The unexpected time keeper

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest – just the name makes you want to go there! It is a rain forest, almost on the equator, in Uganda, and it is just as green, lush, humid and indeed impenetrable as you imagine it to be.

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park  is one of only a handful of places on earth where you can find mountain gorillas, an endangered species, in the wild. They can actually only live in the wild, they don’t survive outside their rain forest and thus can’t be held in any zoos.

When you go gorilla tracking in Bwindi you get one hour with the gorillas once you have met them in the rain forest (if you meet them, but chances are high that you will since trackers are out in the very early morning to find their approximate whereabouts). I was to walk with a small group heading out to meet the Katwe gorilla group.

I had heard a lot about five hour walks, uphill, with mud and ants and thorny bushes and bees and lianas making your walk difficult, and sometimes you would have to crawl on all fours or slide down on your bum. So it was with some apprehension that I set out along with my six fellow trackers, our guide, our porters (mostly for camera equipment) and two armed guards.

The walk started in the most wonderful rain forest, with birds singing and the sun reaching through the dense vegetation. Very romantic! It was muddy and a bit slippery in places, but certainly nothing like the difficult scenarios I had imagined and was prepared for.

Only after 45 minutes or so a toddler gorilla came to meet us.

He and his toddler friends were quite cheeky but they were kept in strict control by the leader of the pack, the Silverback, the dominant male gorilla. At the slightest grunt from him, they would immediately stop what they were up to and instantly become very well behaved little gorillas. But when the toddler in the photo came straight up to us and started touching the camera of one of my fellow travellers, the Silverback said nothing.

This Silverback was a very remarkable person. I should say remarkable gorilla, of course, but having observed his different expressions, his gestures and behaviour I was struck by the similarities to human behaviour.

I was so absorbed by the emotion of seeing these wonderful creatures and by taking photos of them that I lost all notion of time. But the Silverback apparently didn’t. After one hour he stopped eating leaves and just stood up and left with his group. Our guide confirmed that an hour had passed.

We thought of course that this was pure coincidence.

I went back to track the same group the following day. The walk was amazingly enough even shorter. Again I was totally lost in time, being so close to these wonderful creatures.

After a while the Silverback seemed to have had enough of us, stopped eating the yummy leaves and flowers, stood up and walked away, followed by the others.

Our guide confirmed that an hour had passed.

The long walk or Don’t give up!

We walked and we walked and we walked in the dense vegetation in the tropical forest, uphill, downhill, very rarely on paths, stumbling on roots, getting stuck on thorny bushes and avoiding safari ants. We were a group of photo enthusiasts trying to find chimpanzees in the Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda.

We heard them, suddenly close to us, chatting, screaming and banging on tree trunks. Chimpanzees are very noisy animals! With the help of our skilled guide we tried to get close, moving silently and calmly. No luck – they just flew between the tree tops, away from us.

We walked on. And on. And on.

There they were again, just close by! Maybe this time we can get close to them and actually observe them, not only hear them!

But no. Same story again. And again. And again. The guide never failed to lead us in their direction, but the chimps always won the race.

We walked on in the beautiful forest.

Eventually, we spotted a male high up in a tree. Great excitement and all cameras out!

iPhone photo by Annelie Utter

But … was he laughing at us standing there clicking away and getting neck problems while trying our very best to get a good shot?

Silly humans, I’m sure he thought, while resigning to being photographed.

After seven hours of walking we gave up on the group we had tried to follow and set out to look for another group of these clever animals. Now we were lucky and rather soon found some that we could observe – and they could observe us.

The one here below was a rather philosophical guy, I thought, as I watched him sitting down to contemplate the interest in him and his pals.

Chimpanzees love fruit and this specimen feasted on some with red seeds that stuck to his lips.

When we were back at the jeep that should bring us back to the lovely Ndali Lodge where we were staying, 10 hours had passed since we set out in the morning. 10 hours of walking in the tropical forest. Was it worth it? Yes!!! Would I do it again? Without any hesitation!!! The experience of being close to chimpanzees in their natural habitat has no price and is worth all efforts.

It had been a wonderful day. I admit that I was a little tired though – just a tiny bit.