I was instructed to leave everything behind except my camera. I left my rucksack on the dense forest floor and followed my guide, my excitement building. A variety of birds were perched on high singing. I spotted a fabulous looking Blue-headed coucal, its deep and resonant song calling through the forest. The air was heavy with a heady mix of heat and humidity.
A clearing in the dense forest afforded a unique view: Rwanda to the south and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the west. I was in Mgahinga National Park, a least known about gem in south western Uganda.
I continued walking in silence through the lush undergrowth for a few hundred metres before turning left around a tree. To my surprise and delight a 500 pound silverback mountain gorilla was happily sitting munching on a twiglet full of green leaves a few metres away from me. I would have never have guessed he was there.
I watched the way he held the branch, his fingers moving delicately. I was totally fascinated. He is fifty years old, the dominant silverback and his name is Mark, in honour of the first tourist to visit the Park. At almost 38 square kilometres Mgahinga is the smallest of Uganda's national parks. Despite its size it is hugely important in the conservation and protection of one family of mountain gorillas.
Tragically there are only 880 mountain gorillas left in the world. Their current populations are fragile but the good news is that they are increasing in numbers. I was told there is less than one mountain gorilla for every square kilometre of remaining conservation habitat. The rate at which the human population surrounding the park is growing means their numbers will double ever 22 years. There are least 350 people on average per square kilometre surrounding the park with its one extended gorilla family.
After tossing aside the branch (now devoid of leaves) Mark stood up and went over to a tree. I continued watching as he hugged a big branch with one huge arm and began stripping the bark with his other arm.
Suddenly the guide beckoned.
Reluctantly I left Mark, and was introduced to his three sons: Mafia (23 years), Ndugutse (20) and Rukundo (18). The saddle-shaped patch of silver hair on their backs reached their hips and looked like it had been shaved to perfection. They were calmly sitting in a small glade of trees under a dappled light. I wondered if they were having a deep conversation about world affairs. It was such a rare privilege to get right up and personal with some of the world’s most endangered apes in their very own home.
I was pleased to see that our presence did not disturb or stress the gorillas. They have become habitulised to humans over time, enabling me to get close enough to sit and observe their every move. I was completely fascinated and could have watched them all day long.
Our guide moved us to a patch of waist high vegetation to meet two mothers: Zanye (21) who seemed to have more wrinkles on her face than most of the others, and Nshuti (19) with her small face, pointed forehead and a “7” shaped depression above her nose. Her name means “friend”.
They were hanging out with their offspring: Mutagamba and Tulambule who, at only two years old, had the most amazing punk rocker hairstyle (without hair gel), and Nseluye who had not yet grown into his big brown eyes. Gorillas live in structured groups with defined home ranges, so it was not surprising that I met the whole Nyakagezi family.
Being so close one can observe and interpret their interactions. As I looked into Zanye’s pensive brown eyes I realised just how close genetically they are to us humans.
When Mark decided to move away the whole family moved with him. Our guide used a machete to hack a rough path through the tropical moist broadleaf forest with its very characteristic earthy smell. The gorillas were foraging for leaves, stems and shoots. They mainly moved around using their knuckle-walking method which at first, to me, looked like it might be sore. After seeing Mark’s hard knuckles on his hands I knew otherwise.
Little did I know that each gorilla has a distinctive facial footprint that is useful for identification. Mark has two folds on the right side of his nose whilst Rukundo (whose name means “love”) has “M” shaped folds above his nose.
This gorilla family lives in isolation in a small area of the slopes of an extinct volcano, an IUCN Category II national park established in 1991 and part of the Virunga conservation area. The park includes three of the eight Virunga Mountains volcanoes: Mount Muhabura, Mount Gahinga, and Mount Sabyinyo. These dormant volcanoes are international mountains, with Muhabura and Gahinga on the Uganda/Rwanda border, and Sabyinyo a tripoint on the Uganda/Rwanda/DRC borders making it an interesting place to visit.
Mgahinga is home to 76 species of mammals including the endangered endemic golden monkey, giant forest hogs, bush pigs, forest buffaloes, elephants, bushbucks, golden cats, side striped jackals, black fronted duikers and South African porcupines. The park has a record of 115 bird species, some of which are endemic, which makes it interesting for bird watching. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see all the different species because I was too busy enjoying the gorillas.
The juveniles played on the back of one of the mothers who was lying on the forest floor. All I could see was a furry mass of gorillas playing, jumping and having fun. I smiled and smiled until sadly the guide said it was time to leave. Although they had been silent when I met them I could still hear them grunting and barking to each other from a couple of kilometres away, despite the dense vegetation. They must have been on the move again, communicating and letting each other know the whereabouts of individual group members.
Naturally I was in high spirits on the trek back. At an altitude of around 2,600 metres I was able to soak up the panoramic view over the clouds.
As there are no roads to the park gate my walk back to my vehicle was through highly fragmented land and the villages surrounding the park. Dogs barked, goats lifted their heads and children greeted us as we passed their small sub-divided subsistence plots growing crops such as sweet potatoes, sorghum, millet, bananas and - believe it or not - Irish potatoes. The walls made from black volcanic stone really stood out in the green landscape. The park takes its name from "Gahinga", the local word for the piles of volcanic stones cleared from farmland at the foot of the volcanoes.
At my car I looked back wistfully at the Virunga Mountains. Their forested slopes dominate the landscape, making them an impressive sight. Now at home, as I glance at my certificate awarded for completing the gorilla trek, I am instantly transported back to my amazing and unique experience of meeting the Nyakagezi family.
Little did I know that my next gorilla encounter in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest would be a very different one…
To be continued