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  • Matthew Hart

Gonna take some time to do the things we never had (ooh, ooh)... (part 2)

October 26, 2021


Mzungu Diaries, Part 2.


Silverbacks. Blackbacks. Sorebacks.



We had three bed nights, two full days booked at Cloud's Mountain Gorilla Lodge. Our two full days would be spent trekking to see the mountain gorilla's in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We would end up trekking to see Father Christmas and his family the first day and Rafiki''s family the following day.


The trek to see Father Christmas (silverback) and his family (5 females), was awesome. And it was awesome because it was easy compared to what we had waiting for us the following day. It was a two hour trek down a fairly stable, gradual downhill path to where Father Christmas and his family were eating for the day. The conversation with the guides and other trekkers on the way down was an easy distraction from time and exercise.


And then all of a sudden two trackers emerge from the jungle, "shhhhh," and then instructing us to leave our backpacks and things behind and to follow them, slowly back into the jungle. Things change quickly as you connect the dots - I'm in a jungle, deep in the mountains of Uganda, and there is a silverback here somewhere and holy shit I am not at the San Francisco Zoo. You get closer to the rustling in the bushes ahead and there they are. In the trees above stripping branches of their leaves, on the ground shoveling grass in their mouths, going about their gorilla day while you look at them in mind-blown admiration and respect to the power you hope you don't see directed at you. The feeling is tough to describe because there isn't one, two or three words that come close to capturing it. It was all the feels.


We effortlessly fell into the top selling point from our travel agent - you need two days because of how lost you are in the first. The good kind of lost drizzled with some uncomfortable moments. Like when the guide told me it was ok to turn my back to Father Christmas for a picture but then he took video and began making grunting noises at Mr. Christmas. That was super uncomfortable but the awakening of all your senses for the one hour you have with the gorillas was another level.


We went back to Clouds on cloud-9 with some sore legs with an entire staff taking care of you like an army of the best mom's. Real massages, full 'butler' service - laundry, fire starter, bartender, waiter, chef - all of it. You know that with another day of trekking ahead of you and, in your mind, another two-hour hike, you need all the help you can get to recover.


On Sunday morning, we woke up ready for another adventure and were at the Ranger's Station by 8am. They quickly organized the trekker's for the day into two groups and it only took 20 minutes into the trek before it became obvious why the Austrian couple wearing skinny jeans and tennis shoes was not with our group. The conversation wasn't the distraction it was the day before but the steep and by steep I mean nearly vertical, jagged, muddied, thin path down the mountain, through small villages and farms of tea was. We were focused on not getting injured and determined to not need an African helicopter (two people to carry you on a stretcher). It happens and doesn't take your imagination to see why.




And that leg of the trek only 3 hours. The path ahead looked flat and it was compared to the first 3 hours. The conversation became a nice distraction again along with the lush green colors and river carving its way through the jungle. Our guide was effortless hacking through the trail with his machete and then we came to a stop when the call came in from the trackers. We were getting closer.


Twenty minutes later our tracker stopped to let us know we were "here." The only difference from the day before is that we didn't see the trackers emerge from the jungle to tell us to put down our things and to "shhhhh." With his machete in his right hand, he pointed back up to the top of the mountain we just came down, only this time there was no path. Bushes, bushes with thorns, ferns, ferns that hurt, trees, sticks, leaves, so much of all that stuff there was very little dirt. And up we went, along with a bunch of "ah fucks, shits, what are we doing here, why are we doing this, what is going on and then you remember the day before and know its worth it. I've always wanted to pretend like I was the gorilla climbing through the jungle like it was normal and without the basic need for a basic path. We slipped, we climbed and then we saw our trackers emerge .



We were among the family - 4 black backs (juvenile males) , 4 females and 4 babies. Tragically , the silverback, Rafiki, was killed by a poacher the year before. Just horribly sad in every possible way. The uniquely tragic situation of the family created an equally unique dynamic as far as gorilla families go. 4 black backs competing to see who will emerge the silverback - the leader.


Immediately to our left and about 15 yards away we saw the first black back enjoying some greens. I was clutched to a tree and about 5 feet below me, Erin was clutched to a tree. And it was then, he started to move and thankfully we had enough time for our survival instinct to kick in - stay calm, don't freak out, be cool, holy shit holy shit holy shit that gorilla is coming right at us. He did, his 3 1/2 foot width passed between the 5 feet that separated Erin and I, grabbing her leg right in front of her husband, and then moved down the mountain to meet up with his crew. Wow. What just happened. If I had just 5 seconds more, I would have been taking video. We would have gone viral. It was intense and my leg wasn't the one grabbed by a black back who currently competing with 3 other black backs to emerge KING OF THE JUNGLE! I'm glad he ran away because I was going to do something about it. He definitely won't be the silverback.


We followed him down the hill where we saw everyone else. Incredible and any other word doesn't describe what you are experiencing - baby gorillas playing with each other, playing with their mother's, moving about the jungle, eating, playing, relaxing, crossing rivers and aggressively pounding their chest, then colliding with each other, they are moving about you, coming close, but you've done this before, so you know how to act cool. You look at their hands, you process their expressions, the interactions. It's surreal. It 's humbling. It's like looking in a mirror 8 million years ago.



The trackers and guides gave us overtime with the gorillas because it was such a dynamic point in the day for them. It also could have been that they knew we needed it from the trek down and the trek back up that awaited us. The highs from the experience lasted a little bit and then lunch helped, kind of. At one point on the way back up, I exclaimed that if given the choice and all things equal (no gorillas involved), I would choose the hike to the top of Half Dome over this one because it would be easier. A little longer, but easier.


Eventually we made it back - covered in mud, soaked from a drizzle sweat combo and exhausted. Physically and a little emotionally. It was, without a doubt, worth every bit - the year long delay, the trip, the flights, the drives, the treks, all of it. We were only three days in to the real start of the trip and it was worth all of it.


I had no idea leaving Cloud's Mountain the next day was going to be so difficult. Like the worst travel day of my life difficult.


Summary:

  • If you've ever wanted to see the gorillas, prioritize it.

  • Prioritize it before you are too old and in, at least average, shape

  • A gorilla grabbed my wife's leg and ran away from me.


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