September 20, 2010
Uganda – Day 4 – Gorillas
I woke early and met Dominic by the van at just after six. We were giving a ride to the same ranger we’d transported down the previous night, but I pulled rank and sat in the front seat. I was popping Sudafed and aspirin to make sure I looked as healthy as possible, since if you’re visibly sick, they won’t let you go, and they only refund part of the permit fee. It costs $500 for a chance to see the gorillas. No guarantees. Kristi stayed back in Buhoma because she’s seen the gorillas twice before, and didn’t want to spend the money again.
We got to the ranger station and I met the other people who would be going. There was a Polish couple, a Dutch couple, and a trio from Tuscany. We all sat in a little circular gazebo-hut thing and were briefed on the gorillas. Our guide, Benson, told us that there were an estimated 720 mountain gorillas in the wild, in Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC, and none in captivity since the 1960s. They tend to not stay alive in captivity. There are three groups in Uganda that are habituated to humans, and the group we would be visiting was 13 gorillas. They passed around pictures of them and told us a little about the gorilla social structure and what to do if one of the gorillas charges (Don’t run. Look down. Pretend to eat a leaf), and not to sneeze on or try to touch the gorillas.
We then piled into some SUVs and drove down the road a ways, before striking out into the jungle. The guides in front and behind carried rifles and machetes, and we were literally hacking and clambering our way through the jungle. We started down a steep hill and then followed along the floor of a small ravine. We walked for about 30 minutes, then stopped in a small clearing where they reiterated the rules about sneezing, touching, and not running, then we went on with just two guides. A few minutes later, we caught the first glimpse of a gorilla through the brush. It was hard to see, but the guides slowly hacked away at the plants between us and the gorilla to give us a better view. Shortly, though, he moved on, and so did we. We continued like this for a while. We’d walk a hundred feet or so, then stop and gather around where we could see movement through the underbrush, but it wouldn’t last long. One time we saw the two infants in the group playing. They were wrestling around on the ground underneath a bush.
One time, just after a blackback gorilla had moved on, and we started to follow, the gorilla turned and ran at us. The front guide was to my right, and just uphill of me. The Dutch lady was at my left. She started to slip down the hill, and the guide said with an urgent stage whisper “Don’t run.” The gorilla stopped about four feet away from us, slapped at the ground with one hand, stood for a moment, then turned and went back up the hill. Everyone stopped in awe, and our guide said “we’ll go a different way.”
After forty minutes of following them, we came to a clearing where most of the group was. They started on the ground, but climbed up several trees. In one tree, there was a female and a blackback. Another tree had a silverback and the two infants we’d seen earlier. The infants divided their time between eating leaves and chasing each other, and the silverback broke branches off and tossed them down to a female who was waiting on the ground under a bush. In another nearby tree, another silverback climbed up and began to eat. We stayed there and took it all in for a little while, then the guides told us it was time to go. You are only allowed a maximum of one hour with the gorillas.
When we got back to the lodge, Kristi was still out on a nature tour, so I had some tea and looked out over the jungle. Then she came back and we went with Dominic to a local bar. The hand-lettered sign out front said “Pool Joint”, and they did endeed have a pool table inside. We got some drinks and I played a game of pool against a kid of about 14. I managed to get down to one ball left by the time he sunk the 8-ball, but I think he may have been humoring me. There was another kid in the bar about the same age, drinking out of a small bottle of booze.
Dinner was three courses of absurdity.