Monday, May 14, 2007

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Part II

The hiking involved in seeing the gorillas Day Two at Bwindi was the hardest I've done - ever - though I managed it somehow. It was four hours hiking UP and three hiking down, and one hour with the gorillas in the middle there. So round trip, a bit over 8 hours. Most of the time we hiked on a narrow trail with a lot of switchbacks; there were very steep corners and a lot of elevation gain, but the switchbacks undoubtedly made it easier that straight up. That said, we went to the top of one mountain, across of saddle, a bit more up to another peak, then off trail and down through the forest for a bit to finally meet up with gorillas who were resting in a small ravine. Off trail, the vegetation was really thick and even after it was machete-cut, if you got separated from the person behind or in front of you you couldn't see them through the forest. It was hot; the shade of the forest made it bearable but the brief patches of sunlight felt scorching.

We finally came across a baby gorilla about 4-6 months old; his mom was peeking out at us from around the dirt at the edge of the ravine. She peeked over and kept a watchful eye on us. Her baby tried to come close to us but she would grab his foot and pull him back. He was a character. After awhile an older gorillas, maybe 2-3 years old, held the baby in his arm like a cradle and sung back and forth on the vines, giving the baby a fun "ride." We were visiting the "R" group this day. There were youngsters who wrestled, fell over backward, beat their chests, and generally had great fun entertaining one another, and us.

We ended up perched all close together on some precarious vines above the ravine, looking down at the gorillas, which were on three sides of us. At one point the guide told me to climb to a higher perch so I could see the silverback, napping off to our right sort of around a bend. I climbed up, but fell through the vines and would have landed ON the silverback were it not for the guide catching me by the waist.

The silverback got up and ambled over to munch on a large mushroom, then groom a female and hang out with the smallest, newest member of the family for a bit. My camera fogged up due to the heat and humidity so I missed a lot of shots of this family, which was disappointing, but so it goes. At least I have good memories, especially of a young one falling over and tumbling backwards in an adorably cute performance, the toddler cradling and swinging the younger baby, and a gorilla right off to my right climbing a tree and looking at me at eye level for a time from just about 3 feet away.

All in all, this was the hardest day of the trip for me. I got bit by a few safari ants, despite my best efforts with pants-sock-tucking. I got some minor thorn cuts. I had trouble breathing on the way up due to the exertion and the elevation, and it was bad enough I hyper ventilated at one point, for a few minutes. I had numerous bugs, burrs, and caterpillars on me. The way down I thought would be easier since it was downhill - but it seemed to last 10x longer and it was killer on the knees and steep and slippery. Both up and down I had to pay CLOSE attention to where each foot was placed. Frankly, I thought it was a miracle I didn't strain, sprain, break or dislocate anything on that hike - especially since I am prone to do that due to hyper-flexible joints (ankles tend to twist very easily).

The guides make the slowest person go in front to "set the pace." While this makes sense, it sucks to be the person in front - and I was on this day. One of our group had stayed at the lodge, and the others were more experienced hikers and in better physical condition than me. So, to my dismay, when I stopped so did the rest of the group, and all the porters, and the guards with guns, and the guide. This made me push harder than I should have, which is what probably led to hyperventilating. My porter was fantastic this day - he was always trying to help me with footing, give me a hand to pull up or slide down or generally not fall. He also removed lots of insects from me, and he made me rest and go slower at many points when I was trying to push too hard. "It's still long to go," he would say, "you must stop now for a minute." I came to accept his judgment. I declined his hand many times, but he insisted "You take, please." And he was, again, wise to do so. I tipped really, really well and I will never forget how much help the porter was, and how kind he was throughout the long ordeal. I asked the guide if anyone ever died of a heart attack hiking to see the gorillas and he matter of factly said "Not yet."

I hated the hike. I've never been so sweaty; ALL of my hair was wet the entire time, as well as ALL of my clothing. I had to drink more water than I normally consume in 3 full days. It went on forever and I couldn't even enjoy the scenery as I had to focus on each footstep. I was too tired to engage in any conversation, and walking single file it would have been hard to do anyway. All the way down I kept thinking of having to climb the 91 steps to the lodge at the end of the hike...and feeling like I never could do it.

So was it worth it? Yes, I have to admit, seeing gorillas is worth it. If I had a hike that hard all 4 days of viewing, I don't know - that would be REALLY TOUGH. Luckily, that was our hardest of the four days, and I made it. I never seriously thought of quitting but I was majorly bummed when the guide told me he could not even have radio contact with the trackers until the TOP of the mountain. I silently thought "If the gorillas are at the bottom I am going to kill someone." They weren't, of course. The guide, with lots of military training, clearly did not view failure as an option and was not the least bit phased it might take 4 hours or more to get to the gorillas.

The viewing was great - but I was tired, the camera was steamy, and I wasn't able to enjoy seeing them as much as the other days. I still will never forget them and I wouldn't give up the experience, but my viewing experience was more pleasant when the hiking was less onerous.

1 comment:

Shivani Bhalla said...

Great shots Heather, and I really enjoyed reading your story. Looking forward to reading about your Kenyan elephant adventure:)