“The Gorilla Experience” first appeared in a Dispatch, the updates sent to all Society members. To be part of the conversation, you can join for free here.
We are deep inside the African jungle, and I have no idea where I am. I know where I am in general, in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda’s mountains. That information doesn’t really bring me much comfort. Calling anything Impenetrable doesn’t help to soften the image of it, and the fact that the name ‘Bwindi’ means “Place of Darkness” isn’t helping the nerves. But on we walk, trusting someone knows where to go. We make our way through tangled vines and snarled trees, where the birds sing and the sunlight beams in thick rays through the tree cover.
But then we see it.
The leaves in front of us rustle as something big moves past. Something very big, and the adrenaline kicks in. Instinctively the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. This is, of course, Tarzan country. Wild Africa. This is exactly the kind of environment that would have terrified early explorers. Never mind we left the comfort of a luxurious lodge only an hour ago, a lifetime of B-grade movies have informed us of the terrors of the jungle and our minds race with thoughts of the dangers within. I am not sure if it was the walk in here or the tension, but my heart is racing. After a few moments of waiting, and some odd grunting noises, the guide leads us in. The silverback gorilla has given us permission to visit his family.
Let’s start at the beginning.
We aren’t going to focus on the endless debate on where to visit the gorillas. It’s been written about already, and predictably it kicked off a lot of opinions from both sides. We also aren’t going to tell you how to get the permit, or when to book it, or where to stay. This story is just about the experience, and what visiting the gorillas is actually like.
Gorilla day arrives like many others in Africa, without the need for an alarm clock. Awake bright and early, excited and nervous, we head to the national park gates. It’s here we meet our guides and escorts for the day. If there was ever a question about where the money spent on the permit went, we could see it standing in front of us. We have a team of trackers and guides to ensure our safe passage and to help us with our once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are also porters available to help carry your bags, and you, if necessary. After a brief introduction to the gorilla family we are about to meet, we head off.
Whether it is ‘gorilla trekking’ or ‘gorilla tracking’ is a matter of semantics, but there is a bit of both involved. Way before we arrived at the gates, trackers headed off into the forest to find each gorilla family. Predictably, they start with where they left the gorillas the night before. Gorillas, like us, like a comfortable place to sleep and make a different ‘nest’ each night. Upon retracing that nest they then track the gorillas to their new location and notify the guides. If the gorillas move, so do the trackers. The whole process is pretty simple: The trackers find the gorillas, and then we find the trackers.
As we head to our entry point to the forest, the excitement is bubbling. It’s a dream for many, and it’s always a little hard to believe that it is actually underway. We disembark and begin the journey. Alongside the guides, and the porters, a couple of rangers also walk with us to ensure everyone’s safety. The saying that it ‘takes a village’ is more than accurate here. You have travelled across the world to be here, and everyone is working together to ensure that your dream is realised. This visit does more than give us the best chance to see one of the most incredible animals on the planet. Our visit also gives them the best chance at survival. Conservation doesn’t exist in a bubble, and there needs to be value in it to all parties to ensure it has a good chance of success. Every day of visitation is another day’s worth of conservation funding, another day of employment for the locals, and another day of protection for the gorillas. Everyone benefits from this tourism opportunity, both the locals who facilitate it and the tourists who enjoy it. Sure, you get the experience, but everyone else gets the benefits too.
After a walk of anything from a few minutes to a few hours we come to the outskirts of where the gorillas are. After gaining permission to enter the family home, we duck past some bushes and finally see them.
What it is like
There is something about Africa that makes it hard to describe to people who haven’t been there. There is a lack of an adequate vocabulary, and sometimes the best description is just the life it brings out in the speaker. I’ve done talks to thousands of people over the years. Often someone will seek me out years later, after having visited themselves. More often than not, they usually want to tell me that I was right, as if they never truly believed how amazing I said it to be. And now, they face the same issue trying to explain it to others. In a world where everything is oversold, it can be hard to convey a truly amazing experience. And, on a scale of unbelievability, the gorilla experience is up the higher end. How do you explain to someone that spread out in front of you, without fences and completely wild, is a family of gorillas having some breakfast?
Now that you have found them, so begins possibly the shortest hour of your life. To protect them from too much human interference each family is limited to one hour of contact per day. That means you, and your group, will be the only humans they see that day. Not that they seem to care too much. Like anyone living in a city apartment, if you had people watch you eat breakfast every morning then eventually you’d stop caring too. Look closely at them and you can see the similarities between us. Behaviours we mark as human behaviours really aren’t. You can see it in the way the mother rocks and breastfeeds her baby. The tender strokes of the pregnant belly of an expectant mother. The mischievous nature of the two young siblings and the scolding from their father when they go too far. Amongst all the animals in Africa that you can spend time with, nothing feels quite as surreal as the time spent with gorillas. In addition to the 16 sounds that the guides use to communicate with them, it is the body language and the shared ‘humanity’ that reveals far more about them than words ever could. Even the constant presence of the giant 200kg plus silverback gorilla doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Despite keeping an eye on us, he obviously doesn’t feel threatened. The size discrepancy helps, but ultimately he is simply looking out for his family. We are polite, so he is. He even seems amused to have us sit meekly in his presence.
We take our photos and settle in to enjoy our time together. They seem to do the same. We have quiet moments of shared recognition. Each is strange to the other, but not alien. We are simply long-lost cousins. And just like that, the hour is up. We depart slowly, looking longingly in their direction, just hoping for one more look at these magnificent animals before it is over. It is a quiet, dignified end to an amazing day.
It isn’t until much further away that we erupt into cheers.