When our eyes locked! Gorilla Tracking at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda!
November 13th 2019,
It was late afternoon when the sturdy wheels of our 4WD screeched onto the moist scree at the entrance of the Silverback Lodge in the quaint mountain village of Bwindi, Uganda.
Our bodies a bit rattled by the ride on the bumpy roads were thankful to stretch and twist as we disembarked.
Sheets of rain were forming a magical curtain around us…
A few steps towards the entrance foyer of the lodge, & my eyes wandered over the thick dark green foliage that stood in its gigantic glory right in front of us.
Verdure rising high over the colossal misty mountains.
Was that the Impenetrable Forest that we were looking at? Yes, indeed this was it. The mysterious Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
It was thicker than I had imagined, denser too and more intense.
Furthermore, I could sense the presence of the Mountain Gorillas in its midst, they were somewhere there, in the deep dark woods going about their hum drum existence.
Tomorrow would be the day, when we would encounter the Gorilla in his own rainforest…tomorrow would be the day of our reckoning!
I suddenly grew restless and wanted to venture out there right away, but rules forbid us from acts of impulsive behaviour, and I had to curb my urge for the next 14 hours….
November 14th, 2019
Up before the crack of dawn, I dawned the apt attire of dry-fit tracking/ trekking clothes; solid well-worn trekking boots; gaiters; glares; and gloves in my pocket to protect the hands from the stinging nettles, I didn’t wear the gloves eventually because I love to caress the greens….
I did not wear a rain jacket either, because I’m not too fond of its plastic touch, however in retrospect I think, I should have worn one after all, coz you cannot underestimate the rains in a rainforest, and definitely not in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest …especially not on a day in the month of November.
Nevertheless, as we set out, nothing could dampen my spirit within as excitement was simmering high in my heart as it summersaulted between bouts of flutter and calm at not so even intervals.
As we drove towards the Ruhija Gate, the lyrical notes of the local tribal songs & dances did nothing to calm be down.
‘The Ruhija area has 5 Mountain Gorilla Families.’
Permit formalities completed by our driver guide Bahati, we were assigned to track the Family called “Mukiza”, meaning the ‘Helper’.
‘The Family is usually named after the Silverback that heads it.’
20 years old Mukiza had a frolicking family of 12.
Mukiza’s family seemed to be dominated by females – Mukiza the Silverback-head of the Family; 6 Adult Females (13 years & above) – Mugwere; Twijukye; Korugyezi; Mugenyi; Bwebisha & Mubwindi; 2 Juvenile Females (3-6 years) – Kanoel & Tonvi; 2 Infant Females (0-3 years) – Gorodi & Nyakabara; 1 Sub Adult Male (6-8 years) – Kanywani; 1 Infant Male (0-3 years) – Kagote
‘Generally a male Gorilla becomes a Silverback around the age of 13, when his hair across shoulders & the back start turning silvery grey, once a Silverback they tend to move away from the troop to join other males / other troops and start their own Family….’
A porter was assigned to each one of us, to carry our day packs but more to hold us with a firm grip, because slipping & falling in the wet rainforest is inevitable.
Holding a strong hand of a person whose feet are well versed with the terrain doesn’t really leave a dent in your pocket, but it definitely saves your body from dents, bruises & cuts.
‘So do take a personal porter!’
My energetic and smiling porter was called ‘Patience’, she was called so, because her chances of survival at birth were very remote, apparently her parents decided to be patient with her condition for one month, she bounced back and survived, hence fittingly named ‘Patience’.
We liked each other instantly and I knew that calling out her name would calm my anxiety….
For the next 120 minutes we walked in a single file, led by the head guide Ozi.
Sickle in his hand, Ozi slashed & cut through vegetation & undergrowth to make a path through the Impenetrable…..this vegetation regrows almost instantly, hence no “green issues” here.
The terrain undulated with troughs & peaks is within a range of 3,904 to 8,553 feet, some sections have very steep gradients.
Our eyes & ears were pert & alert for the signs & traces of the creature who shares 96.4% of human DNA thus making him the closest living being to us….
Sounds of scrunching wet leaves & stems under our feet, the occasional call of the great blue turaco and the gentle heaving of our breath formed the natural rhythm for our trek.
The sky above was over-cast and it could rain any moment…but God was kind, a few rays of the sun streamed down through the thick canopy of the rainforest and I was praying hard for us to spot Mukiza & his family soon.
We were getting closer the guides had begun to communicate with the Gorillas.
‘The Gorilla makes 16 phonetic sounds, the guides & rangers are trained to understand & to make all the 16 sounds. There is a team of rangers who spend their entire day from early morning till late afternoon looking for the nesting / resting places of the Gorilla families on the previous day, these rangers are responsible for guiding us to the Gorilla family. However the Gorillas often move hence there is no guarantee that they will be found at the exact same spot where they had been found the previous day. Once the Gorilla family has been spotted, the porters have to be left behind. We get 1 hour with the Gorillas as they are in conservation and also extremely sensitive & susceptible to contagious germs / diseases.’
The countdown had begun, the sun was up, the birds were chirping, there was a vibration in the air & voila – we spotted him, we spotted Mukiza.
Mukiza all of 20 years, around 150 kilograms & about 5 feet 6 inches tall…basking in the tender morning sun.
His resplendent back of silver-grey with adorable love handles in full view for us to see.
He sat as though posing for a painter, & alas our moment had arrived!
We turned around the bushes to look at him from the front, by now he had leaned down and was looking intently into his palms, with a pensive face almost akin to Rodin’s thinker.
It appeared as though he was counting something on his fingers or maybe he was a palm reader…..
Did he know that he was destined to see some adventurous Indian that day??? I wondered…
Cameras and phones popped out as we went clicker happy, trying to capture his various moods & expressions….always avoiding eye-contact.
‘You never look a Silverback in the eye, he gets offended, because he is the patriarch!’
Moments later he got up from his seated splendour and did something that we had only seen in the movies….he beat his chest and made a hollow rattling sound that reverberated through the stillness of the dark forest. The guides explained that he was calling out to the other members of his family.
Minutes passed yet there was no sign of any others from his troop, though we could sense their movements high-up in the thick canopy above, jumping branches; chewing juicy leaves & we also felt an occasional spray.. but Mukiza’s troop was naughty, they weren’t obeying his orders, none came down.
This annoyed Mukiza, so he beat his chest yet again..seconds later a young one pranced down and joined him.
Yet another session of beating his chest and 2 females got down each with an infant riding on their backs, clutching on to their mothers with their tiny palms.
Then yet another female and another until there were 7 of them down, we couldn’t hear or see any more of them up above.
Mukiza chose to retreat deeper into the foliage, once down his troop followed in his footsteps and we followed them, as carefully and quietly as we could trying to keep a safe distance, oh this was all so surreal!
My friends and the guides & rangers were a few feet ahead of me.
In the moments that followed my life was about to change forever….coz there he was hardly 4 feet away from where I stood frozen in my boots, on all his fours looking me right in the eye.
I was speechless, I couldn’t move and neither did he, our “eyes locked” in a mesmerizingly horrifying gaze.
It might have been “love at first sight for him” but for me “it definitely was fright at first sight”.
I couldn’t predict his next move, and couldn’t think of mine either….from somewhere deep within me a squeaky voice spoke “Somebody please come over here” by somebody I was imploring to the guides / rangers.
Thankfully a guide appeared, as soon as he saw the guide, the young male romped away, as he darted ahead to join his troop, he brushed past my friend Shimul almost knocking her down.
I heaved a sigh as I re-joined my troop, my friends….& lo, I had a fascinating story to tell….
“Kanywani” was his name!
Few more precious moments with the Mukiza family and it started to rain, the rains forced the family into deeper thicker dens of bushes & shrubs and soon they eluded us as we realized our ephemeral time with them was up.
Such moments are ever so fleetingly sweet….
Hearts filled with gentle excitement we started our trek back to base.
The rains were lashing hard, me sans any rain ware, I was soaking wet to the bone, but every drop of sweat & rain was worth it.
When we got back to the comfort of our pretty lodge our elation was uncontrollable.
Each one of us had been deeply affected in a very positive way through the entire experience, the deep impenetrable forest had filled our mind’s spaces.
As night began to envelop us under her dark blue cape, a random shining star peeping through the passing clouds…my eyes wandered yet again over to the Impenetrable Forest in front of me, now under a thick dark cloak….
I couldn’t help but think of the Gorilla, who lives in the deep dark impenetrable forest of Bwindi, the Gorilla that I was going to remember forever….. & I pondered, was he going to remember me too???