We heard him before we could see him. A rhythmic drumming rang through the forest, echoing my pounding heart. Then 250 kilogrammes of silverback came charging through the undergrowth, football-sized fists hitting the ground with thunderous bangs, vegetation flying in all directions. I’d been warned to ignore my gut instinct – which was to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction -and just duck down and stay quiet. But like a decidedly less glamorous, latter-day Fay Wray, [couldn’t stop a short, high-pitched squeal escaping as l cowered in the bushes, head lowered demurely and eyes fixed on the ground. But Bikingyi stopped short of our small posse of Homo sapiens and, power order established, turned on his heels with a disdainful backward glance.
When I dared to look up, I saw the breadth of his retreating back, streaked with a band of silvery-white hair below the silhouette of his conical head and distinctive bulging brow. He was a familiar sight from wildlife programmes but, in the flesh, his sheer size and primordial power still took me by surprise. “He’s enormous!” I gasped, much to the amusement of my guide, Augustine. We were deep in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda. After hours of tracking, we’d caught up with a family of mountain gorillas undergoing habituation’ that gets primates used to limited human presence. Taking up to five years, this process will allow them to be observed at close quarters by researchers, as well as by those in search of one of the planet’s ultimate wildlife experiences.
Normally, face time with the gorillas is limited to just an hour but, thanks to the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s (UWA) new Gorilla Habituation Programme, l was allowed to spend up-to four hours with a family just 18 months in to the process, an exciting variation on the standard permit that enables researchers – and a limited number of travellers – to spend more time observing the gorillas. I’d also get the opportunity to spend an hour with a group more used to humans, but – as I was discovering – the longer alternative offered a very different experience from conventional gorilla tracking.
Hitting the trail – On trips to see habituated groups, usually the trackers go out at first light to find the gorillas’ nests from the night before and, soon after, the location of the apes themselves, which they radio in to the waiting guides. But there were no shortcuts on this trek, l was helping Augustine and four machete-wielding trackers to search for nests, joined by two rangers – each dressed head to toe in camouflage, with rifles slung over their shoulders in case we bumped into any aggressive forest elephants – and Stephen, my well-dressed, long-legged porter. As the sun rose, l was driven south from my lodge in Nkuringoto Rubuguri. To reach the area where we might find the Bikingyi Group, we first had to tackle the mountain that loomed over the small town.
Hikingup the rocky pathway, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the verdant forest and the patchwork of farmed plots that clung to the steep deforested slopes. Habitat loss created by humans is one of the mountain gorillas’ main threats, but conservation initiatives, including habituating gorilla families for tourism, have meant that the number of these critically endangered animals is slowly increasing. Reaching the mountaintop, there was no park gate or fence – the farmland simply ended and Bwindi began. This ancient, UNESCO-protected forest spreads around 320 square kilometres and is home to almost half the world’s remaining mountain gorilla population, an estimated 360 at the last census, as well as 120 other mammals. It’s known in the local language as the ‘dark place’, but it has become a shining light to primatologists over the years.
As we walked, a shy black-backed duiker – a small antelope -slipped by in a flash of russet. Dragonflies the size of small birds hovered above puddles that had formed in a forest elephant’s footprints and vociferous chimps hooted in the distance. The deeper we went into Bwindi, the denser and wilder the forest became, until we finally left the comparatively open trail and began to make our own way with machetes. It soon felt like I’d stepped on to a fantastical set from a Tarzan film. Everywhere was a maze of shifting greens, where vegetation dripped from towering hardwoods, thick lianas coiled and twined and delicate feather-like ferns came armed with vicious spiked trunks.
Before long, Stephen, who’d arrived wearing a black suit jacket, was carrying everything but me. When the going got vertical, he would hold out his hand as if he were inviting me to dance. Regardless, I pitched myself inelegantly down the precipitous slopes and scrambled back up, being whipped by wayward branches, planting my feet in seemingly bottomless tangles of roots and nearly losing a boot to the glutinous mud. But it was worth it. After several hours walking in a giant loop through the forest, we came across the gorillas’ nests not far from where we’d started.
A musty smell had led the t rackets to a group of raised piles of intertwined leaves and branches, which each gorilla builds every night, sleeps and defecates in, then abandons the following morning – only infants deep accompanied, camping in the same nest as their mothers. From these simple structures the rangers could tell how many gorillas were in the troop, and often their size and sex. By this point in the trek, at wig bed was starting to look like an appealing spot for some much- needed rest. These primates have a wide eating range, so it was a relief to know that, nests found, there was a 90 per cent chance of discovering gorillas within the hour.