want to know. They had not enjoyed the hiking and wished it were as quick for us as well. Or maybe 4-5 hours instead of 9.
I had enjoyed the hike. We paid $350 each for the gorilla permits. It’s a lot of money. If we were to find the gorillas and leave the forest within an hour or two I think I would have been a little disappointed and the price would have seemed more expensive. Plus it had rained the whole time, but in the hour we were with the gorillas it stopped. If we found them any other time we would have been in the rain. The gorillas would have been less active and taking photos would have proved very difficult without getting cameras wet.
We had got our $350 worth. Purely seeing the gorillas was worth $350-It was an amazing experience to see them in the wild with nothing between us, sometimes only 3 metres away-But we also go to experience the dense forest, hacking our way through, climbing and descending extremely steep slopes. We did this for 8 hours. We were with the gorillas for 1 hour.
We know how hard it is to walk through the jungle now. And we have witnessed gorillas walk past us and power their way through. They simply walk where they want and the jungle gives way to them. They are the giants of the jungle. I am so grateful for having followed in their footsteps.
If you enjoyed this, you might like some of my other posts, or check out my website at www.rotub.me