OFF THE BEATEN TRACK Gorilla Trek in Uganda
This weeks "off the beaten track" post is from Student Flight’s Sam Towne, who was lucky enough to trek through Uganda in the heart of Africa in search of endangered gorillas. Sam visits the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and succeeds in tracking down the elusive and rare Mountain Gorilla. Sam, tell us about your amazing experience...
From our camp site at Lake Bunyoni, Uganda, we had a very early start to the morning. It was a long, bumpy, almost back breaking transfer to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest which is also known as 'Place of Darkness'. It is located in south western Uganda on the edge of the western arm of the Great Rift Valley, only a few kilometres from the Democratic Republic of the Congo border. It is one of the most biologically diverse areas on earth, where half the world's population of the highly endangered Mountain Gorilla live in its jungles. Only about 600 Mountain Gorillas remain to this day.
We got to the rangers’ station at about 8 am. and had our briefing, got some wooden poles and set out on the trek. The trackers had already left before we got there and our guide Christopher was in constant contact with them via radio. Gorillas are nomadic so they rarely stay in one place for long. In Mgahinga Gorilla National Park there are over thirty documented families of gorilla who call this forest home, but only seven families that are habituated to human beings. Today we would set out to find the “Red Family”.
Now, I'm not going to lie but the trek was very demanding and strenuous! We trekked and climbed for nearly four hours over very high mountains, down deep valleys, through shin deep swamps, rainforests, jungle, mud slides and every other condition imaginable. Needless to say, I slid down quite a few mountains on my bum as they had rain the previous night and it was so very slippery! After two hours the trackers still had not caught up with the Gorillas as they had decided to move mountains to get more fruit! So we keep going, literally following their path of destruction . We were walking in their hand and foot prints, simply amazing!
We were ever so excited when we saw fresh gorilla poop (never thought I would say that) on the trek as it meant we were getting closer! We finally got the good news after about 2 ½ hours that the trackers had found them and that they had finally stopped moving, so we climbed one more mountain and reached the trackers. We set off very quietly down a valley and after about twenty minutes, all of a sudden, there he was.....the great big Silver Back, the big daddy! We were about fifteen metres away at that stage, so we kept creeping forward, literally climbing over trees with spikes, stinging nettle and just full on jungle. We spotted an infant swinging and playing in the trees! We stopped right there as there was the mamma and a juvenile about seven metres in front of us. We sat and watched these magnificent creatures and my hands were shaking as I just could not believe that I was there. I had tears trickling down my cheeks. The guides must have thought I was crazy because they asked me why I was crying and all I could say was that it was just beautiful and I felt so privileged to be there. You cannot put a price on this journey, it was worth every single dollar!
We moved over about fifteen metres to see the rest of the family and this is where we got really close. We were less than three metres away from a Black Back and a massive Juvenile. They were playing right in front of us, sticking their hands down each others throats and making gagging sounds, and play wrestling. They were putting on a show for us! One even did the King Kong move of beating his chest in a display of power! The little baby came and joined in for a while. We saw seven in total and could hear two more but they were hiding under some bushes. I had a great view of big daddy Silver Back, the whole time watching over his family. The hour just went so quickly.
I didn't want to leave them, but by then I had a smile from ear to ear that no one or no amount of jungle trekking could ever wipe off my face! We sat and had our packed lunch in silence and then started the dreaded return trek to the rangers’ station. The trackers knew how to get back a quicker way, but quicker didn't mean easier! They literally had to make the path for us with machetes, chopping our way through the dense jungle.
We made it to a track that they said was a major 'short cut'. We looked up and saw it was an 80 degree incline, we couldn't even see the top! But off we went and it took us about 45 exhausting minutes to finally reach the top and there was the road and the van waiting for us! I have never been so happy to see a car in my life. Only 2 ½ hours trekking on the way back, but pretty tough going.
Overall this experience is by far the most amazing thing I have ever done in my life. For anyone thinking of heading over to Africa, do it! It is a place where you will feel more emotion and joy than anywhere else in the world. The people are just amazing, the wild life incredible. Africa will take you on a journey of life.
(Check out past off the beaten track posts on our blog, World Festivals with an Edge is a great read!)
Looking for more information about travelling to Africa in search of endangered species? Contact [email]text=Sam Towne[/email], an Assistant Team Leader with Student Flights based in Alexandra Headland, Queensland who can be reached at 1300 051365or by [email]text=email[/email].
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