“Ants coming up,” shouted someone from the front of the group. “Walk fast!” the message was passed on swiftly. Our pace quickened as we dodged gatherings of ants forming thick red lines across the paths.
The trek through the Bwindi forest in southwestern Uganda was so enthralling, that a couple of hours into the trek I’d almost forgotten we were on our way to see the mountain gorillas. This was one of the only places in the world where we could come so close to these fascinating animals.
The eight-hour drive from Kampala might have been a deterrent (what with the slight issue of motion sickness) but I was lucky enough to have flown up to Kisoro, the closest town to Bwindi, only an hour from Clouds, our beautiful lodge. And yet, as I laid eyes on the expanse of green, of clouds static around the hills in the morning, of the glorious sunshine intermittently gasping from the heavens and then the brewing afternoon storm and ensuing floods, I realised that even a day-long drive to see this would have been worthwhile. Our butler, Sipi, lit the fire and I warmed myself watching the hills merge and disappear within the opaque sheet of water gushing forth, until day turned into night and it was time for dinner.
Early the next morning, I wrapped up warm and was fully equipped for the trek. At the 7am breakfast, the sun began to illustrate the arena of fields and hills and suddenly, it dawned on me how hot the day might be and that I needed to remove at least one layer, jumper and leggings. In the distance, beyond the vast dip between a circle of tall hills, layer on layer, different shades of green and dusk, grey and black, there was one hill with white smoke rising from its seemingly flattened top. Had I not seen the sheet of orange glowing there last night, I might have mistaken the smoke for clouds, but it was in fact a volcano across the border in Congo.
A few children waved and goats passed by us as we walked up a wide path and finally reached a cluster of tall trees and shrubs, the forest. For the first hour, there were paths. I was struck by the exquisite red earth of the tree stumps we stepped over, the damp smell of the soil as we walked through passages shielded so intensely by intertwined branches that the rain had soaked and brewed in the mud, and then by the surrounding silence — save for our sticks as they hit a tree now and then, the slight rustle when we walked faster and the sound of mints moving in my pocket. It was only when we ventured further into the rainforest, trudging through the dense undergrowth of vines and shrubs inhabiting the valley floor, branches hanging from which gorillas must have been swinging or eating, that I realised why this is named the Impenetrable Forest.
Some two hours later, we stopped. “When you see these men, you know you’re near the gorillas,” Florence, our chief guide, told us. We greeted three men who had been tracking the gorillas’ paths since early morning. From this point, the porters remained behind with our belongings and we continued, quieter and more aware of our surroundings. I sat and slid down a slope, ducking under low branches, trying not to slip through sludge.
And finally, everyone turned with whispers of “they’re here”.
“Where?” I asked, not sure what to expect — perhaps a large mighty hairy gorilla?
And just then, I looked up at the tree ahead and saw the large silverback sitting comfortably on top, tugging lazily at the leaves and chewing away.
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