HIT BY A GORILLA IN THE WILD
Dreams give hope and meaning. We cannot thrive without them. When you finally come face-to-face with a long time dream, you never quite know how much it will impact you.
On the 5th day of January, 2009, I really had no idea of what was in store for me.
The day you wake up for a gorilla trek, you can’t imagine the anticipation of the day to come. After all, you are about to follow in the footsteps of the famous Diane Fossey.
There was just something that drew me in when I saw Gorillas in the Mist. It was immediate. I knew I wanted to see gorillas in their natural habitat. Now, it took me some time to work my way up to this elusive primate. After first having spent time in Borneo with the red-headed oranguatan.
And, you spent $500 to spend just one-hour in the hope that you will see the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. I began the day anticipating the difficulty of the trek. The hot African sun would certainly make it more challenging. I set off equipped with all of the necessities for a successful trek.
I had my knapsack filled with sun block, a safari hat, an extra long sleeve shirt, leather gloves, plastic rain pants and a matching rain jacket, a mosquito head net, mosquito repellent, and a packed lunch including a hard-boiled egg, sandwich meat, a couple of slices of bread, a banana, an apple and a Cadbury sweet. Of course I had the recommended water supply of several liters of water. Most importantly, I had two cameras and plenty of memory cards. All one can really hope for on a day like this is to come face-to-face with at least one gorilla and walk away with at least one fabulous photo.
Hmm… How was I going to get up the mountain with this ridiculous amount of gear?
I was fortunate that I got along so well with the only other guest at my lodge. Karen, a travel writer from Cape Town, South Africa was just lovely. Our first evening, after meeting only minutes before, we set off for a village performance by local orphans. It was filled with local song and dance and was quite entertaining. Of course we joined in and found ourselves laughing silly as we bounced around, shaking about, almost convinced we were skilled at what had taken these children years to perfect. I still cower remembering how hard they stomped there bare feet on the gravel paved ground after jumping as high in the air as they could.
The experience had me reminiscing about my time in Kenya with Masai warriors impressed by their skill of propelling themselves up into the air as though they had just bounced atop a trampoline. We learned how this orphan group formed and about their schooling. They explained how funds from locals and tourists allow them to build schools, continue their education and to grow and flourish and teaching traditions to be carried on for generations to come. It was good fun and certainly nice sharing the experience with someone that I was already considering a new friend.
After dinner we had a drink by the fire in anticipation for the morning to come. We were both really excited and had expressed that we hoped to have a personal encounter with the gorillas. Of course that would never happen but I remember saying, “I really want one to touch me.”
One should be careful of what they ask for…
There must have been 15 people at the briefing and we learned about the Gorillas habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities as well as their group hierarchy. As we watched the exciting video, you could only dream of seeing these animals up that close and personal. It was surreal knowing what I was about to embark on. I was trekking into the Ugandan jungle to meet with a gorilla face-to-face. I felt as if I had waited a lifetime for this experience that was just hours away.
Now we met in our groups that were pre-determined at the time of booking. Fortunately, Karen and I had been booked for the same group. We would be tracking Mubare, the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated group at Bwindi. I am referring to the famous Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest located in southwestern Uganda. I was really there and about to embark on the most exciting trek of my life. With gear and walking stick in tow, we drove to our starting point up in the mountain. I’d like to emphasize “in the mountain”. It was straight out of a jungle movie. We were driving up steep slopes of Ugandan forest and jungle. I was getting emotional just being on the drive. You watch movies like Gorillas in the Mist but when you are living it out, you can’t imagine how breathtaking it actually is. I said to my guide that I couldn’t believe I was actually there. We were encompassed by green canopies covering every inch of the mountains. Just above the tip of every mountain top was a clear blue sky with soft puffs of fluffy clouds that made the green leaves in the trees even brighter and the moment even more memorable. It was simply a gorgeous day.
When we arrived at our starting point I remember looking back at my guide Ronnie with enthusiasm and a grin that must have resembled a child eating a piece of candy for the first time. I was excited and nervous and couldn’t wait to get started.
You should know something about me… maps are spread around my apartment and foreign objects adorn my walls from previous jaunts around the globe. My travels have taken me to 55 countries thus far and my décor is the epitome of eclectic tastes. I have magnificent wood carvings next to painted ostrich eggs near an Aboriginal Didgeridoo beside a stuffed crocodile. My other room hosts a variety of ethnic tools, weapons and penis gourd’s (Koteka’s, Horim’s or Phallocrypt’s) hanging on my walls. Ok, so that is probably a whole separate story on its own.
My point may be that I treasure my journeys and travel motivates me. I’m a culture seeker and I have a constantly revised to do and wish list. I want to impress upon you that in recent years since my last
3 ½ month trip in 2006 to Asia (China, Tibet, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Indonesia) I repetively said, “I now want to see gorillas in the wild”. I want to see a Silver Back up close. My trips are not just whims. I dream of them usually for years before I finally get to them. I always know what will be next. The place that I yearn to see will always stand out for me. It beckons to me until I arrive. Each time I fulfill a dream, I walk away a bit humbled, grateful and a bit changed. I’m determined to see and experience as much as what drives my spirit as I can. I don’t want to take my life for granted.
But for this day, January 5, 2009, I was in Uganda and I was about to visit the home of the African Mountain Gorilla. I was going to trace the historic footprints of Dian Fossey. I had made it to the jungles of Uganda and Rwanda.
It was already a hot morning and our small group of 7 trekkers needed to tredge up a steep hill without shade just to start the trek in the jungle. We heard that our trekkers sent ahead were still searching for our gorilla group, Mubare. Now it was just a matter of reaching them.
It was hard and my breathing was quite labored at times. I was journaling on the hike into my voice recorder and it really captured the true essence of the difficulty while I panted words of excitement into this tiny machine capturing my memories that I share with you today.
Ironically, as I was struggling, I would be passed by women with children by their sides and heavy baskets of grass, water and supplies atop their heads. It was all a bit embarrassing. A daily stroll for them was a feat for me. Never-the-less, I continued to reach the top with the help of my porter. Yes, that was my way up with the lug of my gear. I hired a porter to carry my knapsack for me. A brilliant solution. Anyway, he held his hand out for me and pulled me up whenever I thought I could not climb anymore.
So once you reach the top of the un-shaded mountain, the trek through the bush starts. We were in a single file line with the guide and guard armed with a gun in the front and another guide and armed guard at the back. I think we all secretly questioned whether the protection was to shield us from the wildlife or from any other dangers that may be lurking around. Now, I don’t want to be misleading or give a false sense of fear among us. I don’t think anyone ever felt in danger or in harm’s way, but we have all heard the stories from our friends and families and the constant questions like, “you are going where? And why?” Sometimes these concerns pop into your mind but are easily weaned out when you realize how peaceful your surroundings are and how safe you actually feel.
It honestly was not as dense as I expected. Although there were some areas you duck through or hack through, it was not such a struggle. We stopped to listen to the radio communication between our guides and the trekkers ahead searching for our group. They had located Mubare. You could feel the excitement amongst us. It was only a matter of time before we would reach them now. It seemed such a short time had passed before we were told to stop and change gear. Only our cameras were allowed. Everything else would stay behind with our porters. So we followed one-another with me leading the pack behind our armed guard and guide.
I was the first up to the top and with the last pull from the guide… there he was… It happened that fast. The silverback was only feet away from me. I just stared and was in awe of him. He was enormous and I could not imagine the strength that he must have.
I actually think I let out a quick gasp before covering my mouth with my hand. The tear welled up in my eyes as soon as I saw him. I don’t think I believed it was happening. I was actually in the jungle next to a gorilla. It was an emotional, amazing moment. Another dream fulfilled. I was blessed and so very grateful.
I promised Ronnie I would take the time to watch them first before taking any photos. That only lasted a few seconds and a few vital seconds at that. I had the perfect view with no barriers, trees, branches or thickets blocking my view of this magnificent creature before me. I just gaped at him and just as he took steps into the jungle, I went for the camera but by then it was too late. But, nothing mattered right then. I had come face-to-face with a silverback in the wild. All along, I kept saying I just want to see one and there he was. Magnificent and huge!
The whole family was there. It was simply amazing. There was so much activity going on, you didn’t know where to look first. One thing was definite, the silverback had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him.
I don’t know if it is really possible to describe my experience. I remember feeling the tears but I don’t think I was emotional just because I was standing there in front of a gorilla in the wild, but more so that I had managed to survive the odds of so many personal conflicts, years of depression and countless days of both physical and emotional pain. Nobody in my life could stop me from dreaming anymore. There was nobody to beat me down and nobody to say I couldn’t do it. I could do anything. After all, I was in a Ugandan jungle fulfilling another dream. I had made it and I was proud.
Well, the hour flew by. There was clicking all about and giggling and awe inspired gasps and shhhh’s and look at that, look over there, look at the babies. There was a family of 9 going about their business as if we were a mere annoyance, which I’m sure we were.
The family was amazing. Ruhondeza, the silverback named for one who likes to sleep, was the group leader. He must have been around 5 ft tall and between to 425 – 500 pounds. And, make no mistake about it, when he got up to move, the family moved with him. He had a watchful eye and was just enormous. It was a great hour that of course passed too quickly. Ruhondeza had us following his family in the jungle. It was not quite as dense as I thought it would be and that was great because we could see them a bit better. They did like to have greenery around them as they were almost always eating. Kashongo, a new mother was so nurturing to her un-named baby of 7 months. We were fortunate to see a newborn as well. I’m not sure if the mom was Kashundwe or Bukunu or Wagaba or Kanyonyi but mom was very attentive and nurturing. Mom would lick her own finger and then clean baby’s nose. It was all rather endearing. Let me explain that babies are not named until personalities are formed and until there is a sponsorship for the gorilla or until the trekkers vote on a suitable name after observing them long enough in the wild while habituating them.
Each generation is easier to habituate as the parents will allow their youth to stray a bit and explore their curiosity of us funny looking, hairless creatures with hard, black appendages that go click, click, click.
The infant was so wrinkled and pink. It was just incredibly humanlike and wailed as a hungry newborn that needed burping or a diaper change. Mommy was so gentle and loving. She just hovered over her baby protecting its fragile state. Even their facial expressions were humanlike. You definitely could see pride and love in their eyes.
If we could have piled on top of one another, I believe we would have just to get the perfect shot. So, what do I remember most was the first look at the silverback. It was the most emotional moment but I don’t think it was the most exciting moment.
As I was shooting the silver back I felt someone on my back. With toppling over one-another for the best angles I was not the least distracted by it. Not until I felt the brushing of fur across my arm and face. I think I raised my left hand over my shoulder as I felt a tickle. It was not the hair of a fellow photographer, it was the course hair of a male black-back of about 6 or 7 years that was passing through. But apparently my right ear was appealing enough for him to stop and kiss or nibble as I was told by the others. Now of course I wish I actually wish I could remember it happening but it is just a memory spawned by the stories that were told to me. I do remember the shocking feeling as he passed me and I felt his hair on my body just as he left poop on my right arm. Yes, that is right; I was pooped on by a gorilla in the wild. Now I wonder if that could be the title to my book. Certainly a great caption, “Pooped on by a gorilla in the wild”.
You don’t know quite how to react to that. It was cool to have him so close but I actually remember the smell being really unappealing and I’m being nice with these typed words. It was really gross! I think I tried wiping it off with a leaf that probably was filled with much worse and bugs that would find a meal on me. So, I left well enough alone as I didn’t want to miss any shots. I figured I’ll get to it later. It happened rather quickly (at least from the time I knew he was there) but I do remember wanting to touch him but we were told that we were not allowed to make contact with them and we could not touch them. It was difficult to follow these emphatic instructions because there he was literally at the palm of my hand and I could only let him explore me. He was slow moving and gentle. It was amazing.
Just about the same time, Karen was nearby and she too had personal interaction. I think she was in the way and like with my encounter, I don’t think she knew what was happening as it happened when another male passed her. Actually, he didn’t just pass but pushed or nudged Karen out of the way. I actually saw it happening and captured it on film. So, there it was, we both had our personal encounters with the gorillas. Could it possibly get better than that? You wouldn’t think so, in which case I hope you keep reading.
Now, people say I’m crazy and people say I’m brave. I don’t see that about myself. Many express their desire to do the same or they say, “I wish I could do what you do” and I usually reply with, “but you can”. To look at me, you probably would not see a hip-hop girl, or exotic, adventure traveler. My look does not fit the stereotype of a snake-lover or a person that will try just about anything at least once just for the “photo”. I’m a plain-Jane looking 43-year old that is determined to satisfy my lust to see and meet the people and wildlife around the world. My real dream in life would be to encourage any one person to do the same.
So, we watched the group play, eat, climb trees, play fight, rest and just be at home in the jungle. It was just another day for them and for us as observers, it was a magnificent moment. I was learning Gorilla talk and my guide was teaching me to do safe calls. It is similar to clearing your throat when you feel a frog in it. It is a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. That is a tough one to spell. Ask me to do it for you sometime. My guide would do it over and over letting me repeat it back to him until he gave me a thumbs up. I love having it on my voice recorder. Maybe one day I will figure out how to put the sounds on my website. There was another high-pitched squeally sound that I never quite mastered. The hche hchemmmm is a safety call. The gorilla will hear it from the guide and reply with the same sound to signify that we are safe and it is like an ok to approach. So, when the guide gave me the honor to speak with the gorilla and I was answered back, I was just speechless. I actually communicated with Ruhondeza. I was told I was very lucky to have been nibbled or kissed by a gorilla and pooped on by a gorilla but now I had spoken with one. Can you imagine?
When 450 pound Ruhondeza climbed a tree, it was magnificent. He had so slowly made his way up the tree with such grace that the tree barely moved. Had I not seen it, I would not have believed it. It really was a full hour of observation and awe. Even our guides said we had a really special viewing (interaction) and they do it nearly every day.
There was one point where the guide and I were just in front of one of the females and she was eating. She had the branches and shrubs over her and our view was blocked. So, the guide made his way over (only a few feet) and pulled the branch out of the way for me to get the shot. I did but then the gorilla gave a warning call or a leave me alone and stood and grabbed the branch back to cover itself up again. It made my heart jump a bit with fear as she was disturbed and not happy about it. Really though, she was irritated but happy to go back to eating her daily intake. Surprisingly, a female may eat 25-35 pounds of food a day and more if she is feeding for two and a Silverback will consume up to 55 pounds a day. Gorillas primarily eat vegetation including leaves, wild celery and bamboo and they spend almost half of their waking day eating so they consume a lot of forest daily.
We stopped for lunch on our way back down the mountain and we all reminisced about our individual experiences. It was such an amazing afternoon.
The next trek was going to be to Dian Fossey’s Grave in the Rwenzori Mountain Ranges in Rwanda.
I needed to be up at 4am to drive 5 hours from Uganda to Rwanda to our starting place. We literally just made it. Now, this was the most difficult of my treks and the terrain was the most varied. We were crossing mud swamps and hiking up steep mountains and ducking through dense jungle.
Although this was not a gorilla trek, I requested for the guides to find Gorillas on the way up. Knowing this wouldn’t happen, it seemed a wasted request. The thorny thistles were terrible on this trek and again, I was very sensitive to them. They burned so much and the burning sensations were longing lasting more than on the other treks. So, I requested to stop so I could suit up. I was well prepared with a plastic rain suit.
A plastic rain suit is an item that you question packing. The cost was under $15 but the weight is heavy and it takes up a lot of space. But, I decided to pack more for the treks than for my social calendar (although that was not lacking). So, I redressed with elasticized plastic pants and long, oversized plastic jacket, leather gloves, wide brimmed safari hat and camera. I’m sure I was quite a site. My guide said he was impressed with my gear. The other trekkers were sorry they did not have the same gear. I was rather pleased with myself that my comfort outweighed my vanity!
So, again asking for Gorillas along the way, the guide stops us for a water break. These are really important so as not to dehydrate as we had heat and altitude working against us. There was a lot of commotion up ahead and lots of radio talk. We were stopped and said that Gorillas had been spotted up ahead by gun guardsmen. If we were lucky, we would pass them.
It went by so quickly so it is hard to remember the exact experience but there they were. A Silverback and two blackbacks. The silverback was happy to eat and watch us as if we were eating popcorn watching a movie. One of the blackbacks however felt the need to impress us with his male dominance and gave a mock charge and came towards us quickly standing upright and beating his chest with his large teeth exposed that would make anyone quiver.
It was fascinating. It turns out it was a wild group habituated for research only and not for tourism. We were not allowed to photograph them and were were not allowed to stay with them either. But we had a very rare close encounter with them. The guides looked at me and said again to me, that I must be very lucky. I told them of the experience that last trek of being kissed, nibbled and pooped on.
Now I had had an extra sighting and was ready to carry on. So, we get to this magnificent viewpoint with two simple plank benches. We stopped to sit and enjoy the beauty all around us. It was the perfect moment to revisit the fact that I was now in Rwanda tracing the exact footsteps of Dian Fossey. This was historic. I was sitting on the very bench she sat on once a month when she would make her way down the mountain for supplies and food.
This break was perfect for a nature call. My porter had a watchful eye and carefully followed my every step deeper into the jungle with her eyes. As I tried to waver to her that I was fine and she could go sit with the others, her fascination over what I was doing won over her desire to rest with the others. So, feeling extremely self-conscious, I decided to wait. I came out from beneath the bushes and politely requested, from our English speaking guide, that he relay to my porter the next time I choose to make a stop to relieve my bladder, she should not stare me down. We laughed and continued.
We found the relics and remains just like ruins left of the male huts or cabins and the kitchen and the crews quarters and Dian’s own accommodation. The grave just a bit further up the mountain and was under a magnificent tree. There was a large land plot with small handcut wood signs with names of Gorillas that had been buried next to Dian. There was Puck, Beets Me, ?, ? and Dian’s favorite ??. Of course I knew all of their names from studying and research that I had done before my visit.
I read many works by Dian Fossey (habituated Gorillas in Rwanda), Jane Goodall (habituated chimps in Gombe) and Birute Galdikas (habituated Orangutans in Borneo). I had spent some amazing time with Orangutans in Borneo, Indonesia in 2006 and I would soon meet chimps at Ngamba Island in Uganda. I really wanted a true primate experience this trip. I certainly got more than I had ever expected.
So, pick your dream destination, pick your career goal, imagine yourself doing the unthinkable and Just Do It!