Visiting the Busingye Family

This was the most difficult thing we have ever done.

It was cold when we woke up this morning. Maybe 45 degrees. Maria had long johns under her safari pants. We wore our winter coats to breakfast 100+ steps up the hill from our room. After breakfast, Ali took us on the short drive to the entrance of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Bwindi means “Impenetrable”, so technically, the name is Impenetrable Impenetrable Forest. It is one of the oldest forests on Earth. It’s on a mountain, so was spared the worst of the ice age. Home to many species of plants and animals. The one we were here to see was the mountain gorilla. About 900 alive today, half here in this forest.

The 40 visitors went through some orientation, then they had us split up into 5 groups of eight, one group for each of the 5 gorilla families that have been habituated to humans. Our family was called Busingye after the patriarch silverback. “Busingye” means “peace” because he is such a placid guy. In addition to the silverback, there were four females and three juveniles.

Each group was assigned a leader and two scouts armed with the requisite AK47. Our leader was David, the scouts were Viola and Saul. There were also porters for hire at $15, to carry backpacks and generally help. So we hired a young guy named Hera. Everyone got a sturdy hiking stick except Maria who had her own.

Off we went into the jungle. We followed a quite challenging trail for about a mile. Thick jungle on both sides, then up a steep hillside with a cliff up on the right side and a cliff down on the left. Down a long steep, slippery, muddy hillside. Lots of slipping and sliding. Maria compared it to a black diamond ski trail, only muddy. At the bottom was a little brook. We tried to keep our boots out of the water. How naive we were.

We came to a little clearing and had a water break. David radioed the trackers to check progress. The trackers were three guys who went out early in the morning to where the gorilla family had spent the night. They then followed them to locate their current position. Gorillas travel about a kilometer each day and make a new nest each night. They go crashing through the forest, so the trackers follow the trail.

The trackers told David that they were close to the gorillas, but it looked like the family would be moving down the mountain, closer to us. So we stayed put. We hung around chatting a bit. Our group had a 30 something German couple and a 40 something couple from Nova Scotia. These folks were well traveled, lots of time spent around the world and were well outfitted. We were in good shape, with hats, long sleeves and gardening gloves. The final two were two guys from France, one of whom had those beige, pink-soled desert boots to go with his dress shirt and trousers. He was slipping and sliding all over the place.

After about 45 minutes of waiting, the radio crackled and we were off again. The group had to wait a minute, because Maria had gone ahead on the trail to pee. She takes credit for this act that made the trackers call. We continued 100 yards or so along the trail and David stopped, looked up the nearly vertical hillside, consulted with the two scouts and said, “if you brought gloves, now is the time to put them on.” Brandishing his machete, he started climbing up the hillside, whacking away at the thick, thick vegetation. Vines and runners and stuff covered in thorns.

We let everyone else go ahead of us two oldsters, so they could break the trail. The footing was really treacherous, often it seemed there was no solid ground under the generations of matted undergrowth. This was hands-and-knees, grab-anything-that-seems-solid-and-50%-of-the-time-it-isn’t, climbing through a sea of vegetation. Hera, the porter, no stick to help, wearing Wellington boots and carrying both our backpacks, helped Maria a lot. When we had gone up 50 feet or so, the ground leveled out a bit and everyone gathered themselves.

We climbed a little farther and met the trackers. “Put down your sticks and backpacks. From here you will need to manage without them. We are going to see gorillas.” We struggled along, then, from the back of the group, I was the first to spot the big silverback. It looked like, yes he was, fucking. He was about 15 feet away. Around, on the vegetation, we spotted others, including a baby playing up a tree. We heard a bunch of noise and branches snapping right overhead, the trackers quickly had us move out of the way, and this black furry shape came crashing out of the tree, down in our midst and went bounding off into the trees.

Where we were standing had been impenetrable jungle this morning, until a gorilla blasted through making the path. We were very close to the gorillas, less than 5 feet at one point, but the vegetation was so thick, it was hard to see more than the black shape. No problem, the trackers would hack away the obscuring leaves and branches, and the gorillas didn’t mind a bit.

The oldest tracker took a liking to Maria and pulled her right up front. “Get closer”. Because I was with her, I shared the privilege. He took her camera and shot a bunch of photos while she was snapping away on her phone. The gorillas would move and he pulled Maria right along. Finally, we squeezed over to the side and let the others get the front row.

We witnessed a bit of family drama. After the silverback had finished having sex, one of the other females wanted in on the action. She stood back and waited until the first female wandered away. She cautiously approached the silverback, who had no interest. He walked about 20 feet away. She followed, as did the eight of us. She started grooming him, which he let her do for a while then abruptly, he took off down the slope and out of sight. She looked so forlorn.

During this exciting hour with the gorillas, we did things that would be unimaginable when we woke up this morning. Like sit down on the jungle floor in Africa, or climb on hands and knees, or ignore the swarms of little flies that formed a cloud around each gorilla. Everyone was mesmerized.

When it was time to go, we made our way down the treacherous slope back to the trail. Somehow the hike back was easier. We said goodbye to our team, stopped into a couple of little shacks to get a few souvenirs, and headed back to the lodge. It was 1:00pm. We hadn’t even eaten the box lunches we had carried along. We were the first ones back, we had been very lucky to find gorillas so quickly. We talked to a group of Germans who said they had climbed around for three hours before giving up and went to visit a different family. 7 hours in the jungle for them.

We sat on the little porch outside our cabin and ate our box lunches with a couple of beers. The lodge has a boot cleaning service. Our boots were so caked with mud that Maria considered throwing hers away. The kid who brought the beers took away our boots and gave them back to us a couple of hours later in like-new condition, better than when we left Marlborough.

We had dinner with Danny and Clara, our new Nova Scotia friends, and were snoring by 9:00pm.