It was an 11 hour drive to Kitandara Tent Camp in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, our base for tracking gorillas the next day. Bwindi is the southwest corner of Uganda, bordered by Rwanda and the DRC. The camp was surprisingly comfortable, with rugged safari tents, a wooden deck and a bathroom (the tent was placed on the wooden deck, on which the outdoor bathroom was built). We, of course, had mosquito netting around our beds and applied DEET everywhere before arriving for dinner in the outdoor dining room at 7:30.
We arrived at the starting point for gorilla tracking at around 8, and after waiting 45 minutes or so to be told what to do(What are we doing? We are waiting…), we were split into groups of 8 and told our hike could take any where from 2 to 8 hours depending on where the gorillas had traveled from the previous day. An advance team leaves early in the morning to locate each of the gorillas families and communicates by cell phone with the guides.
The gorillas we were tracking were a troop of approximately 12 individuals, including a silverback and a couple of infants. This trip was special because we were seeing mountain gorillas, rather than the lowland gorillas that most of us have seen in zoos. There are less than 900 mountain gorillas in existence (compared to approximately 100,000 lowland gorillas), and they don’t do well in captivity, so seeing them at all is special. You pay for the privilege by purchasing a permit that costs around $500. That money supports gorilla conservation and the local community, which survives through ecotourism. It was the mountain gorilla Dian Fossey (Gorillas in the Mist) was studying in the 1960′s
It took about an hour or so to locate and reach the gorillas. We were told we had one hour with the gorillas before turning around and hiking back. It was an amazing hour. At first we saw a couple of females in a tree, one with an infant. We all watched in fascination, but didn’t really know how much better it would get. One of the females came down from the tree and we followed her and watched her eat leaves and bamboo. We were able to watch the gorillas within a distance of 5 feet. Then, our guide shouted that he had found the silverback (the dominant male whose hair turns silver on its back when it becomes sexually mature at around 13). He was on the ground eating, and he let us get very close (within 4 feet) and take some great photos.
Our guide told us that the gorillas seem to know when the one hour is over, as they will move away from the humans and get on with their business). Indeed, the silverback left our group and moved over to the females, one with a baby. Another female screamed in a nearby tree, and they were off.
Tracking chimpanzees was a very different experience. We traveled to Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Chimp tracking is much less commercial and much harder. There were trails in the Bwindi to follow, at elevations of 5,000 ft, crossing streams and sometimes blocked by tree branches. We tracked a rudimentary trail to find the chimps, starting with a wicked muddy hill that was at least 70 degrees in slope, with much more climbing and descending slopes, crawling over tree branches and sinking in rottng leaves. Once there was an idea where the chimps were (look for rustling tree tops), we slogged through the dense forest. While the gorillas were habituated to our presence and fed on the ground, the chimpanzees stayed at the top of the forest canopy swinging from branch to branch (just like at the zoo). They were harder to see because the forest was darker and they were farther away. Plus, you need a healthy neck, as you are always looking up.
You need to be considerably more fit to track chimps than to track gorillas. And hiking boots may not be the best choice for footwear, as all our guides wore rubber boots. You can say you were really in the jungle when you track chimpanzees, but nothing beats being four feet from a silverback mountain gorilla.