Driving to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the early morning hours (5:30) is like entering a magic world. Mist hangs in the valleys below as you proceed at an altitude of around 2300m. The name derives from the local Runyakitara language(s), and means something like ‘place of darkness’. This has been a forest forever, and it is as primeval as a forest can be in the 21st century.
For the impatient ones, here’s some Gorilla video caption. [switch to HD]
Famously, this forest is home to 400 of the remaining 800 mountain gorillas. We visited the Bitukura family, one of three in the Ruhija region of Bwindi, and one of altogether 12 families in Uganda habituated to visitors. Including half an hour briefing, the whole enterprise almost resembles a para/militarz operation (well, see below why guys with AK47s accompany every group). Three trackers had gone to find them in the early morning, and we, a group of six visitors, one guide, two armed rangers, and three porters followed an hour later. Thick rain forest, muddy slopes – we were lucky since the trackers had found the family close to a track, and only an hour away from the road.I allowed myself a porter for my backpack. Yes I could have carried it myself, but this is a way of employing some poor guy from a local village, who earns a minimum of $15 for his services, and thus has less reason to become a poacher. Everybody wins … Oh, should you fall ill, break a leg or such, they carry you out – though that’s for around $300. Talking about illness – if you are found ill with, say, diarrhea, you will be sent back. The rangers do everything to protect the gorillas, and every encounter with humans bears a high risk of infection anyway. If you are sent back you may receive a refund of only 50%. After all, the permit of a steep $600 is less an entry ticket than your contribution for protecting the forest and its inhabitants, in Bwindi and elsewhere in Uganda.
Gorillas move roughly one kilometre per day, chewing away and resting, and socializing, so I guess the trackers tend to have a good idea where the family is. However, they may move further away if all of a sudden they fancy one of their favourite foods which may be far away. Anyway, you notice when you get near them: flies, broken branches, noise – and smell. They do … smell. As we arrived at the site where the family dwelled, one of the rangers cut a way through the thicket, much to the displeasure of the young silverback in charge. His jumping around in the bushes was scary to watch, though it seemed our ranger was not altogether unfamiliar with such display of anger. I must say this was the moment where I felt most as an intruder into a scene where I was not supposed to be. However, feelings calmed down, and after a few moments we were accepted just like Julius, the young Max-Planck researcher monitoring the family. We had some great moments, with one mother seemingly completely unimpressed by our presence, and the old silverback, now defunct as leader, almost stepping on my toes as he walked past us. It was interesting to see how his young successor put him in check when he deemed it necessary. Julius, the researcher, however confided that the old guy may in fact be the true father of the little ones, since the ladies apparently had a crush on him.
I could have stayed on – with the gorillas, but even the forest itself, its canopy full of birds, and with chimpanzees shouting nearby (they’re not habituated to visitors, which means you will not get to see them. They are our shy cousins).
The armed rangers are there because in 1999 a group of 14 visitors and their guide were kidnapped by Rwandan Interahamwe guerillas coming from Congo and most of them brutally murdered – all the reports say “butchered” or “slaughtered” … This is part of the long-term tensions in the region, in particular the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The gorillas are comparatively harmless if you don’t get in their way. If you can, go there. It’s absolutely amazing and it even serves conservation purposes.