13 months
Oct 12:
a galaxy far far away
Oct 13:
any road, any load
Oct 15:
machetes & machineguns
Oct 16:
gorilla bonus tracks
Oct 16:
local zero
Oct 18:
the low down
people & places
all galleries
next location

roadside market
Uganda; Oct 17, 2004

gentle giants up close

day 1 - Rushegura group

For months prior, I had anxiously awaited the moment when we would actually see the gorillas. Nothing could have prepared me. It was like no other experience of my life. (I would later reflect that even the upcoming safari in Tanzania, when we were sometimes extremely close to the animals, was markedly different – there’s something very personal about slogging through the rainforest on your own power and seeing these magnificent creatures without even the confines of a vehicle.)

juvenile gorilla (Mubare group)

And now, writing this, words fail me. “Awesome” comes to mind, but I don’t mean it in the typical Californian way I usually say it; this time I call upon its true meaning, as an awe-struck individual, overcome by the sight and presence of one of our closest modern relatives in the animal kingdom.

The first gorilla we see is a juvenile in a tree. He is playing on a vine, about 15 feet off the ground, swinging back and forth grabbing at tree trunks about 6 feet apart. Once in a while he manages to snag one of the trees securely enough to remain suspended at the apex of his swing for a moment, then he lets go and starts all over again, twirling around on the vine. Sometimes he holds on with his hands, sometimes his feet, sometimes his mouth - whatever is most convenient.

I look around carefully and notice another gorilla in the underbrush. She is an adult female, keeping one eye on Junior and the other on us. She’s lazily munching on leaves and seems mostly relaxed, but alert.

Then our guide points into the brush. Just a short distance away, we spot the large male silverback! He is sleeping, an enormous gray lump. But then he rolls over, revealing his true bulk (400 pounds!), glances around at us, checks on his family and goes back to sleep. His name is Mwirima and he is the leader of this group, called the Rushegura group (or "R Group" for short).

Over the next hour we are lucky enough to see 6 different individuals in this group. The swinging juvenile is the one that I watched the most. I am rivetted, watching him learn how the vines worked. He launches himself from one tree to the other, falls off, grabs some yummy leaves to eat, bothers momma for a bit, and then does it all again.

Our allotted hour for observing the gorillas passes way too quickly, and soon we silently bid farewell to a small clearing about 30 meters away where our porters are waiting to begin the arduous hike back through the rainforest. Glancing at Susan, I see that she has the same glow that must be on my face.

day 2 - Mubare group

On the second day we visit a different group, the Mubare (or “M”) group. We were originally slated to see the “R” group again, but in the interest of seeing different gorillas, we negotiated a switcheroo. Luckily for us, our guide/tracker team is the same as the day before, so we have an existing relationship with them – we continue with our questions and discussions from the day before.

This time our hike is much easier (a boon since we are both still pretty sore from the day before). We drive a short distance to get in range, then hike along the perimeter of the forest, through a small village (see uganda: local zero entry), and then up the mountain. It takes about as long as the previous day (roundtrip about 7 hours), but it is sunny and the terrain is mostly wild plain (instead of wet, dense rainforest). The majority of our hike skirts the perimeter of the rainforest, and we are only force to hack our way through the jungle for the last bit.

This time we see the gorillas in a "nest." They have positioned branches and other underbrush to create a cozy enclave where they are resting/sleeping. Again, we are lucky enough to see the silverback, but again, he basically sleeps the whole time we are there. I guess that’s why he’s named Ruhondera, meaning “one who sleeps a lot.”

And again, the youngest ones are the most active, but this time there are more of them so there is a lot of interaction between them. The juveniles of different ages are playing together, and they are also clamoring on or getting groomed by the older females. And they are very curious about us, too. The two youngest actually come towards us several times and we have to back away so that they don’t touch us. Since they are visited daily, they seem to be quite accustomed to humans.

The most amazing thing about seeing the gorillas is realizing how much they are like us: their facial expressions, their interactions, everything. I could sit there all week and watched them.

We see all 8 individuals in the “R” group. We leave about the time Ruhondera is finally waking up from his nap. Everybody else is already awake, but he is the one that decides when they move on. It would be nice to see them start to move, but our hour is up.

On the hike home, I spend a lot of time talking to our lead tracker, Jonathan (his Ugandan name is Mugisha). We have a fairly schizophrenic conversation about whether George Bush should be elected again, peppered with my ongoing questions about gorillas. Suffice it to say that we both learn a lot.

These two days are an experience that I will never forget.

© 2004-2012 susan & grace, all rights reserved

-- comments from readers --


First, I love your web site. Second, your notes on your trip to Uganda were great to read. This will be our second trip to Africa. The first one was to Kenya and Tanzania about the same time you were there. I noticed in your pictures on the treks you were all wearing long sleeve shirts. On our first trip it was nothing but t-shirts and shorts. We are going to Uganda/Rwanda in Jan 07 and were wondering for the gorilla treks if we should have on long sleeve shirts. We were thinking of t-shirts and a rain jacket. Once again great web site.

--Jim P. (San Diego, California, USA); Aug 1, 2006

Yes, we recommend very light long sleeve shirts and some form of rain gear for the gorilla treks. There are lots of bugs and it can rain very heavily (it did for us). You are, after all, in a rain forest. :)

--Grace & Susan; Nov 3, 2006


A friend sent your website a while ago and I'm just now getting around to looking at it... Congrats on your adventure thus far... I was most instantly curious about your visit to Uganda because my daughter is there currently on a research project through her masters program in International Policies. She is trying to coordinate the export efforts of the "bee keepers" of Uganda. She said the farmers are mainly (98%) women. Many women are also leading certain groups associated with the project. I realize it was at the beginning of your journey that you were in Uganda and are obviously FAR FAR away from there but it was just nice to see a few pics and hear of another's experience in Uganda. She said seeing gorillas in the wild was pinnacle! Her visit is 8 weeks total with her return expected August 14th. Thanks for providing this mama with a feel for my daughter's current "home away from home"!

--Margaret S. (Yellow Springs, OH, USA); Jul 25, 2005

Thanks for writing - sounds like your daughter's trip is amazing, both in terms of an experience for her and in terms of helping some Ugandans. What a great thing for her to do! And yes, seeing the gorillas is certainly an unforgettable experience, so we're glad she had that opportunity, too!

--Grace & Susan; Aug 8, 2005


I am leaving next week for 10 days in Uganda and loved reading your entry about the Rushegura gorillas, as we have permits to see them for two days. Like you, we may try to "trade" groups with someone else for the second day. I enjoyed reading about your trip. Hope the rest of your travels go smoothly!

--Christina B. (Atlanta, Georgia, USA); Feb 23, 2005