Gorilla Tracking: Part 4

Gorillas: Part 4 – the final gorilla installment

The hour we had with the gorillas went way too fast.  We followed the gorillas as they moved around.  It felt like 20 minutes had passed when they told us our hour was over.  Just before our time ended though, I think that a true highlight for everyone is when I was innocently walking along, hanging out with my gorilla friends, when the ground below me gave way and my foot was in a hole.  I tried to pull my foot out, but it was stuck.  Then my Spanish friend Isador gave me a hand and I yanked my foot out, but I quickly noticed that my foot did not bring with it my shoe.  I stood there a bit helpless until Rita came to the rescue with her hook knife sword tool thing and fished my hiking boot out of the hole. 

The rest of the day, everyone went out of their way to point out the smallest of holes anywhere in the vicinity of the trail.  It was pretty ridiculous.

Hiking out the forest was pretty intense.  It is still impenetrable, and now there is no promise of gorillas ahead of us.  We were all completely exhausted.  We eventually made our way up to a clearing where we could stop for lunch.  Rachel and I were excited to sit down and discover what our lodge had packed for us.  I don’t remember everything that was in our box lunches, but I remember it was interesting.  There was for sure a hard-boiled egg, chicken, some unidentifiable fruit type of thing, and more.  We were hungry enough that 98% of it was edible. 

After we painstakingly made our way down that super steep hill that led into the impenetrable forest, we hiked back through the tea fields, past the houses, and to base camp, where we were greeted by our guides and drivers.

hiking out through tea plantations

The drive back to the ranger station seemed to take 5 years.  Once we got back, Rita gave us our certificates of accomplishment, and we headed to meet Joseph at the van.

He informed us that there was something wrong with the van, and we would need to hike back to the lodge (which, mind you, was at the top of a huge hill!)  With scared eyes we searched Joseph’s face for some sign that he was surely joking, but alas, he was not.  With much sadness and exhaustion, and thinking, “well, this is Africa” we cooled down from our 5 hours of intense hiking in the mountainous rain-forest with a hike up a big hill to our lodge.  I think it is the saddest walk of the safari.  There was nothing that could be done about it, and it was nobody’s fault (let’s be honest, it is a small miracle that the van survived those roads as well as it did), but it sucked.  Sitting down in the middle of the road seemed like a better option that walking up it, but eventually we made it.

the one perk of hiking home to the lodge is that we could stop and take a picture with the sign for Bwindi National Park (and document how exhausted we were. yikes…)

After lying down in utter exhaustion for a few minutes, we looked at pictures and clapped with delight as we re-lived our morning’s experiences.  I decided that I was a sweaty mess and a shower was in order.  Our maid stopped by soon after and saw my wet hair and was horrified that I had taken a cold shower (the generator was only on in the evenings).

Silverback Lodge: where the walk is too far to see a chameleon

My biggest regret of the day is that there was a chameleon by the neighboring room, but when the maid told us, I was way too tired to walk 50 ft to see it.  I mentioned recently to Rachel that I was sad I hadn’t made the effort to see a real live chameleon.  Then she reminded me that 1. we were physically unable to move.  and 2.  we saw gorillas. 

Worth it. 

So in the end, this is definitely on my list of top 4 life experiences.

Gorilla Tracking: Part 3

Gorilla Tracking Part 3

We had been hiking for about 70 minutes when we caught our first glimpse of gorillas across the valley.  At first I just saw some branches shaking in the distance.

Then I saw a blob of black fur.

It was SO cool.

At this point, we all had to leave our walking sticks behind and take a final drink of water.  You weren’t allowed to eat or drink within a certain distance of the gorillas. 

One of the machete guides now led the way, cutting us a path with his machete.  It was crazy to walk where no man had walked before.  How crazy big and amazing is this earth that there are wild parts of it left where no one lives, and where there isn’t even a trail to walk through, and you have to cut your way through the thick underbrush.  (I don’t really know what underbrush is, it just seemed fitting in that sentence.  So I apologize if it is inaccurate.  Sometimes I can’t be bothered to double check my thoughts on google).  We are quite the expeditioners.  (Spell check seems to think that isn’t a word. but spell check can’t stop me from using it!)

We continued on through the dense mountain forest until we came to where the gorillas were.  We were allowed one hour with the gorillas.  Seeing gorillas in the wild was pretty surreal.  Now I look back and I think “I did what????”  But at the time I couldn’t even wrap my mind around what an amazing thing I was experiencing.

One gorilla was laying in the leaves.  Several were up in the trees having a mid-morning snack.   At one point, the silverback started walking towards us.  It totally spooked me.  Rita said, “extend back” and we all stepped back and the gorilla changed its path.  The silverback just stood there for a few minutes and we all furiously snapped pictures. 

Many other family members followed the exact path that the silverback took… including two mama gorillas with babies on their backs.  I had hoped that we would see babies, but I wasn’t sure if it would happen, so I was super excited when this dream became reality.  We all gasped with excitement/in awe of the adorableness of the gorillas babies. 

I know it is blurry… but look at his cute little feet!

The babies totally wanted to be our friends and entertain us.  The climbed on and off their mom’s backs and played with vines and flailed their arms.  It was the best.  Definitely my highlight. 

to be continued…

Gorilla Tracking: Part 2

Gorilla Tracking Part 2

We met our tracking group, including our guide named Rita.  She was pretty great – we liked her a lot.  Also accompanying us, at the front and back of our group, were two other trackers, equipped with machetes and guns.  They assured us they would not shoot any gorillas, although it was a necessarily precaution to shoot at the air in case we came upon any gorillas that are not habituated or any elephants on our hike.  Our group was filled with quite normal people.  We breathed a small sigh of relief that it was not just us with a bunch of Olympic athletes.  Although going gorilla tracking during the London Summer Olympics probably minimized the chances of being surrounded by Olympic athletes.  All that to say everyone seemed to be in normal shape to be able to manage the hike while still needing to stop occasionally for water and to catch their breath.  Good company to be in.  We had 4 Spaniards and 2 Germans in our group.  We were the lone Americas.  Which was fun.  Oh, and I think we had some sort of researcher with us as well.  We started out with introductions of both ourselves and our gorillas.  We would be tracking the H group (the Habinyanja Family).  Rita told us the name of the silverback, and also told us the names of a few other gorillas in the family, including another male who is quite the player with the ladies in the family.  My favorite introduction though was that of Patty/Paddy.  After the tracking ended and Rita was handing out our certificates of accomplishment, she said, “Who is Fransisco?” and Patty/Paddy raised his hand, and with accusing eyes, she said, “WHAT?  You told me you were called Patty/Paddy!”  And he and his friends just laughed and said that Patty/Paddy was easier. 

At this point we got in the vans and headed out from the ranger station out to our starting point.  I’d guess we drove for around an hour up the mountainside.  It was a mostly terrifying drive.  The roads were Africa roads.  They were dirt and giant loose rocks.  At times the van struggled to keep traction with the road.  I’m fairly certain that at some points Jesus was pushing our van up in the steep incline, because otherwise we never would have made it.  And it wasn’t just the getting up the road, but staying on the road and not falling off the side of a mountain had me a little concerned.  But Obed is an amazing driver and we arrived in one piece at our base camp starting point. 

Rachel and I were really glad that we had decided to share a backpack.  That way we could each carry it for part of the journey.  We also had walking sticks, courtesy of our lodge.  Because when you are hiking in the impenetrable forest, three legs are better than two.  It was a weird feeling to officially begin the trek and walk away from base camp.  Partially it was a strange feeling because you knew that something so completely epic was ahead of you, but you couldn’t fully understand what you would be experiencing.  It was also strange to leave and have no idea if you’d be back in two hours or ten hours.  And all the drivers and safari guides were just waiting all day at the base camp.  But Africans are awesome at shooting the breeze, so I’m sure none of them minded.  But I think it was also weird feeling because our epic journey began by walking past some village homes and up and down some medium sized hills through a tea field.  We felt like this was the “weed out the weaklings” part of our hike. 

Once we made it out of the tea plantation, we began our “real” hike by climbing up the most giant hill I have ever been on in my life.  We walked up it single file, and I’m pretty sure we should have been singing “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music.  Except we were all so winded that we never could have sang and climbed simultaneously.  We all had to stop partway up.  It is the kind of hill that you think you might die on.  My legs are feeling tired just typing about it.  It is also the kind of hill that you get to the top and you have no idea how you just climbed up it.  You look down and realize it is so steep you can’t actually see the bottom because the angle of the incline changed partway up.  It was so steep that when we went down at the end, I had to side-step the whole way so that I didn’t just slide right down.  And because if I didn’t side step, the steepness caused my feet to slide forward in my shoes and my toes to painfully jam into the front of my shoes with each step.  So in summary, I’m not sure if going up or down this hill sucked more. 

Once we reached the top of the giant hill that rivals the steepness of (the steepest thing you can think of) (I couldn’t think of anything really steep, so I’m hoping that you will have an awesome comparison to put in that sentence), we entered the impenetrable part of Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest.  We had a narrow trail to follow down the other side of the hill/mountain.  I frequently tripped on vines, and my hair caught in many a thorny branch.  We saw monkeys and a giant slug.  We silently followed Rita, our fearless leader, through this dense rain forest, excitedly anticipating our first glimpse of gorillas. 

to be continued…

Gorilla Tracking: part 1

Some people are blogging about what they are thankful for this week.  I am blogging about gorillas.  And I guess I am thankful for gorillas.  I’m for sure thankful for Africa.  

Turns out I didn’t want to leave out any gorilla tracking details, so instead of giving you a 10 page post to work your way through, I’m dividing it up into a few posts.  Don’t worry – they are all written and scheduled to go up, so you will be able to read our story quickly over the next few days.

Gorilla Tracking Part 1

A couple of years ago I had never even heard of gorilla tracking.  Or gorilla trekking.  No one knows which terminology is right – not even the internet.  So I can only conclude that they are both accurate. 

Then I met this girl JaNahn.   She told me it was her dream to go gorilla tracking one day.  She told me how there are not a lot of mountain gorillas left in the world, and you can buy a permit in countries like Rwanda to go up into the mountains and try and track the gorillas to see them in their natural habitat.  At the time I think I thought something like, “Huh.  That sounds really amazing.  And it also sounds like something that I would never do.  Mostly because I will never be in Africa.”

Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest

But then one day I decided to go to Africa.  And I decided to try and talk my sister into meeting me in Africa to go on a safari.  Once I learned that gorilla tracking was something that Rafiki Adventures offered with its safari packages, we knew we had to do it – and Rachel was convinced that coming to Uganda was a good idea.

smiling for a photo with Joseph of Rafiki Adventures before gorilla tracking

I didn’t really know what to expect.  I googled it and found some YouTube videos that gave me  a glimpse into what gorilla tracking would be like, but I still couldn’t envision this experience at all.  And then in the moment, I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of what we were having the opportunity to do. 

We got up early in the morning and suited up for gorilla tracking.  This included wearing long pants with socks that were tall enough to tuck our pants into them to protect us from ants; braiding Rachel’s hair; wrapping my head with one of my African headbands; and wearing actual safari colored shirts.  I wore a khaki shirt that was light weight and breathable.  At first I regretted that, as it was quite cold in the morning, but once we started hiking I was grateful for its light weight.  Our lodge served us a delicious breakfast, which included pineapple juice, fresh fruit, eggs, and bacon.

You know it is going to be a good day when you start with bacon.  You know it is going to be an even better day when you have gorillas on your itinerary. 

note the super stylish pants tucked into socks… classy!

The only thing I felt we were missing was gloves.  We didn’t know that we needed them, but my hands were a smidge ripped up at the end of the adventure because there were lots of thorny vines and trees that we ran into or grabbed for support along the way. 

Joseph and Obed drove us down to the rangers’ station at Bwindi National Park.  On the way he asked if we had our passports.  I did not – which was slightly frustrating because I had specifically asked if we needed to bring anything with us that day.  You have to buy a permit a long time before you plan to hike, so it makes sense that you need to confirm your identity.  But Joseph said it would be fine.  I felt nervous and stressed that I wouldn’t be allowed on the mountain, but this is Africa, and Joseph sweet talked my way past the no passport issue.  We settled in and watched a low-budget video about the experience and the rules.  I felt like I was back in Minnesota heading into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or on family vacation at any one of the many national parks we visited around the United States while growing up.  As the movie played, more people arrived.  There were a couple dozen mzungus ready to head out and find the gorillas.  We would soon split up into many groups, to track several different gorilla families.   First though we went outside to see how far 7 meters was.  Turns out it isn’t very far.  Seven meters is how far we were supposed to stay away from the gorillas. I am pretty sure we talked about how it was a good thing mom wouldn’t be hearing any of this until we were safely home… 

We used nice bathrooms before we left (ok, typing that from the luxury of cuddling under a warm blanket in my American home seems pretty comical.  But by African standards it was super nice.  There was a real toilet.  And a real sink.  And I think maybe even a towel??)  Our hike could last anywhere from one hour to ten hours.  We did learn that if we needed to relieve ourselves mid-hike, we could let our guide know and they would dig us a small hole.  At this point I said a small prayer that being a teacher forces you to train your bladder to wait. 

And because awkward transitions are fun… to be continued…

Gorillas: a whisper documentary

While I was our designated photographer of our safari (and let’s be honest, in life in general) Rachel was our videographer.  She took video of our various safari-ing experiences with my cute little video camera (thanks mom!).  I like seeing video because it gives of a sense of place than pictures can sometimes.

While my next safari post will be telling the full story of our gorilla trekking experience, today I am excited to share with you a video of our gorilla friends.  It is set to wonderfully cheesy music from the Lion King.  And most importantly it includes Rachel whisper-narrating her nature documentary, as any good nature documentary maker does.

I would recommend going full screen for this, and remember that my video camera doesn’t have any zoom, so how far away the gorillas are from us is really how far/close we were.  This is real life, folks.

We tracked the Habinyajna family in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  And let me tell you – there is a reason they call it impenetrable.  The video shows us on nice little paths at the beginning of our hike, but just know that this did not continue for the whole hike.  I frequently found myself tripping on vines and getting my hair caught on thorny branches as we followed our guide.  When we got close to the gorillas, the lead person had a machete and they cut through the jungle to make a path for us.  It truly was walking where no man has gone before (well, except for the 5 people walking ahead of us on the hike….)

Ok, I’ll stop there because I want to save the rest for my next post, which will have awesome pictures and tales of adventure.   Watch my movie!  Do it!  Then you can pretend you were along with us for the tracking.

And then tell me if I am the only person that tries to lean around people in the video to better see the baby gorilla on the mom’s back, only to remember I’m watching a movie and leaning to my left won’t give me a better view of what is happening…

Gorilla Trekking from Laura Karsjens on Vimeo.