...Despite too many beers the night before and an early start we were all in high spirits: Lara, Sonya, Matt, Kerry, Jen, Jules, Ish and me made up the first group to see the gorillas. That same day, Kay, Homeless and Kim also went off to see the gorillas, only at a different spot to us. The rest of the gang were up the next day.
The taxi drive from the hotel to the start of the trek took nearly an hour (and cost us $20 each for the return journey on top of the $500 we’d already handed over for our privelegd hour with the gorillas.) In the taxi, we all took our time to read through the “Gorilla Rules” ecotourism brochure. Whilst the rules seemed pretty strict given the price of the trek (i.e. you’re only allowed an hour with the gorillas, only in groups no larger than 8 people, no closer than 7 metres, you have to wash your hands beforehand, you may have to abandon the trek if the gorillas look agitated) it was all understandably so: 2003 figures estimate the total global population of mountain gorillas to be about 706.
|Hopefully there are gorillas in that mist somewhere...|
|Jen looking excited in the front ot the bus on the way to Mgahinga.|
|You better wreckonize.|
We pulled up at the entrance to Mgahinga and were instantly met by our chirpy guide and his faithful but stern sidekick who said nothing and toted his AK47 as if kicking poacher ass was what he lived for.
|Lara's hand Vs. a gorilla's hand.|
|So tiny Vs. so big.|
Silent in fact.
We were told to ditch our shizzle about 50 metres from where the hairy fellas were congragated and then to move forwards slowly. When we got to the opening where they were, we could make out maybe three, four or five gorillas. Definitely at least one silverback. Admittedly, our view at this point was pretty disappointing – “$500 dollars for this semi-oscured view for an hour???Really???” The trackers and guides did the best to calmly cut down the larger branches that were in our way whilst simultaneously simulating gorilla noises (try saying “mmmmmmmmmaaaaan” very slowly, deeply and gruffly).
|A somewhat obscured view at first...|
|...but it got better.|
|To quote Berbs the night before "The best thing about gorillas, is that they have nipples."|
|"I'm just trying to catch some zzz's..."|
|"...but the god-damn paps won't leave me alone."|
I got a tap on my shoulder from one of the trackers to alert me to a ‘black-back’ (young male) that was ambling through the undergrowth a mere metre or tow in front of me. YES! This seemed more like it but unfortunately the gorillas had other plans and they soon turned their backs to us and swung their way off through the bamboo and into the distance.
Is that it?
|This 'black-back' came out of nowhere on my left.|
We really thought it was over with only 10 or 15 minutes gone. Our guide just smiled and, along with the trackers, followed this small clan of the world’s most endangered ape and motioned us to do the same. Several minutes later we were in a clearing with a much better view of two silverbacks, a female with a baby straying not too far from her, and a playful, exhibitionist young male.
The exhibitionist then chose a spot right in front of us, sat down and perched his elbows up as he peeled and ate some bamboo. His mannerisms were so human – it was like a kid wanting attention by pretending not to care and misbehaving.
We stalked after them a little bit more but at this point our time was nearly up and the gorillas were looking agitated anyway. It all went far too quickly but we left the spot feeling thoroughly exhilarated and chatted about our experience as we sat down for lunch a couple of hundred metres further down the mountain. The bad news was that we chose to eat on top of a nest of safari ants with particularly fierce soldiers with massive pincers climbing all over us. We’d met these guys before in Gabon and in the Serengeti (well, not the exact same ones, but you get my drift) and still not learnt our lesson. The good news was that the rest of the hike back was downhill.
Back at the park entry and surprisingly exhausted, we received official certificates from our guide in a mock graduation ceremony. We then waited outside for our prepaid mini-bus home. As seems to be the way, the driver’s watch was well and truly set to “African Time” so we sat around doing nothing for an hour and fifteen minutes before he finally showed up apologising about a puncture he’d got on the way. (The guy must have bad luck as he got another puncture when giving some of the others a lift the next day too.)
We caught up with Homeless, Kimbo and Kay at the hotel and we exchanged stories whilst trying not to hype it up or give away too much for the guys who were due their trek the following day.
The next day, the remainders of the gang went off on their gorilla mission and the girls (Son, Laraldo, Jen and Jules), Ish, Matt and Kerry paid a visit to the orphanage that had entertained us the previous night. They’d gone out and bought miscelleneuous treats and supplies for all the kids.
|This is what happens when you give the camera to the kids.|
|Son, pointing out New Zealand on the world map we bought for the orphanage.|
|Jules doing the same.|
Later that day, I was surprised to be able to say that the party that went to the orphanage came back more excited than those that did their gorilla experience...
It turns out that the gorillas were being a bit aloof for the second group that went up. Most of their time with them had been more like our initial 10 minutes with them...if not worse. Whilst our guys were stoked at having done the experience, they felt that it was a lot of money to pay for a few moving, distant hairy objects for 50 minutes then maybe 10 minutes with a better view fo said objects.
Conversely, the gorilla trek was one of the standout moments of the entire 10 month trip so far for me (yep, yet another highlight). Our particular group got lucky by the sound of it, and for this, I’m extremely grateful. I’m not convinced it’s worth flying into Uganda JUST for the gorillas (besides, looking back at it now, Uganda has so much else to offer too) but as part of the itinerary of a larger trip, it was perfect. Would I spend $500 dollars for the same experience again? Maybe not, but then again, maybe I won’t ever have that privilge: if rumours are to be believed, the price may double (or more) over the next year or so...the prices have already skyrocketed over the lasrt decade. You also have to consider the fact that it’s nature so you aren’t guaranteed a close-up, take-your-breath-away encounter (as our second group found out). But let’s get everything into perspective here: these are the world’s most endangered apes. They are truly awesome and so very, very human-like. As I said before, at last official count, there were only 706 of them on the planet but amidst our parting words with our guide that day, we were told that this was an increase from the previous count a decade before, when there were only about 300..and things are looking up for the next count too. Can you put a price on that?