Gorilla …

Guest post by Gayle …

The boys had seen both Mountain and Lowland Gorillas in the past so they went bird watching.

The Gorilla trackers met at the visitor centre where we were entertained by some enthusiastic dancing from some of the local ladies.

Scouts are sent out early to locate the gorillas. We were briefed and assigned to teams. We would be walking from one to eight hours.

I was in a party of eight. We were driven to our start point which was on the top of a ridge. And over the edge we went. It was steep and because of very recent rain it was slippery. There was no formed track, the guides were cutting a way for us.

Fortunately for me we found our gorillas after two hours. We were instructed to leave our back packs and food with the porters and make our way towards the gorillas. We would be with them for an hour but we were not to touch or disturb them.

The party of Mountain Gorillas consisted of two males, two females and two babies. The males slept or pretended to as we watched, while the females and young played in the trees until they were ready to join the others on the ground. It was an amazing experience being so close up with nothing between us. They did not seem to mind that we were there and moved among us without fear.

photo – GHD
photo – GHD
photo – GHD

Our guide made sure everyone got good photo opportunities and didn’t short change us on the time but it was soon time to head up hill. Now the hard work would start.

I was very glad that I had hired a porter. She was a lovely young lady in her mid twenties named Gertruda. She was very fit and enjoyed her work helping others to see gorillas in the forest. Gertruda carried my backpack and watched my every step down and up the steep and slippery mountain. We were very friendly by the end of the trek and both enjoyed the experience we shared together.

Gertruda and an exhausted but elated client

Seeing the gorillas is something you really must do when visiting Uganda. A booking is essential and hiring a porter makes the trekking less strenuous.

Back at the visitors centre you enjoy a celebration with your group of your achievement and a certificate is presented to each individual.

An amazing life-time experience in Bwindi National Park.

Gorilla …

We left the Golden Monkeys and returned to the Muhabura Hotel. It was the first time we’d seen it in daylight. On the wall was a painted sign inviting the world to sleep in the same room that Dian Fossey had been in the habit of using on her trips to town for supplies. It had been kept just as she’d left it.

Fossey was born in San Francisco in 1932 and murdered in the Volcanoes National Park in 1985. She left a career in occupational therapy to become a primatologist, and became the world’s leading authority on Mountain Gorillas. She wrote the famous book Gorillas in the Mist. and was celebrated in the movie of the same name.

She loved her gorillas and if they didn’t love her they should have, she fought tooth and nail for their protection and for the preservation of their habitat, often against what was once a corrupt park service and foreign zoos.

Her research began in the Congo. When that became too dangerous a place she moved to Rwanda. As a person the word enigmatic barely begins to not describe her! She smoked and drank heavily and was reputedly extremely racist. Some how she has become the patron saint of Gorilla tourism to which she was utterly opposed. On the other hand there is no doubting her courage and conviction.

The final entry in her diary was …

When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.

There would be no future for her but she has played a major part in securing a future for the gorilla.

I didn’t get to spend the night in room 12. But I did get to look into these eyes …

My friend Mark Antos has described the gorilla as the thinking man’s primate. I think that fits nicely with their mostly quiet demeanour. They seem to manifest sincerity, a stark contrast to chimpanzees who seem noisy and selfish. These guys are watching us and I can’t help wondering whether humans are the thinking gorilla’s primate. I doubt it.

It has been a two hour hike on a very steep hillside, to reach the group. Almost all the walk was outside the park where the forest has been cleared to make way for subsistence crops and pyrethrum cultivation.

Along the way we have passed children begging for money, one little boy with a very swollen abdomen and a fever was clearly ill, our guide urged his mother to take him to a doctor.

It was a group of eight tourists, three Australians and an American family, Mum, Dad, a daughter in her early teens and two older brothers. They are dressed, like a lot of the tourists visiting the park, in gaiters and gloves. The gaiters are brand new and they hadn’t a clue how to put them on.  By the time we reached the forest the gloves had been put away and the gaiters were falling apart .

The last few hundred metres was off trail, a tracker cutting the way with a panga (a Swahili word , machete from Spanish has found wider use). Stinging nettles were abundant, this is where the gloves would have saved some discomfort. (The Swahili for gloves is kinga).

Arriving at the gorillas the Aussies settled down and studied gorillas. Our American companions pulled out their mobile phones, turned their backs to the gorillas, pulled faces, made signs with their fingers and took selfies. The admission fee is $1,500 each. A family of five = $7,500, about a dollar a neurone. It kept them busy for all of five minutes after that they fidgeted and talked about golf.

Nonetheless, for me it was a magnificent hour.

The gorilla group consisted of two silver back males, a female with a very young baby, and some younger males and females. They were resting after an encounter with a neighbouring group that had resulted in a fight. Most of them were lying together in a clearing. The alpha male was laying on his back with a female resting her head on his belly. The secondary male seemed to be taking things badly, he had lost some fur from his shoulder, had a bleeding wound on his back and had an injury to his left eye (although possibly an old injury). He was keeping to himself at the top of the slope. The female with the baby also remained separate a few metres downslope from the group with the baby clasped to her belly.

 

 

 

Gorilla …

The Congo Basin contains the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, surpassed only by the Amazon. It is home to both the Western Lowland Gorilla, the Chimpanzee and the Bonobo (although for the last you would need to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Dr Magda Bermejo of the University of Barcelona has been studying gorillas in this region for over fifteen years, since 2010 her team has been based at Ngaga camp where three groups of gorillas have become used to the prying eyes of researchers.

Wilderness Safaris have the tourist concession in the region and as well as Ngaga they have a second camp, Lango. A well choreographed shuffle moves the visitor from Brazzaville to Ngaga (three nights) to Lango (three nights) and back to Brazzaville. At both camps the accommodation is constructed of mainly local materials in a style that might be called thatched hut chic. The beds are mosquito netted with a fan inside the net, what luxury, toilet and shower en suite, electricity to recharge the camera and computer. The food is amazing although by the time it arrives from Paris it does have a few food miles up. Alcoholic drinks are included.

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At Ngaga the main focus is the gorillas. We were divided into two teams of four and assigned to a tracker. On each of two days we set out soon after dawn in search of that day’s target group of gorillas. We headed towards the site where the gorillas were known to have spent the night, unless we crossed the track of the group on the way, that would be the beginning of the tracking process. It could be a long hike or a short one. Once we found the group we donned surgical masks, gorillas can suffer from infections that humans carry. The minimum distance permitted was seven metres. In the Antarctic one could get away with the excuse that the penguin came up to me, here that didn’t wash, if a gorilla infringed the seven metre rule and it was safe to do so we were told to back off. The gorillas would have to put up with our company for a maximum of one hour.

Of the three groups that had developed some tolerance to human visitors one group was only ever visited by researchers. The two groups visited by tourists would have to put up with that indignity for just four hours per week. We had a talk from Dr Bermejo one evening, the tourist activity has obviously been developed under her watchful gaze. Physical contact with humans puts gorillas at risk of potentially lethal infections and if she wanted to study zoo animals there were easier places to do it! The program, I think, is a very sensitive means of looking after the welfare of the animals, has low impact on their behaviour whilst giving the tourist a fair chance to observe and photograph their nearest relative in exchange for money that benefits local people. Putting a value on wildlife gives government a good reason to conserve it.

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We fared extremely well on both days. The trek was not too long, the gorillas were relaxed and good views could be had. Low light and condensation on the camera lens hampered photography. The groups are named for their silverback elder statesmen. The first day we visited Jupiter and his group, about 25 individuals. The second day we visited Neptuno and his smaller group. This also entailed a change of tracker because each tracker stays with their own group. The trackers would go out again late in the afternoon to find where their group would spend the night.

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The Marantaceae plants this individual is walking through form part of its diet. I tried the stems, they are quite fibrous but with a bit of effort the pith can be extracted and doesn’t taste quite as bad as Crocodile Dundee would have you believe.

Bird watching around the camp was reasonably productive. There were lizards, butterflies and squirrels around as well. We visited a local village one afternoon which took us past a road sign that one doesn’t see often …

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The villagers were welcoming. The tourist development provides some employment and a visit like ours was a chance to sell some local produce. The houses were mostly of wattle and daub construction with thatched roofs.

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Bananas and paw paws were purchased. Cassava is their staple diet, grown in forest plots that are first cut and burnt. Goats, ducks and chickens were in evidence and could be supplemented with a bit of hunting.

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