Encounter With A Silverback


Andrea Batstone 

 

Copyright 2019 by Andrea Batstone             

         

Photo of a silverback.

One of my bucket list items (and I have a few) was checked off in September.  I’ve dreamed of visiting the Mountain Gorillas in Africa. I contacted my friend that organizes Safaris in Africa to get the ball rolling.  She said that Uganda has close to half of the Gorilla total population with the majority of them living in the  Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. She didn’t need to convince me and thus our adventure began.

We arrived in Entebbe and enjoyed an easy day with a cruise on Lake Victoria. The lake  is one of the largest tropical lakes in the world and home of the largest swamp called the Mabamba Bay Wetlands. Our goal was to see the elusive Shoeball. They’re an odd dinosaur-like bird that loves to make their nest amongst the papyrus.  These feathered creatures are a wader bird with a beautiful  pearl-grey colour and some have piercing blue eyes.  They’re related to herons and pelicans and stand about five feet tall.   They are the most fascinating birds I’ve ever seen. A bonus adventure. Tomorrow we fly to Bwindi.

The flight was early but that meant getting closer to our cousins.  We took a short flight on an AeroLink Cessna. We flew quite low and looking at the world below was riveting.   What a beautiful introduction to this part of the world! We landed at Kisoro Airport, walked through a couple of  local villages and finally arrived at our home, the Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge. It looks over the World-renowned Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.   This section of forest is home to the three Nkuringo Gorilla families of Mountain Gorillas.

Trek one started early.  The lodge gave us a hearty breakfast and a packed lunch for a break on our walk.   We were driven to the meeting area and briefed on what we would see. There was a brief orientation and some instructions on how to act around the Gorillas.  The Guides were careful to keep the groups small, no more than 10 people and matched us up with a Porter (someone to help us maneuver once we left the trail).  They’re help was greatly needed because it’s slippery in the jungle and it’s a job for the people in the area. They’re trained and paid by the tourists. Tips are a bonus.

We started down the mountain, apparently the regular trail from Uganda to Democratic Republic of the Congo, and into the beautiful tropical rainforest.  It was damp and smelled wonderful. I could even “taste” the warm humidity in the air. Although the weather was threatening, the sun shone while we walked  through a forest of ferns and greenery. We were hot and the air was humid. Two hours into our trek I reminded myself how happy I was that we booked two treks.  What if we didn’t see them today? I would be satisfied with the trek and the countryside. There was always Trek 

All of a sudden, we got the signal from the Rangers that they had found a family.  Just a fifteen minute walk ahead. We were told not to speak while walking because it might scare the primates away, we whispered and high fived (quietly).  Adrenalin was kicking in.  

Suddenly,  we were dropping our packs and making a path through the jungle.  The Rangers were cutting the vines and foliage, and we’re hiking straight down the side of the mountain.  Just when you thought you’d never get there, there they were. The Nkuringo Family of Mountain Gorillas.  

The adrenaline kicked in when we left the path,  but now my heart starts beating, feeling like it was in my throat.  I felt exhilarated and somewhat frightened. I was less than 6 feet from a 300 pound Silverback.  He was still munching away. Something startled him and he does a false charge, the Rangers start to mimic his grunts.  The big guy settles but moves further down the mountainside. We follow, most might call it stalking. The Guide pointed to the right.  In the tree is a juvenile (18 months and older), there in the grasses are two ladies, chilling and napping. Both lying on their backs, legs entwined.   You could hear the silverback moving down the mountain, we don’t follow him (he’s moving too fast). We stayed for a good long time taking in the other amazing beasts.  We were close enough to hear their breathing, to smell their fur and to look them in the eye. High in the trees we spot a young baby breast feeding, partially camouflaged by the leaves.  Behind us are a group of young ones, screeching and swinging through the trees.  We were surrounded and being serenaded by a cacophony of sounds.  I felt  content and safe amongst them. 

We only spend one hour with these beautiful animals.  Stats show if you keep the exposure to a minimum it keeps them wild, boy did that hour fly.  Soon we were trudging back up the mountainside slipping and sliding. My legs were shaking and I could feel the blood pounding through my body.  But I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. We’d just had an encounter with a gorilla family.  

It began to rain after we left the gorillas but it didn’t matter.  The walk back was challenging partially because we were about 8000 feet high.  The long downhill portion at the beginning of our trek, was now the long trek uphill.  A full fledged tropic rain storm broke out and by the time we reached our meeting place we were soaked to the bone.  But we didn’t care. We’d seen the mountain gorilla. The next trek would be a bonus.   

After a day's rest,  trek two started early (do you see a pattern here).  We were driven to the starting point, briefed and divided into groups.  Again, we were assigned our Porters and introduced to our guide. The rules were laid out.  The big and most important rules seem to be the no talking when amongst the gorillas and no sudden moves.  

This trail took us through another type of forest.  It was very dense but you could see across the gulleys at the canopy of trees covered with lichens and twisting vines.  It smelled earthy and damped. While walking the trails, waiting for the Gorillas to be found, we were told about the forest elephants and showed the gigantic holes they make when trudging through the mucky “rainforest”.   The elephant's voracious appetite increases the forest stress but their scatt spreads seeds that keep the foliage growing.  They need to constantly eat and munch helping to keep the forest size maintained and from stopping the bush from encroaching the farms lands.  To see a “pygmy” elephant is rare and hasn't been researched very much. Scientists believe they’ve adapted to living in the forest. The forest elephants are smaller in size and have straighter tusks enabling them to navigate through the dense forest easier.  We wondered who would make the first move if we encountered one. What an amazing phenomenon this Mother Nature is?  

As fast as our Guides hands go up, the group quieted.  They’ve found a family. Now it was time to make paths towards them. The jungle's undergrowth is thick, thorny and difficult to get through, but the guides chop their way through and we began climbing up the mountainside.  Soon we’re parallel to the Gorillas. We continue climbing up. We’re going to hike up past them a little,  and come around to overlook them. We don’t want to spook them if they smell us. I hear them snapping the branches.   We were climbing over fallen trees and stepping in swamp water and mud. Not to mention avoiding the elephant foot holes.  One more branch is cut down and, voila, we have a Silverback. We can smell them. They have a pungent, musky scent.  This is the  Busingyu Family. They have one SIlverback and fifteen family members.  As far as I could tell, and confirmed by one of the guides, they had two babies (a year and under), one elder lady, a couple of teens males and the rest.  The guides said they were a very happy family. Check. Another incredible encounter.  

At this point I have to mention something about the group of people we were paired up with on this trek.  On adventures like this it’s important to be considerate of the animals and the people around you. This group of young people (well, they were younger than us) from Hong Kong were wonderful.  They took their pictures then stepped aside to allow the opportunity for others to experience the amazing rendezvous with the anthropoid. This didn’t happen with the first group, so our second experience was a friendlier, kinder experience.   It made an amazing experience more remarkable. I am still at a loss for words to express how wonderful this adventure was.  

Our walk back was uneventful except for the people in the front of our group that experienced a “rogue” gorilla, roaring and “mock” attacking. The Guides made some guttural sounds and the big guy walked away.

Dreams have no expiration date and there are so rare things you do in your life that most people don’t get to ever do.  For a bunch of seniors we did an amazing job of “keeping up” and yes, this was a “trip of a lifetime.”
 


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