Emmanuel drives us out of town and along a tarmac then dirt road towards Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It’s Easter weekend and we pass people walking along the road, carrying wooden crosses to mass. People look at us as we pass and I feel self-conscious in a 4×4 with a driver; normally we’d be on public transport but it’s pretty impossible to get to the park under your own steam so we’ve decided to go with a company. The road goes up and up, through patchworked terraces fields and then into the forest. There are huge trees lining on steep hillsides and we drive deeper and deeper into the park.
We’re staying at a lodge in our own little cottage with a balcony overlooking the forest and the mountains. We play cards and I do some yoga and then we have an early dinner; I find it hard to sleep that night with excitement but all too soon it’s 6am and we’re getting ready with the moon big and bright in the still-black sky.
We meet at the rangers station and are divided into groups of 10 where we’re briefed on what to expect. There’s us, a family from Spain, an Australian couple and a couple from Kenya who turn out to be friends with my lovely friend Aleya in Nairobi. Small worlds in the middle of the rainforest…
Spreading over 330 square kilometres of steep mountain, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is home to half of the worlds surviving mountain gorillas. It’s one of Africa’s oldest habitats and has survived from the last Ice Age, 18,000 years ago. We head off following our guide of 22 years, Stephen, who leads us into the forest on a narrow track. It’s beautiful, with vines hanging from huge trees and we walk for an hour climbing over fallen tree trunks, climbing uphill and down. Early morning sunlight slants through the trees.
We branch off left and are suddenly climbing directly and steeply uphill, clambering over branches, pushing through undergrowth and finding our footholds in the steep mud. We come to stop in a small clearing where we meet the other rangers who stay with the gorillas all the time, and they give us a final briefing then lead us towards where the family will be. Moz points up and there – I can’t quite believe it – are a coupe of hairy black bodies, young gorilla, shimmying down the tree trunks towards us.
We follow Stephen and his team and ahead hear a crash of undergrowth and a cry: the silverback male of the group has charged, asserting his authority. The Australian couple were at the front and were very calm, standing behind the ranger who stood his ground. The silverback retreats and goes down beneath a bush to carry on eating. We approach slowly and crouch down to watch him. He’s around six metres away and absolutely huge; he looks so powerful and yet is now calm, munching on leaves and sitting looking around. Slowly he gets up and lumbers off behind us, close to Moz at the back of the group, and I can’t quite believe his size and strength and how close we are to him. I feel tears prick the backs of my eyes.
We follow the rangers into an area of undergrowth then sit down in a close knit group. Ahead we can see the silverback, snapping whole branches as he reaches for food, and below is the mother lying on her back and gazing up at us. There are two youngsters playfighting, rolling and grunting and chasing each other, and two little babies climbing branches and tumbling off. One of the youngsters hides behind the Spanish son, holding his knee as a support and then they’re off again chasing each other through the forest. The baby practises beating its chest – like you see the adults do – and the force of it makes it tumble over backwards. The tears begin to fall; we’re so close to these beautiful and special creatures and Stephen catches my eye and smiles. I have a feeling I’m not the only one to be totally overwhelmed by these amazing animals.
Behind us we hear rustling and there are two more adult gorillas just behind us, making their way down through the forest. When we follow the family a little further, we get close to the silverback, still eating and gazing at us through the foliage, and look up to see one of the babies above us in the tree.
All too soon our allocated hour is up and we begin our walk back through the forest, chatting about what we’ve just encountered. It feels unreal, almost like a dream – the most amazing dream.
Going gorilla tracking was the “big ticket” item of our whole travels and sending the $1200 (gulp) for our permits felt like a huge chunk of our budget. Would it live up to our expectations, we wondered, would we even see gorillas?? It was everything we hoped for, and more, and I feel so lucky for this most amazing of days.