To photograph Mountain Gorillas, you must want it. It is hard trip, hard to get to Uganda, hard to get to our hotel just outside of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, hard to get to the hiking “trailhead”, hard to get to the gorillas. Getting to Uganda required multiple flights, landing in Entebbe, then connecting to a rural airport near Bwindi. Getting to our hotel was no easy feat, 2 ½ hour drive on roads so pitted it made riding a bronco bull a smooth affair. We arrived in time for a delicious dinner, and learned at that time that our hiking trailhead would be another 2 ½ hour drive. Little did we know these roads were even worse than the night before!
We arrived at one of Bwindi’s many gorilla trailheads at 8:00am. You can easily do the math to figure out when we had to rise in the morning. First, we were provided a briefing on how to behave near the gorillas. Please wear a mask, no food allowed, don’t charge a gorilla were echoed in the briefing. Do I really need to be told not to charge a gorilla? After the briefing we were all outfitted with bamboo walking poles. The hike will be difficult, so poles are a necessity. Briefed and poled, we were then each assigned our own porter to help us with the hike and carry our backpacks. Ca-ching, there goes another $40. My porter was not a looker, he better be good at porting. A porter is necessary as the hike could be hours through very difficult terrain before we come across gorillas. Being a somewhat cynical New Yorker, I am starting to believe whether all this setup is truly needed.
It’s finally time to start looking for gorillas. Our assigned leader speaks broken English, much better English then my porter speaks. At least he is carrying my camera and water. Our leader’s English is less important because he is wielding a machete, a very big one. Two other guards come with us, each brandishing a rifle. Perhaps this will be dangerous? Or, are these weapons here for my amusement?
We start hiking down a nice path, our guide explaining the medicinal value of a root. Where are the gorillas? I paid for gorillas. He pauses a moment later consulting the gorilla spotters on the phone. “The gorillas are far away, let’s walk a bit.” So, we walk and walk and walk. Again, he pauses, his phone rings. “The gorillas have met up with a few elephants. They are not happy. But, good news, they are making their way toward us. We will take a short cut to them!”
We move off path and head into the thick forest. Our leader is using his machete with some force, clearing a minimal path for us. As we hike, the mountain side gets steeper and steeper. I can barely stand much less hike. I can not breath, we are at 7000 feet elevation. My porter reaches his hand out to help me. No way, I am not your average soft American. A few minutes later I realize I am a soft American. Help, please. We trudge on, not making much distance as the terrain worsens. We pause while our leader consults with the spotters. “Not much longer, they are getting close.” I am drenched with sweat, my legs burn, I am out of breath, and my porter doesn’t want to touch my clammy hands. We move on, machete whacking left and right, me gripping any branch I can find, the mountainside is so steep that one slip could mean my downfall, literally. I refuse to stop; we are so close to our prize.
Our leader stops us, just wait, he says. I take out my camera, as do the rest of my compatriots. We hear some rustling, there is a gorilla resting in a tree. What a great idea, move over buddy.
Before I knew it, there is a family of gorillas milling about. My camera is working at a furious pace, I must capture all the action. I walk a few steps left and nearly bump into this guy, just resting on the ground.
We are all hyperventilating, scampering through the brush, moving up and down the mountainside. All the pain of our hike is long forgotten. This is amazing I whisper; unbelievable I hear back from someone. Then, the most amazing thing happened. A mother and baby gorilla sit down in front of a tree with perfectly moss covered, providing a great photographic backdrop. We all settle in just six feet (or less!) from them. Eight cameras are firing away non-stop. It sounds like artillery, a hundred clicks per second. Why isn’t the mother gorilla afraid? Why is the Silverback in the next tree not afraid? I suppressed these questions and kept on firing.
We can barely believe what we are seeing. The baby starts nursing!
These moments seem to last a lifetime until, as if on cue, the Silverback grunts, comes down from his perch, and starts to walk off. The entire family follows. Show is over. Did the guide signal the Silverback?
I come down from my high and an awful feeling comes over me, we need to hike back. I barely made it here, how am I going to get back? Our leader sets out, this time going in a different direction. We all follow, still glowing from our experience. 20 seconds later we are on the path to the road. A minute later we are back at our vehicles. Something seems awfully fishy. Did we really need to do the hike in? Or was it all part of the show, the greatest show on earth. As P.T. Barnum says, “There’s a sucker born every minute”!
Perhaps the entire experience is completely on the level. Or perhaps it is all set up by the Ugandans to ensure there are satisfied customers. At $700 per person per day, it is a steep price to pay to not see gorillas.
All in all, I was completely satisfied – what an experience!
I wonder how much the gorillas get paid.