This photo preserves the first view I ever had of a wild mountain gorilla, an adult female nursing a one-month-old baby. I wrote about the moment in my article in the February 2008 issue, but only as a sidebar to the main text and without any of the snapshots I took.
This is how things looked that day, December 5, 2006, in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in Uganda’s heavily forested, mountainous southwestern corner.
Like Queen Elizabeth National Park (where I came face to face with a warthog), Bwindi is an Important Bird Area, home to 347 species, including 24 Albertine Rift endemics. (My guides Hassan Mutebi and Johnnie Kamugisha and I found a handful: Red-throated Alethe, Mountain Masked Apalis, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, and Purple-breasted Sunbird.) The park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, as I discovered, a hugely popular destination for wildlife tourists.
At dinner the night I arrived, I was invited to sit at a long table of Americans, eight in all (four couples), who were winding down a grand tour of East Africa. They had been to Kenya for the Great Migration. They had watched a leopard eat its kill. They'd been close to a lion. And earlier that day, in the pouring rain, they had done what I would do the following morning: they had hiked up into the mountains and found gorillas. Everything they wore and carried got soaked, but they had come within five feet of a silverback. They were in great spirits.
Four family groups in the park are habituated to human visitation. The gorillas I saw -- the mother and baby, a silverback, and five rambunctious young gorillas -- were members of Group R (Rushegura).
My trek to find them began easily enough, with a simple stroll down the road that Hassan, Johnnie, and I had birded the day before, but things became more interesting when our guides directed us to turn right, off the road, directly into the forest. That's when we started climbing. The path was muddy and slippery and at times steep. We had to step over vines and push ferns and other plants out of our faces. It was fun, but it was work. We stopped occasionally to rest and let our party re-form. When we did, I learned something about living equatorial forests: They're loud, astonishingly loud. They buzz.
Every visitor to Bwindi is instructed to stay at least five meters (15 feet) away from the gorillas to minimize the risk of inadvertently passing along human diseases. And I did my best to abide by the rules. But when one of the gorillas somersaulted through the bush, he came to rest within arm’s reach. Then he commenced scratching. Rules or no rules, I was so close I could hear fingernails rubbing dry skin on his back and neck. I could have helped him scratch.
Our guides used pangas to clear narrow footholds in the forest. We were also accompanied by armed guards -- one ahead of our party, two in the back, and others (I heard rumored) hidden in the hills. As is standard in this beleaguered part of the world, they all carried AK-47 assault rifles.
Some gorillas climbed up slender trees until the trunks bowed. Then they edged a little higher, just enough to make the trunk snap. The gorillas fell with the treetop but didn't seem to mind. They ate the exposed pulp.
Five porters from the community accompanied us on our hike to the gorillas. I hired Zepher, in the white hat. When I shared my water with him, he shared it with the guides and other porters. When I gave him more water, he shared that, too. --C.H.