Visiting Wild Mountain Gorillas in Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park
Our excitement was electrifying. I could barely contain myself. Our guides and scouts, clad with AK-47’s, met us in the reception hall. Besides Valerie and myself there were five other guests from as many continents. We were in Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park, a small but beautiful park that quietly exists in the shadow of its more famous cousin Bwindi National Park.
“Hello everyone!” Our guide exclaims. She is young, maybe 25 years old, and only about 5 feet tall but her presence is commanding. Her military fatigues, knee-high mud boots, and large gun make us wonder what we have gotten ourselves into.
“Please look at the wall. We will be visiting mountain gorillas today, the largest primates on Earth. Specifically, we will visit the Nyakagezi family who are the only habituated gorilla family in Mgahinga National Park” She points to a group of portraits of each individual in the gorilla family we are going to visit. “Please, pick one of these gorillas. They will be your gorilla of the day, you can can ask me all about them as we trek. The trek may be 1 hour or up to 6 hours – so please think of some good questions.”
I picked Marc because it was the easiest name on the wall to pronounce. Val picked a large silverback, “Rakundo!”
Our guide explained the rules of our visit. We would trek to find the gorillas, this could take as little as 45 minutes or as long as six hours. We would be given one hour to observe them. We were to keep six meters (20ft) of minimum distance and avoid breathing, and especially coughing, in their general direction. We share 98% of our DNA with the gorillas and our diseases transfer readily to the gorillas, it is important to be healthy if you want to visit them.
There are only about 800 mountain gorillas in the world. Unlike their cousin the lowland gorilla they cannot survive in captivity. The entire world’s population lives in a 40 km by 40 km area made from the corners of three nations: Rwanda, The Congo, and Uganda.
We start walking. “You are lucky today. The Gorillas are close and we can walk through the farms to get to where the are.” Our guide told us. We had mentally prepared for a drawn out jungle thrashing, instead we took a pleasant stroll through small villages at the edge of the park.
Children chased after us. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” They hollered. It means white person. I pointed my camera at them and they squealed and scattered, leaving a trail giggles as they ran away.
We walked for around an hour before stopping to took a break. Everyone was happy. We were close. I breathed deeply, what was about to happen had been decades in the making. The scenery around me was beautiful. The land was deep green and the soil black with intense fertility. Behind us three volcanoes stretched up into the sky. In front of us farms and small lakes stretched to the horizon.
“So who is Marc?” I asked our guide.
“Marc is my favorite Gorilla” She replied. “He is the alpha male and he leads the troop. Marc is a good father and he is VERY big. You will love him. Good choice.”
“Who is Rakundo?” Val joined in.
“Rakundo is a beautiful Gorilla, I hope we see him today. He is sometimes away from the group with his brother Mafia. His brother hates humans, the name Mafia means rude. We don’t really want to see Mafia. Rakundo though, he is a wonderful. He likes humans and his name means love.”
I was filled with excitement it felt like I was having an out of body experience. As we entered the jungle our progress slowed to a crawl. The roots, vines, and bushes were so thick that it was hard to tell where the ground was. I could barely see ahead of me. The jungle felt impenetrable.
After five minutes of acrobatics and tripping over ourselves we stopped. Our scouts listened. We heard a voice. It was the 4 scouts that spend each and ever day protecting this family of gorillas from sunrise to sunset.
“Come this way.”
There they were. Marc was sitting with a female. She clutched three-month-old baby.
I was stunned. The moment had finally arrived. Marc sniffed the air for a cautious minute then relaxed, content to ignore us. The other gorillas seemed totally dispassionate to our presence.
I moved a bit to get a better angle for a photo. One of the scouts waved me to follow him. We circled round to the side of Marc. There were so many branches. Photography was difficult. I was gingerly moving branches as needed. The scout had much more confidence and began quickly clearing some branches to make a window for me. We were now perhaps 7 feet away from Marc. I could smell his breath.
Suddenly, Marc lept up and roared. The scout had moved one too many branches. Now he and Marc were clutching the same branch. Marc’s hand was massive. He was very close now. I was frozen, my heart in my throat. A tense millisecond passed before Marc grunted, let go of the branch, and sat back down as if nothing had happened.
I stood there stiff as a board and began to unfreeze my body starting from the toes. I looked over at the scout. He had been watching me the whole time. As our eyes met he erupted in laughter.
“Did you pee your pants?!” I looked down, legitimately worried that I may have.
The gorillas soon became more relaxed. It was quiet and serene. Then an adolescent came crashing out of the bushes. He was 2 years old and the size of a chimpanzee. He rolled around, beat his chest, and shook branches between summersaults.
“He is trying to impress you.” Our guide said smiling.
“Pictures,” I think to myself. “I should be taking pictures.” I had not expected to be this close. I had to change lenses. I set my backpack down on the ground and opened it. In an instant the little fellow had rolled up and shoved his arm into my backpack. One of my arms was already in there. We were at a bit of a standoff.
“Stay calm, you may have to give him your backpack.” Our guide said, only somewhat calmly. There was no way I was giving my camera gear to this mischievous youngster. I was staring directly into his eyes while we fondled each other’s arms inside my backpack. Obviously, contact is highly discouraged, but I must admit that it was a magical moment.
One of the scouts put his wooden staff on the ground next to the youngster. Just like a human child the gorilla looked up with guilty eyes, slowly removed his arm, and backed away. We were both a little sad about it. I looked at our guides, expecting to be in trouble, but they were still smiling. It had been a lively day thus far.
Marc and his bride remained preoccupied with their smaller son, who was climbing all over them. I moved back and settled in at a more appropriate distance. I’m sure I had a massive moronic grin on my face. I continued to forget to take pictures. The experience was so powerful that Valerie was in tears.
“Rakundo has come but we must to move to see him.”
Rakundo was sitting on a small hillock foraging. He was only about 70 yards away from the main group but in the dense jungle it took five minutes to get there.
Like his family Rakundo seemed mostly uninterested in us. I maneuved to a great spot for photos, just a little lower than Rakundo. Two of the other tourists took note of my good position came over next to me. Suddenly, Rokundo charged us. He was lightning fast. We gasped. He stopped just before contacting me. Because of the small hill is feet were at my waist level. He looked impossibly big towering over me. He pounded his chest and roared. We all lowered our eyes. No one moved. I could feel his breath on my face as he drew even closer. I could feel him asking, “are you intimidated?” My mind screamed “Yes. Oh God yes, please don’t smash me. Doesn’t your name mean love?”
He relaxed and walked past me, brushing his are leg against mine. I had now had two wild mountain gorillas touch me. I felt blessed beyond words. Even now as I write this my adrenaline is pumping.
This events of this post took place in late November 2017