Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bwindi Impenatrable Forest, Part I

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has a great name. When we arrived at our lodge there, Gorilla Forest Camp, I was a little surprised at the 91 steps that needed to be climbed to reach reception (more to the rooms). But the permanent tents were wonderful, complete with lovely bathtubs. This was definitely a luxury lodge, and my favorite of the trip in some ways. They have a shoe cleaning service for your muddy shoes when back from gorilla trekking, they have fast laundry service, camera charging facilities, good food, a very good staff, and overall, you leave feeling very pampered.

We were warned by all to be prepared for up to 8+ hours of trekking to find the gorillas. They have a tracker who leaves before you do and radios back to the guide where the gorillas are. Then you hike to that spot...which of course may change. The lodge packs you water and a lunch. Porters are available for about $10. HIRE A PORTER. They need jobs. Day one, 60 porters showed up - only 5 got jobs. You may feel you don't want to hire someone to carry your bag, but please do - they need the work, and they also provide help to push you, pull you, and in extreme cases, carry you. You don't know what will happen and the porters are very, very nice. I was sad only our group hired them on day one - no one from the UK would take one. Why not?!?

We got somewhat lucky on Day One. We hiked up a hill, in the sun, through the village bordering the park. It wasn't easy but neither was it too hard for me. The guide paused to talk about plants and let us catch our breath now and then, and although I usually find plants dull, I really welcomed these breaks. I was also grateful someone in my group asked follow up questions, extending the pause.

Just as we were about to enter the actual forest, the gorillas came out to meet us. We were visiting M Group (there are three habituated groups in Bwindi). A young male came out to greet us, followed by two or three others. I was shocked how they came right over to us. We tried to move back, but it was uphill and we could only move so much - at one point the first gorilla to come out was only about a foot away from us...and I found myself holding my breath in wonder. An endangered mountain gorilla was actually right in front of me. Since they do not survive in captivity, you have to see them on their own turf, and I was thrilled to be doing just that...and shocked at how calm, accepting, and even curious and outgoing the gorillas were.

When they went back to the forest, we followed. We found the silverback (pictured above, along with his youngest child). The big male has a name that means "sleeps alot," but we found him eating and active. To my surprise, gorillas were climbing in the trees nearby. I thought they would be too heavy. One gorilla disturbed some wasps and we were warned to get out of the way as they sting very badly. The gorilla was stung and biting his hand to get the wasp off it.

At one point, watching the silverback, the guide announced we were all standing in safari ants. In the few seconds it took to convey this, I must have gotten 30 on me. Although a gorilla was a few feet away, for a few minutes 100% of my attention was on ant removal.

In the forest it was hard to balance on the vines and uneven terrain. We really all enjoyed watching the gorillas as they found breakfast. At one point, a female gorilla popped out, using both arms to part the grass in front of her, and stared at us and made a sound. It's tough to describe, but it was really, really cool to see. It happened so fast, no pictures. There was a gorilla with a bad eye, one with a deformed hand, and one with a small baby (pictured above). The mother seemed to actually be showing the baby off to us. Our allotted hour with the gorillas passed quickly, and as I left I was glad I had three more days of gorilla trekking ahead.

I enjoyed talking to my porter, and learned that they do a rotation, as they all need work and know only a few get jobs - so they take turns. There are a max of 24 tourists, but some hire more than one porter. He said sometimes people hire 4 or 5 and get carried up - wow. Not something I would want to do, but cool the service is available, especially for the elderly. The porters stop just shy of the gorillas, and wait for you. I found it sad that people carry bags up to the gorillas and never get to see them. But, on this day, the gorillas came out enough to be seen by all the porters and some villagers, which I thought was cool.

At the lodge, one of the staff said she'd saved up and gone to see them a few weeks ago, which I really admired. Not all the permits were sold the day we went, and I wish they'd taken a group of villagers to see the gorillas - they'd be more invested in protecting them if they could see them. The guide and the setup at Bwindi were very good. Armed guards go with every party and every safety precaution is taken, so have no fears - it's safer than New York City.

In the afternoon, there is a village walk and you can meet the displaced Batwa pygmys who are no longer allowed to live in the forest (very sad, as they have no survival skills for life outside the forest). I opted to skip the walk in case the following day's hike was strenuous, a decision which proved to be very, very fortunate given what Day Two would hold.

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