Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Penetrating the Impenetrable Forest

Last Christmas when I was back in Baltimore visiting my parents and agonizing over whether or not I would be awarded the Fulbright Fellowship I spent one sleepless night looking at the top tourist destinations and experiences in Africa.  I figured I might as well hope for the best and daydream about some related trips in case I received the Fulbright.  Fortunately the Fulbright came through, and I am now crossing things off that list.

One of the most highly recommended “things to do” in Africa was to take a trip to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda to track mountain gorillas.  This is what I’ve been doing for the last few days. There are several reasons this is such a sought after trip.  First of all, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest survived the last Ice Age, when practically all of Africa’s other forests disappeared. It is also a rainforest, and because it survived so long the diversity of flora and fauna is greater here than elsewhere, even by normal rainforest standards.  But, while rainforest is great, the primary reason I came here was to track mountain gorillas.
There are fewer than 800 mountain gorillas alive.  Typically when you go to the zoo or see gorillas in captivity they are lowland gorillas.

The mountain gorillas live only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda; about half the population is in Uganda.  Due to the fact there are so few mountain gorillas there are a lot of measures in place to protect them.  For instance, you can’t just wander into the forest looking for them.  You must apply for a permit through the Ugandan government.  The permit is $500 and that’s just for permission to go into the forest.  It doesn’t include the money you pay for your travel to get there, your accommodations, trackers or guides.  Since the government doesn’t want too many people in the forest, only 24 permits are granted each day.  And there is a long waiting list to get your permit.  I put my name on the waiting list back in January and got the call in late September that there was a spot available.
I know I sometimes talk about seeing monkeys and other animals with such frequency that it seems as if they are just hanging around waiting for people to look at them.  And sometimes they are, especially in the case of the vervet monkeys who aren’t just “hanging around” my neighborhood, but also trying to become my new roommates.  But this is not the case with the mountain gorillas.  You have to work hard to see the gorillas.

On Saturday Catherine (a woman from the UK with whom I booked the trip through the safari company) and I were driven about 12 hours from Kampala (the capital of Uganda) to Bwindi, which is the southwestern most point in the country, right across the border from DRC.  The first 8 hours of the drive weren’t bad, but the last 4 hours was hellacious as it was over rocky, dirt roads, and it is rainy season, so there was lots of mud.

The next morning we assembled at the park headquarters for our briefing and assignment.  We were assigned to the Habinyanta gorilla family which consists of about 19 members, including about 3 babies.   The “trackers,” who work for the park service, had left an hour previously and were searching for the gorillas based upon where they had last been spotted the evening before.  Catherine and I were put into a group with 6 others, which is policy, as they do not allow groups of more than 8 to track for a given family.  We were then driven, along with the rest of the group, about an hour away (also through rocky, muddy, dirt roads) to the area from which we would start our hike.
As we began our hike we were advised to rent walking sticks and hire porters so they could “push you and pull you and carry you if you have a hard time.” I didn’t think I really had any need for a porter, but James was my savior. A lot of the terrain was steep and slippery, so it was good to have someone else to help with balance and climbing over fallen tree trunks, etc.  By the time we finished the two hour hike to the point where the trackers had found the gorillas we were dripping in sweat.

But it was totally worth it, because when we arrived this is what we saw:

The gorillas were relatively comfortable with humans, as you can see here; I was probably about 8-10 feet away:
Once I finish editing the 600+ pictures I took of the gorillas, I will post some more for you to see.  Sadly, the pictures don’t convey the experience at all, but they are a great memory of something very few people ever get to do.

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