November 6, 2014 – Mubare Gorilla Trek (Kanyonyi the Silverback Mountain Gorilla + 2 gorillas)
The mountain gorilla became known to science on October 17, 1902. By 1960, there were believed to be 400-500 mountain gorillas in the world. However, that number had dropped to 240 by 1979, due to poaching. Thanks to conservation efforts, the population of mountain gorillas had increased to 620 individuals by 1989 and to 880 individuals today in 2012. This number is likely to be accurate, as these animals have been intensely monitored since the 1950s. The Virunga population numbers 480. Most of these gorillas range within the southern part of Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Volcanoes National Park, northern Rwanda, while a few use the Mgahinga National Park, in southwestern Uganda. The Bwindi population of 400 individuals was recorded in a 2012 census. Males weigh up to 400 pounds and stand 6 feet tall. Females weigh up to 215 pounds and stand 5 feet. The average lifespan is 40-50 years. There are a total of 36 gorilla families in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, however, only 11 of these families are habituated and can be accessed by visitors. According to Uganda Wildlife Association (UWA) conservation rules, only 8 adult visitors can be allowed to track each of the habituated gorilla group each day, and then they are only allowed to stay for one hour. We saved money by going during rainy season (November, April, & May). The permits cost us $350 each, instead of the normal $600 during high season, but since we went two days, it was twice the amount. Had we gone to Rwanda, it would have cost $700 per person per hour. Supposedly, it’s a less rigorous hike to the gorillas.
The day began, and after a good breakfast, we chose a carved gorilla hiking stick from the lodge, and Rogers took us to the Bwindi headquarters where we got information on the do’s and don’ts of trekking to see the gorillas.
- We were to stay 7 meters away, which is about 23 feet
- No flash photography
- What to do if a gorilla charges (crouch down and don’t stare him in the eyes),
- What not to do (sneeze, eat or drink in front of the gorillas, pollute the forest, or go at all if we had any illness – as gorillas share 98% of our DNA, which makes them especially vulnerable to human germs).
After, the guide spent about 10 minutes giving us his informative talk, he told us that one additional reason for talking to us for so long was so that he could observe us, to make sure we weren’t sneezing or coughing, so as to protect the gorillas.
The guides got together and decided which tourists would visit each family of gorillas. I was certain that they were sizing us up as there were different degrees of difficulty to trek to see each the families and the gorilla families move from day to day. The treks are: easy, intermediate, and difficult. We are told that we will be seeing the Mubare group which has the intermediate rating.
We drove to a grassy glade at the foot of the mountains, near the sacred fig tree, parking between a redbrick school and a simple church. We will be taking the same path we took when we visited the Batwa Pygmy tribe. We’re in a group of five German tourists, including their 77 year old mom. That’s a good sign. Once again, I was grateful we had hired porters. Mark’s porter was named Anthony and mine was Provia. She’s 20 year old girl. They carried our packs and pushed and pulled us up the narrow, sometimes slippery trail. It is a 1.86 mile hike with a 1,200 ft. rise in elevation. It was a beautiful day. We passed by the Batwa Cultural Experience meeting place and went up and over the hill. The main guide, Medie, along with Godrey, used a machete to cut a path through the thick brush. We had armed guards in case we would come upon an elephant or wild gorilla. I was wearing my bug shirt and pants and was dripping from the humidity and exercise. As we proceeded, Medie got the word from the trackers that they knew the location of the gorilla family, and we pushed forward in that direction. A little farther ahead, we were told that we were told to get our cameras ready and to take one last drink of water. This was the place where we were to go ahead with the guide and guards. Our porters stayed behind and took care of our backpacks and we headed on with cameras in hand. There was no trail and I was having difficulty with my footing climbing over slippery vines and branches. We saw some rustling in the bushes ahead. Medie and Godfrey hacked a clearing right up to the silverback Kanyonyi, exposing him for us to see. Our hour long gorilla encounter had begun! I couldn’t believe that the Kanyonyi would allow them to cut away the branches so close to him. He seemed not to care. Later, Medie told us that he has known Kanyonyi since the 1980’s, when he was young and they were learning who was in the different gorilla families. We took lots of photos with everyone trying to get a better angle. As Kanyonyi would move, we would follow him, and Medie and Godfrey would then hack an opening so that we could see. We were much closer than 23 feet, and we are very happy to have this opportunity. Then, while trying to get into position to take a photo, I twisted my knee. It felt as though it was stuck out of whack and I had to let the camera hang from my neck so that I could use both hands to pop my knee back in place. Ouch! Surprisingly, it seemed like it was okay. We continued to take photos and followed Kanyonyi wherever he went. Then he started pooping and it got stuck in his butt. No problem, he pulled it out! He also farted, which was kind of funny. He kept moving around and Medie and Godfrey, dutifully, cut new openings with their machetes. Then, Kanyonyi walked right past the 77 year old and Mark. Did he like their silver hair? We were so close! They saw a female with a baby, but from where I was, I couldn’t see them. It’s part of the problem of being short! At least, Mark got a glimpse of them. Finally, our hour was up but they gave us an additional five minutes, but about the same time, Kanyonyi decided his time was up with us and left, so that took care of that! We headed back, and met up with our porters. We got our packs situated and started back. We stopped in a clearing to eat lunch, and then continued on our way. It seemed more treacherous because of the slipping and sliding down the trail. Provia and Anthony kept me on my feet and kept us moving quickly, as we could hear thunder. If it had started raining it could have quickly become dangerous. I was glad when we made it back to the ranger station, where we thanked and paid our porters. We gathered with our group and received our gorilla trekking certificates and said our goodbyes. Rogers was there and took us back to the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp. We took showers and relaxed. What a great day. Some other guests had arrived. It was a group of six from Minneapolis – two families, each with a 20-something year old boy. Then another group of 5-6 from the UK and Italy showed up. This group was visiting the hospital and school as part of a team that oversees them. It was nice to not have the camp all to ourselves as it made lively. Mr. Herman came back to entertain by the campfire, but we watched from the dining room and enjoyed a nice meal before being escorted back to our tent. The room attendant hadn’t returned our laundry…oh well. The hot water bottle is nice to have in the bed to chase the chill away. ~Mary & Mark
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