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a galaxy far far away
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gentle giants up close
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gorilla bonus tracks
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Uganda; Oct 17, 2004

machetes & machineguns

We’ve just returned from the first of 2 days gorilla tracking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Wow. “Amazing” doesn’t begin to cover it. It was thrilling, humbling, extremely difficult and rewarding. This entry is going to be a bit longer than average; otherwise, it just doesn’t do the day justice.

During the days up to the hike I kept thinking to myself that the hike itself just couldn’t be that difficult. After all, anyone can pay and be guided up this 6000 ft high mountain. It turned out to be one of the most challenging things I have ever done. We met in the morning with the rest of the people that had obtained permits for that day (see tracking rules & details in the gorilla bonus tracks entry for more details) and were divided into 3 groups. The groups were supposedly pre-determined by our specific permits, but we found out later that really they were loosely based on our apparent physical ability. Grace and I, being fairly young and relatively healthy-looking, were put in the group that would attempt the steepest and most challenging climb. We then met our guide, Augustine, and fellow hikers. In addition, to our surprise, each group of 6 is escorted by 4 camouflaged-clad men with machine guns – 2 hike ahead and 2 hike behind the group. We were told that more armed men hide in the forest during our hike in case of any “trouble.” We initially thought that they were for our protection from the gorillas, but then learned that a few years ago a group of tourists on our same hike had been kidnapped and killed by rebels. The Ugandan government takes the safety of their tourists seriously and puts the soldiers on the hikes to try to ensure our safety. (To be clear, we never felt we were in any danger whatsoever.)

In addition to the guides and guards, there are also porters for hire (a ridiculously cheap $7/day plus tip). This friendly lot dresses in drab gray instead of the green and camouflage worn by the guides and guards. There are more porters than hikers so they work on a rotating schedule. Each morning they wait in a group hoping to be hired for a day’s work. The guides recommend that you use a porter to carry your backpack since the hike is so difficult. The vast majority of hikers succumbs to this advice, and believe me, it’s a good idea. Despite Grace’s initial macho leanings about not hiring a porter, we decided to share one, and we’re both very glad we did. They’re strong, they know the terrain, and they not only carry your stuff but also provide a little extra balance at tricky points along the way. After offloading most of our stuff (with the exception of the camera gear that Grace decided to carry), we each grabbed a walking stick and were on our way.

The start of the hike was a groomed trail at the base of the mountain that falsely fed my confidence that this hike would be relatively easy. I would soon learn, however, why this place was called the Impenetrable Forest. We were told that it usually rains in the afternoon, but today we started the hike in raincoats due to a torrential downpour around 8:15am. This is the rainforest after all. My sneakers were starting to get wet and muddy from the rain, but got soaked after I slipped at a river crossing within the first hour of our hike. The next 6 hours would prove to be much more difficult in soaked sneakers and at that point I wished I hadn’t sacrificed hiking boots to weight and space in our luggage. I could hear over and over in my head my dad saying, “always use the right tool for the right job.” We were temporarily slowed after trudging through a foot-wide trail of large, biting ants. After we moved out of range we had to quickly slap and pick (with the guides’ help) all the ants off our legs and shoes.

fellow hiker facing the "impenetrable"

Pretty soon we were off the groomed trail and hiking in the treacherous terrain of the thick and muddy bush. We were now on a trail that had only been walked by a limited number of folks, those that had gone before us in the recent past attempting to view the gorillas in a place near to where we hoped to see them today (see now where’d that gorilla go? in the gorilla bonus tracks entry). The climb was steep and narrow and we slipped in each other’s footsteps. The rain had stopped, but everything was still plenty wet. We were constantly being hit in the face by a branch swinging from the person in front of us or caught on the various thorny bushes despite the warnings from the guides. In my opinion, this did not qualify as a “trail.” About 2 and a half hours up the mountain our guide received a message over the walkie-talkie from the trackers that we were now getting very close to the gorillas. We left what was left of our trail and were thick in the undergrowth now - Augustine and one of the soldiers were slashing through the vegetation with large machetes. It was just like you see on the movies and TV. Except on TV they don’t show how the bugs and flies swarm all over your sweaty body when you disturb their habitat. We were finally instructed to put down our packs and hike the rest of the way to the gorillas with only our cameras. We could hardly contain our excitement as we followed in the footsteps of our machete-slashing guide as quietly as possible.

Another 30 meters through thick brush and we were rewarded with our first sighting of a family of gorillas sitting in the trees! We were all very excited, but remained silent as previously instructed and planted ourselves down to watch and photograph. A few minutes later I felt a searing, fiery pain in my left hand. I had been stung or bitten and my hand was quickly swelling and turning red. Just as I was turning and explaining to the guide what had happened, another person in the group screamed and fell back. She had been stung in the face. [Note from Grace: It turns out that I had been stung a few moments ago, too, through my fairly thick shirt, so even with the assistance of the woman behind me, I still couldn’t figure out what had happened.] Everyone in the group started flailing wildly from the stings and we heard Augustine yell, “RUN!” (So much for being quiet.) We had unluckily stopped in range of a wasp’s nest and they were fiercely protecting their territory. One thing about being in the thick rainforest, however, is that there’s really no clear way to run. So the machete guide started slashing as quickly as he could ahead of us but really, we just pushed our way through the 9-foot tall brush until we were a safe distance away from the nest. Once we picked the wasps out of each others' hair we set out to find a safe location to view the gorillas…

Don’t miss Grace’s next entry: gentle giants up close.

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