“Whatever you do, don’t run if a Gorilla Charges at you” are the last words you remember hearing as your life flashes before your eyes. As everyone falls back, you are left standing motionless, adrenaline pumping, wide-eyed, the leader of the pack. “Crouch down & look away!” you hear, as 230Kg of Silverback muscle charges towards you. Close enough to smell its breath, you can’t help but stare into its eyes as the fight or flight syndrome kicks in. “Screw this” is your final thought as you run through the bushes and towards the trees. People screaming, guides shouting, everyone running caught up in a perfect moment of chaos. A moment that somehow manages to slow down time.
Back in the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, you run through a drill that had clearly been rehearsed to perfection. “If a Gorilla charges, don’t run”, “If a Gorilla makes eye contact, look away”, “If a Gorilla approaches, crouch down”. As you casually sign a document to abide by these simple rules, you forget to ask what happens if a rule is broken. A question that you nervously discuss with other members of the expedition. A question that you never though you would be responsible for answering.
As mosquito’s feast on every inch of your uncovered flesh, you wipe the sweat from your brow while following a well trodden path deep into the tropical wilderness. As you acquaint yourself with other members of the expedition team, you scramble beneath pristine jungle canopies and climb over decomposing trees that seem to give way like soft soil beneath your feet, all under the watchful eye of a military armed escort.
As you take in the spectacular jungle scenery from the top of a mountain pass, you slowly head towards the disputed Congo border while discussing the conservation of Mountain Gorillas. “It’s all out war” says a soldier, “Last month a poacher killed my friend… It’s ok, a week later we killed four of them!” As you stop for a moment to have a drink and take in the surreal conversation, you hear a call over the radio. “The scouts have located the Gorillas. They are half way down the side of a mountain. We must move quickly, we must take a short cut” says the excited and animated guide.
As the guide waves a machete around like a mad man on drugs, he chops a ‘short cut’ through the jungle as you cautiously follow, springing over a padded ground of leaves and compost. As the thorn bushes and twisting vines entangle your body, you soon find yourself crawling under cascading ferns and wild sprawling undergrowth. Occasionally stepping though a giant ant colony, you feel them bite, drawing blood, making their way towards your underwear as if they had systematically attacked the human anatomy with precision before.
Using the trees for support you follow the guide down a vertical mountain pass towards oblivion, creating a level of insanity and adventure that could only rival the world’s most dangerous tourist route. As the vertical pressure causes your toes to cramp, your legs begin to ache while balancing on the loose earth giving way beneath your feet. In the haze of exhaustion, you lose your footing and slide down the mountain, grabbing on to vines, crashing past others, taking them out as you go.
Unprepared and misinformed you soon find yourself on an insane adventure descending deep into mountain terrain. With insufficient water and a lack of food you begin to suffer dehydration and headaches as exhaustion kicks in. While the guide gets turned around and lost, the guard swings his AK47 around like a toy. As you stop for a moment to catch your breath, you suddenly hear a low vibrating rumble, a deep prolonged snore.
Turning around, you find yourself face to face with a Mountain Gorilla. You quickly move back, fighting the urge to run. The Gorilla is big, bigger than you ever imagined. So human it’s shocking. While the Silverback stands its ground like a grumpy old man, other gorillas play, swinging from trees and fighting under a bush. You stand frozen, in shock, ready to scream, ready to run.
It charges, everyone steps back. It charges again, everyone scrambles back. For some reason you remain frozen. The only one left at the front, now the leader of the pack. As the Silverback stares at you with intent, he makes himself large, grunting, charging forward, stopping, snorting, charging again, and testing your composure.
You stand there amazed, everyone in shock. Is this really happening? You try to remember the rules. “If a Gorilla looks away, it’s going to charge?”, “If a Gorilla crouches, make eye contact?”, “If a Gorilla Charges, Step back?” what if a Gorilla looks really angry? What if he keeps grunting? What if he is a metre from my face? No one told me anything about grunting!
In the haze of shouting, running and mayhem, you are suddenly stood behind a tree! The team standing in elevated positions meters from where they once were. Everyone in deadly silence with eyes wide open, soldiers protecting the group. The Silverback calmly standing where you once left him with a strange look on his face. A look of bemusement, a look of satisfaction, and a look as if he had been entertained!
As the Silverback eventually relaxes around the expedition team, you finally get to spend an hour with the Mountain Gorillas and observe their human like behaviour. While the mother Gorilla peers at you from behind the bushes, young Gorillas play in the trees, while others try to make them fall. The Silver-back standing by, watching closely, occasionally grunting, the grumpy old man that he is.
Mzungus In The Mist.
(The Bwindi Nkuringo Group)
How To Do It
It is possible to negotiate the cost of a Gorilla Permit from tour operators. It is not a fixed cost of $500 United States Dollars as the Ugandan Wildlife Authority and Lonely Planet would lead you to believe. We paid $300 United States Dollars each. The permit includes guide, walking sticks and soldiers for your protection.
It only costs 30,000 Ugandan Shillings ($10 United States Dollars) to get a local bus from Kampala to Kisoro.
When purchasing the permit from a tour operator, ask to get a lift from Kisoro to Bwindi on the morning of the trek. Ask nicely and they should provide this free of charge.
Accommodation in Kisoro costs 30,000 Ugandan Shillings ($10 United States Dollars) each if you stay at Hotel Virungas.
On the day of the trek, take 3 litres of water, long trousers, long top, and gardening gloves to protect your hands.
Keep your hands free to grab hold of vines. Accept the offer of a stick from the guide to support yourself down the mountains.
It is a difficult trek into the heart of the jungle. There are no hiking trails. This is the real deal, so make sure you are fit.
Total cost: $320 United States Dollars