The rustling in the undergrowth grew louder. And then, from behind a tree, a fully grown male silverback gorilla sauntered into view. Without glancing at us he knuckled away.
Breathlessly I took stock of our surroundings. We had emerged out of the damp forest canopy where the air was heavy with the smell of decomposing leaf matter and into a large sloping meadow. As my eyes accustomed to the daylight I could see, among the stomach-high ferns and brush, other black shapes. The trackers had done their work well. We had found the Habinyanja family of mountain gorillas.
Of the three ‘habituated’ gorilla groups around Buhoma the Habinyanja have been known to roam the furthest. That morning as we checked in at the Bwindi National Park headquarters we had been informed that finding this group meant either a stiff three hour hike down into the Munyaga valley, up the steep hillsides that presented themselves across the other side of the river, and then down the far slope. Or we could cheat – an hour drive east along twisting roads to a trailhead and then a shorter trek into the rainforest from there. We took the latter option.
At the trailhead the villagers gathered around, regarding us with some curiosity. The folk out here in the hills were noticeably poorer than those I had passed along the main roads, the houses unpainted, the children clad in brown sacking. I pulled on my pack and we set off towards where the trackers had located the gorillas. There were twelve of us in total. Our party was comprised of seven tourists (two Americans, two Germans and two other young Brits as well as myself), our Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger, David, two armed guards, and a couple of porters that had been hired at Buhoma. From the village the trail led up to a ridge overlooking the village’s tea and millet fields. A lone tree was hung with the spherical nests of weaver birds. And ahead stood a sudden dark wall, the abrupt start of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Brightly coloured butterflies fluttered around the forest eaves.for contrast.
Once inside the forest the footing was treacherous. We were hacking through the undergrowth, sidling between trunks and stepping over roots and brush. And all this while negotiating slippery slopes. We conversed in subdued whispers only, aware that we were intruding into an ancient ecosystem. After only about forty-five minutes of walking we came upon our two trackers. David gave us last minute instructions. Here we would leave our packs and sticks. I also took the opportunity to divest myself of my rain coat. The armed guards and porters would also remain here. The gorillas were not far. Remember: make no sudden movements, and never approach to within seven metres of a gorilla.
The thing is, I don’t think anyone had ever told the gorillas about the seven metres rule. Sat down amidst the scrub, eating placidly at the freshest stalks, they were sometimes surprisingly hard to spot despite their size. We would stumble upon them by chance. On one occasion I was at most two-and-a-half metres away from one of the adult females. I think the fairest thing to say was that these mighty mountain dwellers tolerated our presence. They would put up with us, but only for so long. When we reached their tolerance levels they would rise up and amble off. Otherwise they were very docile. They sat there chomping on leaves and bamboo, scratching and grunting and – all too infrequently - turning to appraise us with their big brown eyes, liquid eyes the colour of melted chocolate. There was intelligence in their gazes. It actually made me feel rather sad and humble that after everything we humans had ever done to the mountain gorillas they were still prepared to accept me into their world as a guest.
We had an hour with the gorillas. Slowly and steadily we began to move into the meadow to see more of the family. We saw the one-eyed alpha female, Kisho. The blackback (an adult male but submissive to the silverback) Maraya kept his distance. Stepping back into the forest eaves we found one of the juveniles – Hamusini I think - napping. Emerging again we saw a beautiful sight. One of the females was hunkered down, while her baby clambered over our head. Like a wizened hairy pixie the baby sat boldly on her shoulder and stared in puzzlement at us. No other moment of the entire experience felt quite so much like I had stepped into a staged show of animatronic models.
Turning to my right I made eye-contact with Makara, the silverback. It was interesting to see how the silverbacks differed from the other gorillas, even the other adult male. His head had the high domed shape we know from King Kong rather than the low rounded profile of the others. And of course he had that icing-sugar dusting across his broad shoulders and down his back. Being top dog in an individual family brings on these characteristics. He wasn’t doing much to protect his harem it must be said. Previously he had shambled away from us at every opportunity. Now he squatted on the other side of a tree, keeping a watch on our activities through the bamboo. Abruptly he rose and grunted an instruction. One by one the other gorillas also pulled themselves to their feet and followed him as he shouldered his way through the underbrush and up into the trees. Our hour was up.
I cannot express how humbled and privileged I felt to spend time in the world of these magnificent creatures. In fact I feel bad even using the word ‘creatures’ – these were beautiful beings with their own clearly defined personalities. There was more intelligence and humanity in their gazes than one could find in those of many politicians and bankers. This was their world, and they were a species on the edge. The Habinyanja family group comprises eighteen individuals. To put it into context, I had spent the morning with 2.5% of all the mountain gorillas that still exist in the world. Despite mankind’s hunting and poaching, despite our destruction of the environment they need to survive, these gorillas were still prepared to allow me to walk amongst them, if only for an hour.
Driving back from the trailhead I began to see in my surroundings the threats to these incredible creatures. Deforestation – whether for logging or for opening more space for tea plantations – was the main one. I just hope that the efforts of the conservationists to make the people that live alongside the gorillas realise that they are worth more alive and free than dead or in a cage are successful.