Scanning the map of Uganda, just the name, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is enough to attract any adventurer. Its impenetrable reputation is said to derive from the large swamps in the lowlands, but its battalions of sheer saw toothed peaks covered in dense old growth forest also seem worthy of the designation. However, after visiting, I got the feeling that maybe the mountain gorillas of the forest were the ones really responsible for the title.
We have traveled to the forest in search of the families of gorillas that live there, but immediately come across a herd of forest elephants, busily thrashing the forest as they fed on it. They are too dangerous to approach in the thick bush, so we just stand listening to the cracking of giant trees being felled, and watch what looks like a localized tornado tear apart the foliage under the canopy.
A ranger introduces himself as our guide, explaining that there are twelve habituated families of gorillas in Bwindi, and about half of the remaining wild mountain gorillas live in Bwindi. We have chosen the Rusaga sector of the park where there are five families, and the ranger decides to take us to see the Nshongi family, consisting of nine gorillas with a single silverback as the leader.
The dense canopy blocks the sun in the forest, and silk worms have woven their webs around the bushes and branches making it seem like giant spiders are lurking in the shadows. Little forest deer called duiker prance around nibbling on the bushes, and great blue turacos squawk in the canopy. The land feels dark and enchanted.
After a couple kilometers on a park trail, the ranger unsheathes a machete and starts hacking a new trail through deep bush. We find other rangers who have been tracking the gorillas, and we ready our cameras. I finish setting up my kit last, and walk at the end of our single file line through the shadowy foliage. Then without warning, the silverback charges out of the forest, galloping forward on his knuckles, stopping within two meters of my friend Dida. He turns back, and then charges her again. The ranger calmly repeats, “don’t run, don’t run”, and it takes all of our bravery not to.
Dida’s eyes are the size of quarters, and the silverback settles down with his back against a tree, and now seems completely uninterested in us. As we all settle down, giant piles of epiphytes start falling to the ground around the tree where the silverback is seated. Peering into the canopy we see three other gorillas high in the branches happily munching on epiphytes and generously throwing them down to their leader.
The gorillas in the trees are younger, and periodically stop to gaze down at us. As they eat what is closest to the trunk, they venture out on branches above us, and the epiphytes land closer to us than the silverback. He looks up at us to make sure we know whose they are, but after our aggressive greeting there is no doubt on either side of the epiphytes. The ranger moves us back a bit, just to ensure him, and the silverback stands and moves towards us to claim his tribute.
As the silverback finishes eating, he disappears into the bush, which is a little nerve racking, as we are not sure if and when he may come rushing back at us. The others are still over 30 meters above us, but saunter over to the trunks of the tree, and slide down them like a fireman’s pole, spraying moss and bark around them in clouds of sediment.
Down on the ground, one of the juveniles charges towards Alex and I, leaping up onto a log right in front of us, before disappearing back into the jungle. He seems to be training to be one of the next great protectors of the Bwindi forest, and he gives us both enough of a scare to make us think he will do a great job when his time comes to lead the family.
Bwindi’s vast swaps, sheer peaks, and dense canopy make it foreboding enough, however, once inside its boundaries, the giant mountain gorillas ensure you realize that they are the true guardians of Bwindi, and the ones who may decide if you ever make it back out. Overall, the experience is exhilarating, and as much as the gorillas feign aggression, they also show their gentle and playful sides. So go travel to penetrate the impenetrable, and have one of nature’s wildest experiences in one of the most ominous places still left on our planet.