Monday, September 15, 2014

Bwindi Gorilla Tracking

I didn't sleep well at all the night before tracking, for a number of reasons. I was worried about Mom (though she slept soundly through the night, thankfully); I was worried about how I'd do the next day on the trek; and the bed was supremely uncomfortable and tilted. We woke in the am, and Mom felt well enough to eat a little breakfast and attempt the trek. We ate and made sure we had everything and then loaded into the car for the (thankfully) short ride to the tracking starting point.

In preparation for this trek I've been really stepping up my workouts since January, working out religiously 4-5 times a week to try and build strength and endurance. While I'd done a lot of resistance work on the elliptical and steep inclines on the treadmill, I hadn't, though, been able to do any hiking. I learned very quickly that I was not in nearly as good shape as I had hoped. Even the 15 minute hike from the car park to the briefing point had me a bit worried. I relaxed a little when our driver said all the gorilla groups were pretty nearby today and they didn't think we'd have too long a hike. There were 40 of there that morning, eight each for the five gorilla groups available for tracking at Rushaga. We had asked for the easiest group, but I think those requests are pretty much ignored - I don't know anybody who's ever gotten what they requested, easy or hard. The rest of our group were from various European countries. One couple was staying at our lodge, and the other three ladies were backpackers who wanted to finish as soon as possible so they could head back to Kampala for an early morning flight the next morning. We were assigned the Mishaya family, introduced to our guide, and M&D and I hired porters to carry our bags and help with the steeper parts of the mountain.

By 8:30 we were off. We were starting from nearby so hiked to the beginning of the trail and were off. It was straight uphill - albeit on a beautiful, wide, well-maintained trail - and we went at way too fast a pace for me for 15 minutes. At the first rest stop the guide explained we'd hike at the pace of the slowest member of the group (me). So I reluctantly took the lead. We kept going uphill for about an hour, taking more breaks than I think the Europeans would have liked. The trail finally evened out a bit as we got toward the top of this mountain, and I was able to go quite a ways without stopping by this point. We reached a crossroads and stopped. All along I'd been asking our guide if the trackers had found them, knowing that if I knew there was an end point I'd be more motivated to go on. He finally said we'd rest here because the trackers had found the gorillas' path and weren't far from us.

I sank onto a log to rest and relax and breathed a sigh of relief. They weren't far! I had done it! Yes, it had been hard, but I had done it. It was only 10:00 - we'd be home by early afternoon! Oh, if only.

After 30 minutes our guide said it was time to go. They were about 30 minutes from us. He had me get in the lead, and we headed down. Not down the nice trail, but down the side of the mountain. The extremely steep mountain, machetes blazing a trail as we went. Down was technically tricky but not terrible. But as we kept going farther down, I started to panic about having to go back up again. Fifteen minutes passed, twenty, thirty, forty-five, and we didn't see or hear any sign of gorillas or trackers. Then we started to go back up a slope. At that point the guide sensed by frustration and let everyone else go ahead of me. That made me feel better since I didn't feel I was holding anybody up. But as we continued to go up through thick forest (they don't call it Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for nothing), I couldn't focus on gorillas. All I could focus on was having to get off this mountain after we found the gorillas. This was when I started to struggle mentally and began to think I couldn't go on.

In addition to our guide and the three porters there were two armed guards - one police, one from UWA. They were there to assist in case we encountered unhabituated gorillas or forest elephants or chimps, but they also helped blaze trails. My porter and one of the guards were with me with everyone else up ahead and out of eyesight. We were now climbing over, under, and through very thick trees and bushes, and it was extremely muddy and slippery. I was starting to doubt myself and losing balance. I was just about to give up when I heard a sound. A gorilla! I mustered some more strength and moved on. At this point I could only climb about 10-15 feet before taking a break to reassess footing and catch my breath again, so it was slow going. It was noon, ninety minutes after we'd started down the side of the mountain. Now I started to panic that I'd miss the hour we were allotted because everyone else was with them and I was so far behind. I found out later that the rest of the group wasn't nearly as far ahead as I thought, and the guard/porter just kept telling me they were already at the gorillas to try and motivate me. Which had the opposite effect because I couldn't get anybody to tell me how much farther it was, and I was frustrated. I do well with numbers. When I run I count strides/minutes to the next interval. In Zumba I count steps/beats. On the elliptical I count revolutions. It helps me pace myself and motivates me to keep going. So when the answers to my questions were "not far" or "just a little bit" I started to lose it. I think this is when I started crying a bit. Thank goodness this is about the time the brush started to thin and I saw the rest of the group. At almost the same time I saw my first gorilla - a little baby boy of 18 months - and started to cry harder. My mom caught my eye and came to give me a hug. I told her I had no idea how I was getting off the mountain. She told me she loved me and we'd do it together. And then she pointed out the silverback.

And then, for the next hour, I forgot about the trek and how tired I was and how scared I was about getting back out. And I was able to enjoy the moment. Which was, it must be said, pretty darn spectacular.

An encounter with the gentle giants that are the mountain gorillas can't be explained in words. You're face to face with animals who share an astonishing amount of DNA with you, and you start to realize what an amazing privilege it is to spend an hour with them.

We were tracking the Mishaya group, which has one silverback, Birungi, seven females, and two young ones - the 18 month old boy and a three year old girl.  At first only Birungi and the baby were really visible. We could hear some of the others around us and occasionally caught a flash of black, but it was extremely thick brush.

By this point the rangers were seemingly so happy that I'd made it that they were helping to make sure I could see and take photographs. One of the rangers beckoned me away from the main group. I followed him, ducking under some brush and not sure where we were going. Then he stopped and pointed, and I looked, and I was face to face with a female gorilla sitting in the middle of a cleared path. She was probably fifteen feet away and sitting in the middle of the path, munching away on greenery. Another, smaller, female came over to join her for a bit. I was still the only one from the group in the area. Finally the two females wandered off. The ranger led me a little farther toward where they had been so we could look at the silverback and baby. The brush was pretty thick, and so the ranger started using his machete to cut a little bit away so we could see. Birungi took exception to this and started to get up and charge toward us. The ranger was between Birungi and me, and I think the movement was more a warning than true aggression. Mom and D asked me later if I was scared, and I really wasn't. That didn't really even enter my thoughts.

I rejoined the group and had to maneuver a little harder for good views. We watched the little baby swinging in the tree and teasing his dad - pulling his hair and making branches hit him. Birungi wasn't even a little fazed. He laid down on his side for a bit, which was a great opportunity to see his hands and some of his other features that had been masked by the bush. I know everyone always says it's uncanny how alike gorillas and humans are, but until you actually see it I'm not sure you really 'get' it. Or at least I didn't. Baby boy was quite a ham and showed off for us. I took a great photo of Mom looking at me and the camera with the baby in the background. I call it the best selfie ever, even if it's not quite a selfie. I don't get selfies. I mean, I get the concept, I just don't get the appeal. So maybe that's a poor comparison. But it's a great photo!

Birungi got up started leading the family a little farther away, and we followed. He stopped again and was joined by the larger female I'd seen earlier. The 18 month old - who never strayed more than a few feet from his dad - sat in between them. And there the three sat for several minutes, a sweet little family lineup. I don't know if that was his mother, but it was still lovely.

After a while Birungi moved farther away, and we followed at a respectable distance. Several family members, including both young ones, followed closely. Then Birungi chose a female - and I'm still not sure which one, because all I could see of her were her feet - and began mating. The rangers told us this was rare to see, and we were very lucky. The session was quite long and not particularly interesting since all we saw was Birungi's back and the female's feet and some slight movement. What was fascinating, though, was watching the little ones. The baby was in front of Birungi most of the time, presumably feeding, and we didn't see him at first. The little girl, though, was quite hilarious. She lay down on her stomach facing her dad and watching, seemingly rapt. She wasn't eating, just observing. At one point she had her head propped in her hands, elbows on the ground. At one point the baby boy seemed to emerge from in between the mating pair, prompting giggles and jokes about a quick pregnancy. He then sat down and picked bugs off his dad for a few minutes. The girl finally turned on her side, facing us, and I was able to capture some of the best photos of the day. 

Birungi eventually finished and started to move on. His pace was quicker now, which was fascinating because this is when the rangers said our hour was up. For the entire hour the family had stayed pretty close by, not moving all that fast. Now, though, they seemed to know their human interaction for the day was done, and they moved off into the forest. We watched them go, sighting one additional female who had been farther away and who now walked past us following the rest of the family. And that was that. Amazing.

Now the panic set back in. How on earth was I going to get off of this mountain? I was not in any condition to go back the way we'd come. The rangers told us they had a shortcut to the trail, only ten minutes of uphill through the bush and we'd rejoin the trail and have lunch. We set off, me back in the lead. That didn't last long, as I felt extra pressure going first, and I asked for the others to go ahead again. By this time the adrenaline was starting to wear off, my feet were starting to feel blistery, and I was exhausted. My balance was declining steadily, and I needed to stop more often to regroup and plan my next steps. This area was even more slippery than some of the earlier paths.

The rangers tried to keep my mind busy by talking about life in the big city (Kampala) and exclaiming over what we'd just seen. I appreciated their efforts but was focused on not falling off the side of the mountain. Finally I could see more sunlight and knew the trail was ahead. I made one last push and emerged onto the large trail, exuberant and so incredibly relieved. The rangers were whispering excitedly and pointing down the trail. At first I thought they were pointing at the rest of the group, but it was actually a duiker that had just popped out of the bush. It's rare to see these shy antelopes, so I like to think it was rewarding me for making it to the trail!

I rejoined the group and sat down to eat lunch. I found out that my 45 minutes of going uphill had been only 5-10 minutes behind everyone else. So. yeah. Not ten minutes to the trail. At this point I knew that it really was, literally, all downhill from here, and I finally relaxed and started to reflect. We were all still in happy shock by what we'd just experienced, and it was fun to start recounting stories. After we finished eating we repacked our gear and started down. It took us only about 30 minutes to make it down to the briefing station, where we arrived just as it started to drizzle. Our guide met us there with hugs; he'd been in phone contact with the rangers and knew we'd had a tough climb.

I had heard before that we'd receive a certificate from UWA, but I'd forgotten, so it was really sweet to have a little 'graduation' ceremony with the rangers and porters. We generously tipped them and headed to the car. I am completely serious when I say I wouldn't have made it without them.

We headed back to the car, drove back to the lodge, made it to our rooms, and collapsed. Mom and I managed to get our icky hiking boots off before needing to get our feet up. We eventually took turns showering - though the poor water pressure made it very hard to feel like we got any of the dirt off - and then just laid on our beds listing off the litany of aches and pains that were starting to appear now that the adrenaline was well and truly gone.

Tracking the gorillas was by far the hardest thing I've ever done physically - and, because of that, one of the hardest mentally as well - but I am so thankful I persevered and completed the trek. What an amazing experience, one I'll treasure forever. And while the trek was incredibly difficult - don't get me wrong - I think a big part of my struggle was not getting accurate answers about distance to things. Anyway, there are some pretty amazing stories to tell for a long time to come about this day!

I've consolidated some photos into collages below. None of the scenery pics accurately depict the difficulty of the terrain or the steepness of the mountain, but it does give a glimpse into the impenetrability of the forest. I have hundreds of photos with only small glimpses of black among the green; these are some of the best in terms of visibility.

More posts on the rest of the trip coming soon; it's been quite busy since I've gotten back, but I'm plugging away. This one was by far the hardest to recap, and I fear I haven't done it justice. As more occurs to me I'll try to insert updates.