We departed early for the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, in the southwestern corner of Uganda, hoping to see mountain gorillas in the wild. For the first three quarters of the climb it was just me, my guide, Benjamin, and our armed guard, Julius, who was needed both because we were travelling close to international borders and in case we bumped into an angry elephant or buffalo.
A few sticky, humid hours later, having climbed to a height of almost 3,000 metres above sea level, we reached the gorillas. The scenery was stunning: we were on the slope of a chain of now extinct volcanoes where the flora and fauna are spectacular, thanks to the rich, fertile soil. The vegetation was all lush and green following the previous night’s heavy rain, and we travelled through thick bamboo and then into thicker rainforest, with trees covered with old man’s beard and lichen. There we met up with the trackers who had located the group of gorillas.
There are only just over 700 mountain gorillas left in the world, 320 of which are in Uganda, and I was about to have the privilege of meeting nine of them. The group consisted of three majestic silverbacks (dominant males), two blackbacks (sexually mature males up to 11 years of age), two females and two infants.
Evidence of the gorillas’ presence can be found long before you see them – specifically, fibrous green excrement, the product of their 99-per-cent vegetarian diet of leaves and bamboo, littering the forest floor. (The remaining one per cent consists of ants, eaten one at a time!) Then you begin to hear them in the distance: what sounds like a drum beat is, in fact, a male beating his chest.
Snapping branches made me realise the gorillas were in the canopy above my head. Hoping for a face-to-face meeting, we sat and looked up for a while. Slowly, an arm and a hand emerged from the leaves; a few minutes later, a face peered down at us with interest.
Then came the meeting that totally blew me away: the dominant silverback appeared, in all his glory, around a clump of bamboo. He was vast – much bigger than I had imagined. I felt dwarfed next to this colossal beast. Such confidence and power, and what a swagger! Silverbacks tip the scales at over 200 kilograms, and there was no mistaking who was boss. He walked sedately towards our party; we had been instructed to stand together in order to appear less threatening. We backed away as he approached, clearly testing us. Then he stopped, surveyed us a little more and finally sat down to munch on some bamboo. If we got too close he moved, darting off into the undergrowth. The smell was potent, but not unpleasant – almost spicy and fresh.
We wandered around the forest and came across the two blackbacks and a female, who sat eating as I watched, transfixed. They are fascinating creatures: despite being huge, they are gentle and affectionate with one another, lying together and copying each other’s movements.
Time went so quickly just watching these gorillas carrying out their daily habits. Visitors are only permitted to spend an hour a day with a group, so I was keen to find the children in the remaining time. As we wandered down the slope, we found them playing at the alpha silverback’s feet. The little ones were very cute, chasing each other around the forest floor before putting on an acrobatics show, swinging through the bamboo. When one caught sight of me, he stopped, and I interpreted his look as one of surprise and curiosity.
These truly are the most glorious creatures and, if you ever have the chance to visit them, I would implore you to do so! I feel honoured and privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time in their presence.