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Gorillas in our Midst

A days trek to visit our brethren

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We had not really planned on visiting the mountain gorillas. Permits have to be arranged months in advance and, well, we don’t really plan in advance. But when we were presented with the option to buy permits last minute from a Spanish couple who could not make the trip we could not refuse. We dug deep into our reserve cash deposits; remembering a generous gift from a certain Aunt who wanted us to do something special. A decision we would not regret.

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The mountain gorilla shares 97% of our genetic makeup and is only found in three countries of the world. Uganda is home to slightly more the half of the population with a bit over 300 gorillas living in two national parks. The rest call the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda home. This is an incredibly endangered species. One way in which conservation is accomplished is through tourism. Gorillas live in defined groups and maintain home territories. Different groups with in the park have been “habitulized” in such they do not fear humans any longer. Each group can be visited for one hour per day by no more then eight tourists. By charging tourists an incredible amount of money for permits the governments and local communities have a value in maintaining the viability of the gorillas. Otherwise this great animal would have been lost to poachers.

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Out of Camp by 7:00 we had an hours drive on rugged road before we got to the park HQ were we would start our day. The early morning mist hung low in the valleys of the surrounding forest. The sunlight on the mist was absolutely beautiful. After a quick briefing at the ranger station we were off with our guide John as well as an armed escort just incase of any trouble with wild Elephants who also live in the park. We set out on established trail but before long we were off the trail and testing the name; Impenetrable Forest. It took over 4 hours to find the Gorillas.

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Morning sun lighting up the mist
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Penetrating the Impenetrable!
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Africa’s Primary Rainforest is the oldest natural habitat in Africa as it survived the last ice age 12,000 to 18,000 years ago. How much longer will it last?

A tracking team set out in front of us to the spot were the group was seen the day before. Then, using their tracking skills they followed evidence of their movement through the forest to were they nested for the night and then on to their current location. Once the gorillas had been spotted the advance trackers called in on the radio and we headed straight to their location. The guides and trackers are able to do all of this without any type of GPS or location devices, just from their extensive knowledge of the forest. Moving on the route becomes immediately more difficult. We leave the faint trail and dive into the “impenetrable forest”. Machetes come out as we made our way straight up and down the steep terrain which was covered in dense bush. The anticipation built as we slowly moved through the forest. It was over 2 hours from the time we received the call until we finally met up with the advance team. Here the going got even tougher. Multiple times we had to slide down the hillside on our butts and crawl on our hands and knees through freshly cut tunnels in the bush.

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When we first approached the gorillas they were on the steep hillside and before we were able to climb ua and get close they moved further up over a ridge. We had a second encounter in dense undergrowth were we could just barely spot a 400 pound silverback male peering out from behind a tree. The gorillas kept on moving and I was starting to fear that this would be the limit of our visit with them. After more heavy machete work and crawling through tunnels in the bush we came out in a long open corridor were a few juveniles took time to check us out while feeding.
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They moved on and we followed them a short way and into a large clearing. Almost 5 hours after departing the park HQ, we found the entire family of over 20 Mountain gorillas. It was incredible, a sight I will remember for all my life. Nshongi, the alpha male, was front and center and gave us a long inquisitive look. Mature male gorillas become silver or gray over their arms and back and are therefore called silverbacks. Other females and adolescents were moving about in and out of the open allowing us to view most of the family at once. Apparently in the dense vegetation this is not common and our guide let us know that we were really lucky to see them like this. A female with a newborn baby on her back walked right through the center of the clearing followed by another silverback.

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Nshongi
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Nshongi and Family

The second silverback gave us the best viewing of the day slowly walking through the clearing, stopping to check us out, and then rolling around on his back. Some of the young ones were playing around in the trees putting on a good show. Towards the end of our hour, almost on queue, the gorillas started to move back into the forest and a few climbed high in the surrounding trees. Our final view of the day was a large female lounging on a tree branch watching as we slipped away back into the forest. The time went by fast but the experience will last a lifetime. Our way out required a lot more bushwhacking and slipping and sliding down a steep hillside until we got on to a small trail that brought us back to the park headquarters.

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We retuned back to our camp just after dark to hot water waiting for our “bush” showers lit by oil lantern. We spent the evening replaying the images in our heads of such a magical experience. We met a researcher who had been studying the gorillas for the past 17 years. She was using the camp as a base to do her research, a luxury compared to her early days camping in the forest. We had a long conversation about the gorillas, the habituation process, and the impact of tourism found in her work. It was a fascinating conclusion to such an incredible day.

Posted by pmunson 11:47 Archived in Uganda

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Comments

What an amazing trip through the forest and finally being rewarded by a once maybe in a life time experience to view the gorillas in a open area. I think i saw a documentary on the women who has been there for 17 years. Robin

by robin chandlerr

Words escape me...just WOW!!!!!! and WOW again!!!

by Mom M.

You finally found Uncle Charlie!! Cingradulations!! Amazing!

Dad

by Dad

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