Whilst in Uganda I ‘penetrated the Impenetrable forest’ (or so reads the tourist t-shirts you’re encouraged to buy prior to the trek). For some though, ‘penetration’ doesn’t always climax with a gorilla sighting and the guide informed us prior to the trek beginning that an ‘African helicopter’ would be available for the sum of $300+ if we were unable to make it. An African helicopter is what the locals rely on when they’re sick. Without the service of ‘999’ or helicopter rescue, members of the community must pull together and go to each other’s assistance with a wicker stretcher. All community members partake in this service, with the understanding that everyone else will do the same in their hour of need. But for tourits too unfit or injured to walk any further, they too can benefit from this ‘local’ service. But at mzungu prices.
Thankfully, our group was reasonably fit and able. We got off to an enthusiastic start but were soon stopped in our tracks by the guide and armed trackers who told us to stay still and quiet. We were single file in a dense thicket of forest, with little option but to go forward or retreat the way we’d come. Panic quickly came over us as we all played a frantic game of Chinese whispers trying to work out why our guide was suddenly being so cautious. Had we stumbled across the gorillas already? Why couldn’t we proceed? We then heard urgent whispers of ‘elephant’ and a wave of excitement came over me, quickly dispelled by the terrified look of the Brazlian woman in our group who was at the front and had turned around to tell us to go back, as quickly as possible. A little disheartened that we hadn’t seen it ourselves, we all began hurredly shuffling back the way we’d come. But cleary the situation was more dangerous that we had realised because soon the Brazilian woman and trackers were urging us to go quicker. I felt a sharp thump on the side of my head and realised that my friend, Fleur, had unintionationally barged past me and knocked me with her walking stick in the process. I took this as my signal to move a bit faster and avoid being trampled, by both my group and the approaching elephant.
We backed off and were told to stop again. At this point we all froze and listened intently. Suddenly, a shot was fired from the tracker’s AK47 and I think several expeltives escaped me. We looked on to see the forest swaying and moving, as the elephant approached. More shots were fired, perhaps 6-10 and I began to scan our limited exit routes. Either back the way we came or a frantic scurry to freedom through the thick undergrowth. Our guide then decided it was time for an emergency evacuation plan and began furiously and efficiently chopping at the undergrowth to the side of the path to form a makeshift exit route off the main walkway. We followed as he machete-chopped his way through the forest up the steep slope to a safer vantage point. Another shot or two were fired, I muttered more expletives and we followed our guide up the hill where we paused again to try and locate the so-far-invisible-elephant. It was then that we caught our first glimpse of it. Ears flapping above the undergrowth it was frightened by the shots (as too, probably, were the gorillas) and had taken to the adjacent slope from us. Through the forest trees we could clearly make out it’s head and enormous tusks. A full-sized adult bull. Alone. Which probably meant it was highly aggressive as it had been rejected from the troop. We were told forest elephants were smaller than their other relatives but this one looked pretty huge as it trundled past. It disappeared but my own shock and fear did not. I remained stunned by this rare encounter and couldn’t believe we were in such immediate danger that our ranger had felt it necessary to let off several rounds of live ammunication from his trusty AK47.
The trek continued with far less animal encounters. Dense vegetation means you can actually see very little apart from the person in front of you and a wall of green in every direction. The trek was a lot harder than I had expected. Having originally declined the offer of a porter to carry my bag and ‘push or pull’ me along, I was soon borrowing other people’s porters and accepting their help in hauling me up the steep incline. We were somewhat worried that our tracker’s over-enthusiastic use of the AK47 had scared off the gorillas but after a tough 3-4 hours of trekking, we were finally treated to a sighting. The group was small, consisting of an enormous and rather moody silverback (to be fair, I’d be moody if I had hoards of tourists watching me eat everyday), a large but shy female and a small, playful baby. Prior to arriving with them, our guide instructed us to get our cameras, turn the flash off and leave our bags with the porters. We were all anxious to get a good shot but as we edge in closer, with the tracker swiping at the undergrowth with his machete, we managed to irritate the silverback who swung around, grunted and pounded the ground between him and us. It was another heart-stopping moment, in which we really were at the mercy of nature. Luckily, our experienced guides were able to communicate with the silverback and after some aggressive grunting back, he seemed to back off and resort yet again to ignoring us completely and tucking into the fist full of branches he was half way through devouring.
The baby gorilla was far more intrigued by us. He’d often look in our direction and seemed to be putting on a little show just for us. One minute he was pounding his chest and pretending to be a silverback, the next he was stripping branches like his Dad and showing us his climbing skills. After some time, he got a bit too comfortable in our presence and climbed a branch right above my head. It suddenly snapped and I felt sheer terror as I realised he was falling towards me and was about to land on my head. Aware the silverback (his Dad) was only metres away, I panicked and screamed (the one thing we’re explicitly told NOT TO DO). This must have startled the little chap as he managed to scramble back up the branch and avoided landing on top of me.
I can’t imagine many other people had an experience quite as dramatic as ours. From the rare sighting of a forest elephant to the cranky silverback lunging at us and the clumsy baby gorilla who very nearly landed in my lap! Luckily we were returned in one piece and with some stories which we will no doubt be reminiscing about in years to come.