Meeting Africa’s Most Enigmatic Animal
Imagine spending hours following a narrow hiking trail through a dense and unforgiving tropical rain forest, the canopy above allowing only a trickle of sunlight through – enough to give your surroundings an almost magical ambiance. You feel tired but energized at the same time, the sounds, sights and smells enveloping you in a cocoon of enchantment. Imagine you hear a rustle of leaves up ahead and you know that somebody (or something) is coming towards you through the forest. It is the tracker, Matsiko, who has been scouting ahead of your group returning from his mission with a look of excitement on his face and three heavily accented words: “They are here”.
My heart nearly bounced out of my chest
At that moment in time I felt a surge of pure exhilaration, and from hearing the gasps around me, I was sure that the rest of the group was feeling exactly the same. Our guide Ssali told us we should try not to be too fast or too loud and we followed him through an even narrower trail. I remember thinking that if Matsiko and Ssali left us there right then, we would be hippopotamus food by breakfast time. The previous day I received a thorough education about hippos. I was now aware that: hippos sweat pink, hippos can’t jump and that hippos kill more people than any other animals in Africa. And there I had been worried about lions all along. Anyway, I was not there to see hippopotami or lions, I was about to see one of Africa’s most treasured and endangered animals: the gorilla.
A life-changing experience
I first noticed the contrast of their enormous glossy black bodies against the brilliant green of the rainforest. Then I saw their eyes and I was transfixed. I did not expect these brilliant beasts’ eyes to look almost human. I was more than happy to stop and quietly sit and observe the gorillas in their natural habitat for the next hour. They go about their business with facial expressions and gestures so similar to humans, I felt quite emotional. Young gorillas play around like little children, females tenderly nurture their babies while others gather together and groom one another. The patriarchal male sits back and keeps a watchful eye on the groups, both human and primate. In what felt like a few minutes the hour was up and we started making our way back to camp. Somehow the journey back felt quieter and lighter. I think everybody was profoundly touched by visiting these amazing creatures who share 98% of our DNA.
Where you can see gorillas and why everybody should go
Gorilla treks are available in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. I chose Uganda because Bwindi caught my eye. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty and wildlife. Hundreds of bird species and types of butterflies all live here. It also takes at least a day to get there from the airport in the capital of Kampala, which is exactly the sort of thing I relish. With all the stops I ended up taking three amazing days to get there. Whichever country you choose, prepare well. You have to have a reasonable level of fitness, be prepared for extreme weather and make sure you have all the permits and visas in place. As to why gorilla trekking is so important, the gorilla population in Uganda has grown by a third over the past few years because of the gorilla treks like this. Without this kind of support these magnificent animals may soon vanish forever.