"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Monday, October 08, 2012

gorilla trekking: how and why


First, you decide on the country: DR of Congo, Rwanda or Uganda. We chose the latter since that's where we were going to be anyway, but we did go through parts of Rwanda to get there (and we were very impressed!) Next, you select which family of habituated gorillas you'd like to visit. We chose the Nkuringo family (they are the least elusive and most used to having company.) Then we applied for and received our trekking permits. (Only eight per day are issued for each family of gorillas.)

Then you run your REI charge account to the max: rain pants, rain jacket, waterproof hiking books, hiking socks, etc. Fortunately, we were told by an experienced friend to also bring along a rugged pair of gardening gloves. (We blessed her later when we were tearing through all things thorned as we made our way up toward the gorillas.) Bobbie and I both already had good backpacks with rain covers. We also had binoculars. Walking sticks were provided by the camp where we stayed.

Next, you get yourself to the site. In our case, it was Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in southwest Uganda. This exquisite corner of the world is home to many of the 700 + mountain gorillas who are alive today (think back to the movie "Gorillas in the Mist.") There is a huge ongoing effort to keep them and their Rwandan and Congolese brethren from teetering on the edge of extinction.

Then you get some trackers with cell phones and machetes (one tracker to lead the group of trekkers and two to travel ahead and zero in on the location of the gorillas), a couple guys with guns (to protect said trekkers from large charging animals) and a porter (to carry your pack and to help push or pull you up and down the mountain).

Finally, you muster up some physical strength from reserves you did not know you had. At 7500 feet, you keep planting your stick, lifting your feet, pulling up your weight and trying to breathe. (I thought walking on my gym's treadmill at 15% incline for forty-five minutes a few days a week before I left for Uganda would prepare me. Ha!) It's rainy season in Uganda, and the trail was muddy and slick.

The three most challenging things my body has ever endured.

1. having babies
2. suffering through severe bouts of vertigo
3. gorilla trekking

We trekked single file, at first with a lot of chattering, then mostly with just the sound of six tourists sucking in air, for 2 1/2 hours before our lead tracker spotted the first of the eight members of the Nkuringo family. (There are 14 members of the family, but we just saw eight. Still, not bad.) There was the silverback (the dominant male, whose back grays with age) some of his adoring females and several of their children. They took our breath away, what little we had left.

After all that work getting there, you'd think we'd get to spend the rest of the afternoon sitting comfortably in the bleachers eating snacks and taking pictures. Not! We had one hour, that's the rule. And whenever the gorillas felt like moving on up the mountain for a different bramble of vines on which to munch, no one was going to convince them otherwise. So we were constantly on the "hunt."

But that hour! One of the best of my life. We scrambled up the slope right behind the lovely and magnificent Nkuringos, our cameras ever at the ready. We got very close, often with 5 - 7 feet. Bobbie said I was beaming, grinning from ear to ear as I slipped and regained footing, got tangled up in thorny patches of undergrowth, took another deep breath and lifted my camera to my eye to stare at (oh yes, and photograph) these awesome relatives of ours. There were no words.

After our hour was up, we sat for a while and ate the lunches that had been packed for us. I couldn't say too much at that point, because of what I'd just witnessed. But also because, yes, I was thinking about the 2 1/2 hours of trekking that still lie ahead. Our tracker chose a "shorter" exit, one that took take less time but involved one very long, steep incline out of the forest. (We were all for "less time" at that point and heartily agreed with our able leader.) Bobbie and I may have been a bit hazy from the altitude and the exhaustion that was setting in, but we estimated that incline to be roughly 60 - 70%. And it seemed to go on forever (at least in my mind it did. I was the oldest trekker in the group, so my mind had the winning vote.)  On more than one occasion, I felt a pair of hands from behind me firmly grab my butt to lift me up over a particularly difficult impasse. Without that porter, my porter and my walking stick. I don't know that I could have done it!


Because there were no words.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

[Thanks to my sister, Bobbie for some of these pics. And for going on this long awaited adventure with me!]


stacie said...

wow! I'm in awe and I'm only looking at the pictures. Thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

WOW!!! Amazing!
- CS

Jessica said...

Another WOW from me! I can't wait to show these to Andy and Sam when they get home from school. And to all my friends on Facebook! :o)

Anonymous said...

Looks like an amazing trip. Incredible photos (although we wouldn't expect anything less!). love, Sam, Molly and Andrew

Anonymous said...

Wonderful photos! Must have been incredible...
- JM

Anonymous said...

I agree with Stacie. Totally awesome! The gorillas are amazing, but so are you and Bobbie! Marti

emily said...

very poignant photographs, gloria. i am thrilled you were able to partake in this adventure. and jealous as well!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful memories of trekking in Rwanda came flooding back after looking at your pictures! Thanks, Gloria

From Leslie

ps said...