The trackers repeated the message one more time, but this is the last. We stand knee deep in roots and thick leaves in the impenetrable forest of Uganda, not far from the border of Congo. We are only 50 feet from a family of 18 mountain gorillas but we cannot see them. Our small group only whisper to each other. “Don’t stand up! If they approach you look away and stay still”. Sweat is running down my back and all my senses are on high alert. We stop whispering and the buzzing sound of the rainforest take over. We hear branches being broken and the characteristic deep grunting sounds from the gorillas. Then we move slowly in the dense forest the last few feet into the group of wild animals.
It has taken us several hours to get into this point. I have been in many different jungles around the world but nowhere more dense and impenetrable than this one. Thick leaves, roots and branches make it impossible to see where the ground is. Every step is a careful search for solid ground. High leather boots and jungle pants are taped together to prevent fire ants or other unpleasant things to reach bare skin. Sometimes I step on the solid sharp rocks made from lava, and other times my boots just sinks into deep vegetation. When looking up I can sometimes see tree trunks stretching far into the canopies and get a glimpse of some sunlight and blue skies, the rest is dark walls of vegetation filled with every shade of green. The intense sound of the forest is interrupted by the hard strokes of the machete. Branches and small trees break and fall. We climb, crawl and slowly make a narrow trail through the forest. Humidity is over 90% and the temperature is tropical. All my clothes are soaking wet. Right in front of me is one of the trackers. Like the others he carries an old Kalashnikov. They told us it is because of the gorillas, but we know this forest also have some militant groups not always friendly to visitors and there is an ongoing fight against illegal poaching and cutting of trees inside this protected area.
I think about all this while trying to concentrate where to step, where to hold on with my hands and at the same time look out for snakes and other dangerous creatures – then suddenly we hear the sound that makes all other thoughts disappear. A deep and strong grunting sound – then silence. We freeze. It feels like the body is programmed to react on this sound. Then another grunt. It is only 30-40 feet away, but we do not see anything. Then the guides start to whisper. “The grunting sound is good. This is the sound they make when they are comfortable and communicate with each other – total silence is often not so good”…Then they repeat safety procedures and we move into the group of gorillas.
I have wanted this for so long and finally I am here. There is less than 900 mountain gorillas left in the world and they are all here in this area. Most of them here in Uganda but also in Rwanda and the rest just across the border into Congo. They live in families of 10-35 gorillas and all families have one large male silverback leader. Usually they move during the day, then stop to “nest”, sleep and then move further the next day. A few gorilla families have been habituated and it is possible for us to visit with a lower risk, but there is no guarantee to find them. The way they move in the forest is graceful, smooth and easy compared to our clumsy struggle. Sometimes the trackers search for days to find them. To protect the animals, every visit is always on the animal’s terms and each encounter is maximum one hour. Even though we are never supposed to physically interact with the animals we are never allowed into the forest if we have any form of disease. The guides repeat endlessly that we are not allowed closer than 20 feet – but the gorillas does not know this and sometimes they come really close. The guides tell stories about some of the gorillas approaching people and invite them to play by gently pushing or slapping.
We move very slow and silent into a small opening in the jungle. I suddenly see black fur in between the leaves. It is just a few feet away. I don’t see the whole animal. Just some fur and a foot holding on to a branch. The 20 feet rule is broken before we realize we are in the middle of the family. The grunting sound comes from all over. Branches break, leaves move and we see several gorillas around us. I am on my knees. I take my camera and point at the one closest to me, a large female. I know we are not supposed to have eye contact but through the camera I stare right into her eyes. I press the button, the shutter and mirror in my camera makes a sharp sound and then all becomes quiet. The only thing I hear is my heartbeat. It feels like forever. Then the grunting starts again and I can breathe. We sit like this for a long time. Just watching them. The young play. One mother is breastfeeding an infant. A couple of large males breaking off bamboo trees then eat the leaves. Under a large tree I can see the leader, a huge silverback, overlooking the situation. He has total control. I take a few pictures, then just sit and enjoy. It is one of the most extraordinary moments in my life.
I watch a young gorilla climbing a tree only a few feet away. It grabs a branch and the small hand is caught by a streak of sunlight coming through the canopies. I capture this magic moment and it becomes one of my favorite pictures from this trip. To me it is the symbol of the tragic truth about these magnificent animals. To me this is hope holding on to the future. This young gorilla plays safely in the tree, protected by the biggest and strongest male gorilla in the forest. The young gorilla holding on to the branch is totally unaware of the uncertain future of the entire specie. Unaware of deforestation, pollution, political instability and poaching. To me it holds on to the future.
The mountain gorillas are one of the most magnificent creatures on earth. They are in danger and need our constant attention. It is ways you can help if you want. Just google mountain gorillas and find an organization you want to support. They all do wonderful work and it pays off. It looks like the population is slowly increasing specially in Virunga, Congo. We need to keep their habitats safe and continue the wonderful conservation work.
Read more from Uganda: http://reflections.no/crossing-uganda/