I Dream of Gorillas.
If you asked the five year old version of me what I dreamed of, you would get the following response, "I want to go to Africa and see gorillas". If you asked the same question 25 years later, you would get the same response along with a laundry list of others. Seeing gorillas in the wild has been something I've looked forward to my entire life. This past trip to Africa, I was asked to assist with a project in Uganda. When I heard the country name, I immediately thought GORILLAS! You can imagine the excitement. So from there, I started looking up trekking tours and permits and as I expected it was insanely expensive! I knew I had to figure out a way to make my dream come true. I started putting money aside and reaching out to as many tour operators I could. I figured I could at least try to get a discount being a volunteer in the country and all.
A few months went by and a friend sent me a link about the gorilla permits doubling in price next year. That was all I needed to hear to put my butt in gear! I decided on a safari company, sent the deposit and picked my dates! I didn't care about my cell phone bill, rent or even eating for the next few weeks. I was going to see gorillas. On July 4th, I set off with my colleague and friend to Uganda. The 31 hour flight was exhausting and quite turbulent (not a fan of bumpy plan rides). I brought in my birthday during the KLM flight with a glass of champagne and a toast to the gorillas. I turned 31 three times on that flight (with the time change). After we landed, I was hit with a bad case of Vertigo and spent the next few days recovering.
We set off for work in Lira, Uganda for the next ten days (which I will write about in a another post). On the eleventh day, our tour guide picked us up. Insight Safari Holidays guide, Nasser, was to be our guide over the next few days. We hit it off immediately and set off on our eight hour journey to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Just seeing and hearing the name should give you an idea of what we were in for. It isn't called impenetrable for nothing! After a few stops along the way for food, we arrived at Gorilla Safari Lodge. We were greeted by a very warm and welcoming staff and shown to our room. I have to say, for 'budget' accommodation, this place was amazing! Our room overlooked the park and in just the first five minutes on the balcony, I saw at least six different humming bird species. We threw our bags down and set off to explore. We met a few village children that ran up the hill to greet us, shared some snacks, talked about life or cookies, something like that. After dinner, we headed to bed pretty early as the hike would start at 7:00 a.m.
In the morning, Nasser picked us up at breakfast and took us to the entrance of the park. I pulled him aside and asked if he could put in a good for us to see a gorilla family with babies. We were put into our groups and told to choose a walking stick. Let me tell you, choosing your walking stick is like choosing your wedding dress. It means everything. I didn't know this until after the hike but I am sharing with you now. We were put in a group with a few young couples, college kids and individuals and off we went!
About an hour into the hike, I quickly realized this was no easy trail. We were going straight up a mountain through trees, vines and mud. My friend and I became the people in the group that slow everyone else down. It was quite embarrassing but we pushed on. Three hours in, one of the trekkers started making calls to other trekkers to locate the gorillas. He heard that we were close...just 15 minutes away...or an hour and a half (same thing in Uganda). Regardless, the announcement gave me the extra push to keep going. As we approached, you could hear rustling in the trees and I knew we had made it. There they were in all of their glory. There really are no words to describe the feeling of being in their presence. I sat down in front of one of the males just three meters away. He looked at me and I looked at him. We had this moment of understanding. He knew I meat no harm. I wasn't scared even though I knew he could charge or even kill me if he wanted to. I felt calm, at ease and in just such disbelief that they were there, right in front of me. When you wait for something for so long, sometimes it's hard to believe it is real.
We sat there for an hour watching the family eat, groom and play. It was the most astonishing 60 minutes of my life. Being in their presence was like living out a fairytale for me. Surreal. I hope to go back next year as a partner with the park and local villages aiding them in their community-based conservation programs. Now that I've seen them, I know I must do something to save them. Mountain Gorillas are critically endangered with under one thousand living in the wild. Deforestation and local population growth are threatening the survival of these amazing species. As humans encroach on their land, diseases such as pneumonia, flu and ebola spread. Read more on this issue at World Wildlife Fund (WWF).