Water? Packed! Food? Packed! Camera? Ready! Sense of adventure? Packed! Reaching the Ruschaga station early morning after 2 hours driving through a mystic and thick mist, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. Our group of 7 enthusiastic gorillas trekkers was simply happy to be here, able to get a chance to face a silverback we all had once dreamt about. We only knew that our day could be very long as gorillas can be on the move once they have eaten all the fruits in the area. We were given a short briefing to make sure we were informed about security and behavior to adopt around those beautiful animals.
After being assigned a ranger, Amos, we were asked to jump back on the van to drive to Nyabaremura where we met our two security guards, Isaac and Winzi, and started hiking. The guns were a necessity, we were told, as the jungle where we would hike was the home of savanna elephants. Years ago, the road between Queen Elisabeth and Bwindi got cut and the savanna elephants found themselves stranded in the forest. Unable to adjust, they can be quite agressive and for our safety, we needed those two armed guards. We were also teamed up with two trackers who were already in the forest, trying to send us updates on the whereabouts of the family we were to track.
After hiking for two hours, on a very steep trail, through a beautiful forest, with short water breaks, our hearts started to race when we were heard those three words: “they are close”. We left the trail, followed our guards off road and entered the gorilla family territory. We were by then literally walking in the air, our floor being a simple entanglement of vines. It could have been the excitement but none us considered even questioning this non-sense. We were following professionals after all. What could possibly happen? Adrienne, our lovely New Zealander fellow traveler, made a point to wait for me as I was slower than slow and soon, Amos, Adrienne, Marco and I were separated from our group. We could hear the sound of a gorilla, we felt it was close, very close. I can confidently say now that we had no idea how close it was. Suddenly, a giant silverback stormed out of a bush, determined to take one of us down. Amos grabbed Adrienne and Marco and I froze, trying to stay as still as possible, leaving a corridor between us 4 for the gorilla to go through. So hard to describe what I felt at this exact moment when I realized a 250 kg beast was charging at us. Fascination, fear, respect and excitement submerged me all at once. I’m grateful Luigi (this name was given to him as he is in charge of closing after his group and Luigi means door in Rukiga language) only passed through, trying his best to scare us away.
It could have worked, I guess but our fascination was too big, we had gone too far to see the gorillas and we were too close to turn around. We had taken the warning seriously but we were not about to give up. Only Shane, our Australian tripmate, commented out loud on the irony of the situation with a point of sarcasm: “This makes perfectly sense to follow something that can kill you”. He was right, of course but full of adrenalin, we all rushed behind our trackers that were running through the dense vines and suddenly the area cleared up and we saw at least 3 silverbacks, several young gorillas and a female. Grateful and admirative, I stood there, looking at them, playing together, eating, hiding from us when we were too invasive for their liking. I missed a lot of shots while standing there simply watching but these instants will remain forever with me and for them, I’m grateful.
After an hour observing Ruziika (means stubborn in Rukiga language) and its family, it was time for us to leave. Greedy and foolhardy, some of us got closer to Ruziika. We were quickly reminded that this was HIS territory and we were bound to follow his rules. He stormed out of his bush and charged at us, beating his chest, clearly annoyed by our audacity. We all stood still while he passed through our group, screaming loudly. Luckily, Ruziika was merciful and meant no harm but we had to leave. At once, our group gathered. We said goodbye (or Kali kali) to “our” gorillas and after one last look, we started hiking back. 6 hours, 16 km, countless happy memories, 2 massive shocks and a graduation (we even received a diploma for being an official gorilla trekker!), we were back in the village we had started from. We were welcomed by a group of women who performed traditional dances. A perfect way to end a perfect day! Thanks Amos and Uganda for giving us the opportunity to spend an hour with those beautiful animals!
Next stop: Kampala.
Happy tails and remember: Carpe Diem!