Gorillas in the Mist

Uganda, what a delight. Swap the lakes for lochs, the mild weather with bursts of warm sunshine for incessant dreary rain and insert a plague of midges and you could be in the Scottish highlands; the water is certainly cold enough. I’m on a small island in Lake Bunyonui in southern Uganda. It’s a mere hectare or two and I arrived in a tree trunk otherwise known as a dug out canoe. You have to earn your place, paddling for an hour to reach the tranquil spot which overlooks the lake and the distant highlands.

On arrival I begin to think that I am in the wrong place. I wander a warren of crisscrossing stony pathways for what seems an age before I finally bump into a fellow guest who points me in the right direction. The bar area is the ideal place to eat your dinner across the table from your girlfriend, wife or boyfriend, perhaps holding hands whilst taking in the sunset over the darkening waters. Or you can sit in your tent and wolf down a beige meal before returning to the bar to catch the lasts shards of pink dwindle from dusk sky. It is very much a couples paradise. I resolve that I may in fact just opt to spend a single night here on the island.

After an unexpected day on Byoona island, I played the third wheel with a lovely couple and made plans to venture to Bwindi National Park, home to Mountain Gorillas. I have been umming and ahhing as to whether I would see the close relations of homo sapiens. It’s extremely expensive, but I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t I would kick my self later down the line. So a day later I find myself walking through the depths of rainforest. In the morning, rangers do a recce to find the trail of the gorillas and tourists follow behind at a steady pace. I’m looking forward to a good hike through the thick trees with their hanging vines. The valleys are sheer, how trees take root is amazing. We are told the trek can be short, medium or long and that it’s not guaranteed to see the gorillas. They are wild, after all.

Short is putting it mildly. We practically trip over a large silver back who is nonchalantly munching fistfuls of green foliage with fifteen minutes. Mishaya’s fingers are bare from the knuckles, like giant bananas in a thick well worn pair of gardening gloves and his forearms would make Popeye green as spinach with envy. There are seven in the family. We are in a slight clearing, thick with ferns and grasses. Behind, the Alfa bushes shake, the only suggestion that there are others out there. The silver back doesn’t show us a moments notice and bulldozes his way through the undergrowth in search of a secluded spot to continue with his elevenses in peace.

As we make our way forward we happen upon a female and her adorable baby which clings to her thick black fur as she grazes. Us humans line up like the paparazzi, cameras beep and click, blotting out the sound of the birds and the bees. Well, everyone else does. I stand back and just take it in. It’s not because I am, “like just, so over taking photos” and don’t need a picture to know I’ve seen this marvellous animal. No no, my camera, despite being fully charged the previous evening is flat, bloody typical.

These animals, after two years of gradual human familiarisation, are habituated and take no notice of our presence. In fact, if you are in their way be sure to take a step back as they will purposefully walk into the dense grass, pushing past to show their dominance if you aren’t quick. They are a sight to behold but I feel a little distant. It’s a bit artificial, zoo like and possibly, dare I say, underwhelming; a fact not helped by the occasional poser next to the mama and her baby for a tinder profile pic or some such.

The moment you first see the gorillas, the clock starts ticking. One hour is all you are permitted to disturb them. We move through the ferns and grass beneath the trees. After the initial flurry of photos people have calmed down, taking a step back and a moment just to watch. We gather quietly, in a glade. Well, us tourists do; the guides talk at full voice; I am amazed that this doesn’t phase the animals.

It’s family time, two females with a pair of babies, an infant and a young adolescent are in the shade beneath the trees. The adults laze, sitting against tree trunks they supervise the children in the nursery. Their bellies bloat from all the gas producing vegetation, which is very difficult to digest. The infants and what is essentially a teenager scurry about, tackling one another and having a jolly old time. In the ruckus, a firm hand like tough leather scoops my calf as they dash past pulling sharply nearly whisking me off my feet. Such raw strength, and that’s just a child. A noise in the distance, perhaps a scooter back firing, and the teenager is on edge. Relaxed and showing no concern, the females look on. Staring in the direction of the noise, he stands statue like, then thumps the mud with two clenched fist the slaps his chest just like I expect his father does when demonstrating his dominance.

In a gap in the trees, the ferns tremble as all 200kgs of Mishaya, the Silver Back, lumbers on to the scene. Surprisingly quietly he sits and surveys his family, with his small beetle black eyes sunken in the shadow beneath his broad Neolithic brow. Quiet for a time, we stand, kneel and crouch like the Mishaya, taking in the scene. After my initial uncertainty about the experience I am content that seeing these wild animals in pristine environment is nothing if not a simple joy to behold.

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