Almost 50 years ago, an acquaintance told me that he had raised a baby gorilla for a zoo at his home a few years earlier. He invited me to visit his former fosterling at the zoo. As soon as we entered the corridor to the enclosure, the gorilla let out the first silent cries of joy. He immediately sensed his foster father. This impressed me very much, since he had not been to visit for a long time. My enthusiasm quickly gave way to a certain feeling of fear when the enclosure was unlocked and the foster father simply took me into the cage. The gorilla, by now grown to a stately size, hugged his visitor happily and excitedly, then looked to my left and also took me in his arms without crushing me. My heartbeat stopped briefly, but then it was a unique feeling in the warm bond between man and animal.
And now I was face to face with these magnificent gorillas in the wild.
We have driven through Uganda over the past nine days, always thinking in the back of our minds about day 10 : Will it rain? Will we see the gorillas…? Shortly before our arrival in Entebbe, there were torrential rains and floods. Since then, the floods have receded and the rains are less frequent and shorter. This gives us hope. We can drive again on the pre-planned routes, which were impassable days before. Tomorrow we will arrive at Bwindi National Park, where several gorilla families live. Excitement is building, and despite a few nightcaps, it will be a somewhat restless night of anticipation, and residual uncertainty as to whether the weather will cooperate. It rained most of the day yesterday, but today the sun is shining, slowly displacing the fog. We are lucky. But the ground is still damp. And then the adventure begins. We meet the rangers and porters, have to hand in our passports and are assigned to a group. A maximum of eight people belong to a group. Before we start, we get enough information about safety regulations and rules of conduct during the search for the gorillas and the encounter with them. There are five families in this park and we will try to find the Bweza family. Our ranger tells us that the family has been spotted by the scouts in a certain area, so we know approximately where they are. I take a porter as a helping hand. These are young men from the area who earn some extra money to live this way. A large sturdy stick is given to us for support, and off we go. Full of energy we set off, and it promises not to be a particularly difficult path, with magnificent views of the surrounding panorama of the mountain rainforest.
Then our ranger turns left, and from there it’s a steep climb through dense undergrowth. We follow the guides, who cut a path through the mountain rainforest with machetes – always with one side close to the slope and the abyss in front of our eyes on the right. We are now at an altitude of over 2000 meters. For more than two hours we have been walking through dense jungle, over slippery, damp roots, brushing against thorn bushes, sometimes getting tangled in lianas or stumbling through hidden depressions. In some places we have to climb quite steep slopes, always in danger of slipping or hurting ourselves.
All of a sudden, everything matters. The climb takes us to our limits. Every slip and stumble costs strength and only the thought of the gorillas keeps us running stubbornly, panting and staring at the impassable terrain in front of us. Short breaks are necessary again and again, and one of our group almost seems to collapse, so that we stay on our break little longer. Physically I’m doing well, but my somewhat too slippery shoe soles require full concentration at every step. Several times I owed my Porter for everything going well. Fortunately, we only hear about daily casualties and the „Uganda Helicopter“ (eight alternating porters with stretcher) later from Moses, our driver. The ascent and the search became more and more arduous.
But then our high spirits abruptly return. Due to the full concentration at every step of the steep ascent and on the verge of exhaustion, sounds suddenly reach our ears. I am electrified. „They must be there“ my porter points further up. Our last energies are now mobilized; we want to see the mountain gorillas, which is not always guaranteed.
We still have to crisscross for a while, then we see the stop sign of our ranger. She shows us the first members of our gorilla family high in front of us on the tree branches.
The exertions of the ascent are blown away, and the euphoria is back, but we are not allowed to express it: Silence is the order of the day at this encounter of man and beast in the wild. We have one hour to observe the Bweza group. Tis is a profound emotional experience.
We continue walking to get closer to the group. Behind a bend in the road, our ranger stops, and suddenly we find ourselves face to face with a mother and two cubs. I ask quietly, „What now?“ She shrugs her shoulder and watches the mother with full concentration. Then she relaxes. The mother turns to the side, grabs a branch and starts eating leaves with gusto.
The little gorillas behave like all children, and come rolling towards us, cheerful and unconcerned, right up to our feet.
But they are not allowed to come that close to us because of the danger of infection. After a small slap with the side of the machete, they retreat to a tree, insulted.
After this first exciting and then cheerful experience, we move on and meet the whole family in a hollow a few meters below us.
We now have an hour to observe the gorillas. From now on, time is running out and I want to savor every second of it. Various emotions are pouring in on me and I can hardly believe how carefree the animals – sometimes only an arm’s length away from me – are going about their business. After the long ascent, from our point of view much too fast, the ranger gives the sign to leave. But then she suddenly stops and sees something that she herself, despite many years in the park, has never experienced: two teenagers make their first, still clumsy and futile attempts at love. She films this event extensively, and so we can stay a while longer.
They do not let us disturb them. In a long habitation process, the Bergorilla families have been accustomed to these short visits.
Fulfilled and happy, the reality of the shorter but no less dangerous descent enters our consciousness. With slight bruises, strains and thorn marks, we reach our starting point in Bwindi National Park, otherwise unharmed.
There we say goodbye to our porters, without whom we would not have managed this adventure, and receive our gorilla trekking diploma. When I am called for the diploma, everyone starts clapping. The rangers must have read my date of birth in my passport, and I am supposed to have been the oldest participant here so far. Astonished and a little touched I thank them. Before we left I treat with the help of my emergency package a Ranger, who had cut himself deeply with the machete and made it „expertly“, as learned in the first aid class. Then we went back to Traveller’s Rest, the lodge where Dian Fossey had also stayed.
The next day is dedicated to rest, and we gratefully accept the offer of a „Relaxing after Gorilla Massage“.
Only after this relaxation did I really realize how lucky we had been with this unique experience of meeting the Bweza group. There are events that are difficult to put into words.
Before and after we drove a total of 2600 km, a big circle through a beautiful country. Unfortunately it is destroying its natural parks for economic reasons. Let’s hope for a turn to sustainable protection of the basic needs of people and animals in this beautiful but very poor country, and for the salvation of a unique nature.
(c) Dr.Burkhard Mielke. All rights reserved.
All pictures © by Burkhard Mielke and Jörg Neidig, all rights reserved, commercial and private use prohibited.
English translation editor : Dr. Marilyn C. Terranova, NY