Friday, October 11, 2013

The silverback

We ascend on steep and muddy roads, rising into the twilight mist of the lush volcanic jungle, the truck undulating up the terraced mountainside. Above us hangs Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. That's where the gorillas are.

This densely populated area jeopardises the very existence of the gorillas. One of their greatest threats is destruction of their forest habitat through subsistence farming, like the tiers of green beans and cabbage we see from village to rural village. Bwindi is one of the parks that have been established as a preserve for the apes – there are only 700 or so left – and where the farmlands end we enter.

Nine gorilla families have been habituated to humans. Eight of us are tracking the Busingye family, led by four guides. The lead guide briefs us on a few things. Don't eat in front of them; they'll want some, and will come take it. Move gently. What to do in case they charge. Charge? What I will do is shit my pants. These are big, strong, wild animals. But charging is a bluff, just to say, "back off." Correct protocol is to fall on the ground as though you're injured. Like fainting. Sounds instinctive enough.

The hike begins at 2500 metres. Olympic distance runners train at this altitude. After a long march on a narrow trail fording puddles of mud over stones awkwardly spattered across the muck, we begin the climb up the mountainside. The forest is dense, but the guides cut through the foliage with these razor hand sickles that slice through branches like linguine.

Down a steep ravine we descend. At my habitual sea level I'm reasonably fit but in this thinner atmosphere I struggle to keep the pace. Up the other side of the hill through tangled wet vines I plant my walking stick into the slick humus, dragging myself up the vertical face with burning lungs, slipping on the clay and begging the guide to let me take a break. The porter in front of me hears and reaches down. He grabs my hand in an arm wrestle grip and hauls me up into the green cloud. He doesn't let me go, and we keep going up, up, up. It's like the strong hand of God. I am so grateful.

I look up. We've all stopped. Everyone is tightly assembled in a small clearing. "The gorillas are there," the lead guide indicates to one side with a nod. "Leave everything here but your cameras."

The apes are eating and resting, so they are dispersed across the hillside. We inch around a muddy ridge and encounter a female nestled in the bushes, watching us timidly through a window of leaves. She seems a bit apprehensive as we whisper to each other and excitedly snap shot after shot of the docile, gentle creature. She quietly abides us, but seems as if she'd rather we move on, and after a time we do – the guide tells us that the family's alpha male, the big silverback, is nearby.

Ducking through grasping branches we come across the head male lounging on his back, scratching his arse. It's not exactly the image of the powerful giant ape of David Attenborough fame. One of the guides gets too close trying to clear the view for our cameras, invading the space of the silverback, and he rolls up onto all fours and charges forward a few knuckle-steps. He rears upright with teeth bared like stalactites in a blood red cave, throws apart titanic black arms, and roars with a devastating ferocity that flattens trees and curdles mud. Each of us goes utterly to water, collapsing like our spines have been plucked out our heads and cowering like subdued monkeys. When the blast passes over us and we meekly emerge from the shielding of our arms, the silverback has returned to scratching himself. The four guides remain unmoved through the event. "Don't worry," one of them says blithely. "Just take pictures."

Just take pictures. Sure. Every one of us missed the money shot.


Uganda gorilla safari said...

Really nice experience and always fun watching the silverback looking after his own. You could have added some picture to enable us admire them

G. Wayne Meaney said...

Pictures are available from the photo cloud on the right-hand side of the page.

Magda said...

Your great stories shall keep my memories fresh. Thank you for you company. It was great time, Magda.

G. Wayne Meaney said...

Magda! I don't have your email address. Please email me!

We had a great group – lots of fun!