We watched for about an hour as the group went through our camp, climbed trees, ate leaves and moved on. We were thrilled by the unexpected encounter.
It was finally time to trek off into the mountains in search of another group. To minimize the effects of human contact on the primates' habitat, only 12 gorilla-trekking permits are issued per day, at $250 apiece plus park fees, all of which must be purchased well in advance from the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. The permits can be arranged through travel groups and agencies as well.
A permit doesn't guarantee a gorilla encounter. More than 300 mountain gorillas are estimated to live in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, but it's a thick jungle, and some tracking groups search all day without finding them.
We started off down a long dirt road into the park, accompanied by two other travelers, two trackers (guides) and two armed guards, one far ahead and one just behind us.
The road narrowed, and then we cut off onto a jungle path that carried us up and down and around, into a dark forest area where our guides told us about beautiful rare birds and butterflies while I fought away thoughts of giant snakes, scorpions and army ants. We hopped over mountain streams and climbed around precarious boulders, always keeping our voices down as we listened for the gorillas.
The gorilla trackers and park guides are Ugandans who grew up in the area, and their knowledge of the terrain, flora and fauna was impressive. Our lead tracker had spent months following and sitting with the group of gorillas we were tracking. With satellite tracking devices, other trackers mark where the animals nest for the night. They don't roam far in a day — usually no more than a mile — so chances are good that tourist groups will find the gorillas within a few hours.
Our guide heard them first, a low rustling in the trees just beyond us. We stopped in our tracks, hearts pounding as the adrenaline hit.
Sure, we had seen gorillas in our camp in the morning, but now we were in their territory, and anything could happen.
Accustomed to humans
The gorillas spotted us immediately, and a few of the 15 scurried off to a safer distance, but most acted indifferent. For years, the trackers had conditioned the animals to human presence.
Following our guide's instruction, we crouched in the brush, kept silent and simply observed.
Not far away was this group's silverback, a huge male that clearly directed the movements of the family. (Silverbacks, named for the silvery-gray patch of hair on their backs, are mature males.) He kept a close eye on us while he sat pulling leaves from a bush.
One younger gorilla played the class clown, swinging among branches and apparently having a great time. Some were sprawled out, napping. Others just meandered around us, eating leaves and checking us out.
When tour books call such an experience "magical" and "enchanting," I'm usually skeptical, but I'm at a loss for a better description. Still, I wondered how magical the encounter was for the gorillas. They must figure the tourists' arrival into their daily routine. And they must wonder what on earth these hairless beasts are so curious about.
It's impossible not to feel the evolutionary connection with the gorillas as they go about their ordinary, familiar activities: toddlers running around and jumping into Mom's arms; adolescents doing acrobatics in the trees with a mischievous glint in their eyes; Dad watching over everything.
No wonder Dian Fossey fought with such passion to protect the gorillas. In 1985, the famed researcher was killed — it's thought she was slain by poachers — in mountains like these in Rwanda. Her spirit still seems to influence the work of all of the trackers I met.
Our guide led us as close as possible to the gorillas, all the while making deep grunting noises that the silverback seemed to take as a friendly gesture. He said he'd learned to communicate in a basic way with them over the years and felt as though he "knew" most of them.
To minimize the chance of passing along human colds or illnesses, tourists spend only an hour with the gorillas. It's a loose rule, though, and our tracker stretched the time about 30 minutes longer. I could have stayed all day.
After shifting position a couple of times as the group moved around the mountainside, we found ourselves sitting about 10 feet from the silverback and one of the mature females. Like a pleasantly comfortable married couple, the two lay next to each other as if exhausted from a morning of tending to a busy family. The female tenderly patted the silverback's arm and tugged bugs from his fur, and he responded with some guttural sweet nothings of his own.