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Up close and personal with Uganda’s mountain gorillas

Posted Mar 10 2011 4:45pm
masai warriors Uganda Africa

Masai warriors

Not many people can say they’ve been slapped on the bum by a silverback.

Some might tell a similar tongue-in-cheek story set in a nasty bar somewhere in the backstreets of Sydney – but I was ‘felt-up’ by an actual, real-life, wild gorilla during a recent trip to Uganda.

Unlike the majority of tourists who pay to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat from a safe distance, my small group of trekkers got up close and personal with our frisky family of primates… A little too close for comfort, frankly.

It all took place in the aptly named Impenetrable Forest, near Bwindi, in the south of Uganda.

Our guide – a man who had been trekking the forest for more than seven years in gum boots – lead our group on the arduous climb in search of our 17-strong family of gorillas. Because the gorillas were constantly on the move – finding them was the hard part.

Our guide and a team of researchers communicated via walkie-talkies to locate them and we were given an estimate of 1 hour of trekking to reach our destination.It took closer to 3 hours and, despite being relatively fit, the climb was extremely difficult. There were no walking trails and the forest was dense with stinging nettles and fallen branches. The guide literally cut our path as best he could with a machete as we pulled ourselves higher grabbing hold of trees. To put it in perspective, one member of my group was a marathon runner and even she was out of breath. I was close to tears.

The trek itself was part of the adventure though and my heart was in my mouth for much of it. At one point we were told to move quickly because there were forest elephant in the vicinity. On foot and totally exposed – coming face-to-face with an elephant was a frightening prospect, but I couldn’t help but wonder how it was possible for an animal as large as an elephant to navigate the steep terrain, given how hard I found it to haul my butt up the mountain.

After an hour or so, we passed a chimpanzee nest – silently, I thanked God no one was home and this time wondered why on earth I was out searching for great apes if monkeys were enough to freak me out.

Finally our guide slowed, turned to us and pointed up. It was our first gorilla sighting. The gorilla – one of the dominant males – peered down at us through the leaves and began making his way to the forest floor.

The guide signalled to us to make our way down the mountain. There was a baby under a bush.

infant gorilla Uganda

Excited, I was the first to follow the guide’s directions and I was busily taking photos of the little black ball of fluff when the guide calmly asked me to climb a few metres further up the mountain.

What I didn’t realise at the time, was that a large silverback was charging me from behind. I had made the mistake of blocking his view to the baby and the silverback was not happy – understandably.

But because the guides were not able to raise their voices, I didn’t understand the seriousness of my predicament. I slowly made my way back to the guide and just as I got there, I felt something solid swipe my backside.

Being slapped on the bum by the gorilla was a shock, but I had no way of preparing for what came next. It seemed the cheeky grab wasn’t really meant for me. Instead, it was the guide the gorilla wanted and I was just in the way. Extending his massive arm, the gorilla dragged the guide by the foot several metres down the mountain.

The guide thrusted his machete in the air and scrambled out of the gorilla’s grasp. Clearly this was just a warning. If the gorilla had meant business, the guide would not have stood a chance. We had gotten too close to his baby and he was letting us know it wasn’t on. Fair enough – I wasn’t arguing!

As the drama calmed, something magical happened. The little ball of black fluff at the centre of the ruckus emerged from under the bush. I was close enough to touch him, but by that stage, I knew better.

And the silverback wasn’t taking any chances. He moved to position himself protectively between the little one and us. Again – my need for personal space was rudely ignored.

It wasn’t long before we were surrounded by several other family members, slowly making their way down the mountain. I’d heard of people having outer body experiences before and I think this was as close as I have ever been to that. I couldn’t believe how privileged I was. The researchers with us grunted to communicate with the gorillas, which seemed to put them at ease.

In the safety talk prior to the trek, the guide had told us that we were not allowed to get closer than five metres from the gorillas. I didn’t consider the possibility that they would be the ones to come even closer to us.

As we prepared to leave their world, we were granted a parting gift. One of the juniors stood on his hind legs and beat his chest in a show of masculinity to his brothers and sisters – like a little boy squeezing his arms to show off his muscles. It was an incredible moment to witness and I felt lucky.

I was completely naïve when I signed up for the gorilla trek. The stories I had heard were about placid gorillas that were indifferent to the tourists around them as they ate foliage and played with their young. To say the least, my experience was far more interactive…

I’m not going to lie – there were moments during the gorilla trek when I was seriously scared. The truth of it is, I was in their backyard. But it was also a highlight of my life. And the slap on the bottom left a little souvenir – a small bruise to remember them by.

zambezi sunset Uganda Africa

Zambezi sunset

masai women Uganda Africa

Masai women

Photography © Donna Sawyer

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