Our guide had stopped and hushed our small group with a slow halting signal. “We are here. We have found them”, she said in a firm and steady whisper. “Remember, do not get closer than seven metres. Look away from them, when necessary. We have one hour only. Ready?” I nodded. “Too right, I’m ready” I thought…
Gingerly picking our way through the dense overgrowth, the six of us proceeded in a ceremonial-like line and after no more than ten paces our guide stopped us again, held her finger to her mouth and with the other hand pointed to a spot about one metre to the left of our feet. There, buried deep within a thicket of bracken and vines, we could just make out a black bulk, covered by a mass of foliage.
The mound of shrubbery began to move and then unfold. Then, with scrunching and crackling, like a volcano erupting, an enormous silverback emerged, looked at us, then turned and ambled across a small vegetated area to recline in a shaded hollow beneath some trees. My chin dropped, and my eyes widened to the size of a pair of dinner plates.
Three or four metres to our right, a pair of young gorillas munched and chewed on the lush vegetation, ripping at vines and stems; stripping them of their succulent leaves, with absolute ease. Our guide beckoned us another few paces further, and only two metres in front of me, a mother cradled her three week old baby close to her bosom. Gazing down, she stroked her child’s hair to one side of its head, tenderly repeating the movement over and over again. I watched – transfixed as she lovingly pressed her lips against the baby’s head. Were these tiny kisses of affection? I was rooted to the spot, I didn’t dare lift my camera for fear of missing the moment with my own eyes - I became overwhelmed and let my tears roll freely down my face – it was so utterly moving. Never before have I witnessed such love and affection within the animal kingdom. Even now, I remain choked as I write this.
Another female, lay in the shade while the silverback nuzzled and groomed her, two juveniles energetically scampered about the adults like fireworks – chasing one another up the trees and tumbling down again – rolling on the ground and then, like drums, beating the back of their father, who coolly accepted the annoyance, paying no attention whatsoever to his children’s demands.
The hour passed by in what felt like five minutes. And then, almost on the hour, the silverback raised his gargantuan frame and silently signalled to his family that it was time to move on. And so they did – all 11 of them slipped through the trees behind…and then we were left alone. Standing amongst the trodden vegetation, dumbstruck, we looked at one another – did that really happen? I was exhausted. My mind was racing. We began our walk back, and I tried to piece together the sequence of events that had preceded it.
In the same way that this gorilla experience surpassed all my expectations, so had each of the wildlife experiences of this, my first trip to Uganda. The gorillas were certainly a grand finale, but absolutely not the only memorable wildlife experience Uganda offers. Though not typically part of a country ‘circuit’, Murchison Falls was our first location, and it certainly gets the award for one of the most beautiful national parks of the country. The wildlife here is fairly typical – huge herds of impala and giraffe, and an abundance of elephants to boot. Predators are common too – lion in particular. However, I was staggered by the variety of birdlife – and the quantity. All along the banks of the Nile, swallows, swifts, bee-eaters, darters and eagles would fly. Flocks of pied kingfishers – dozens of them at time – would hover six metres above the river surface, then fold their wings to plunge into the rich waters and pluck small fish from the water, repeating the same thing time and time again.
To the south, Queen Elizabeth National Park serves as the ideal stopover between chimps and gorillas. It is one of Uganda’s largest national parks and holds some fantastic wildlife hot spots including the Kazinga Channel and Kyamboro Gorge. The entire park remains unfenced, so it affords the wildlife complete free-roaming access throughout the whole area. However, for me, the southern region of the park (Ishasha) was the most thrilling. The transfer journey was short and punctuated by surprise elephant sightings beside the road. Mega flocks of swallows raced around the vehicle, taking what insects and grubs they could from the dust that swirled behind our vehicle. Here, the grasslands remain lush and verdant almost the entire year and wildlife researchers focus on the area’s lions, who have developed a remarkable skill – they can climb trees.
Our journey continued to Bwindi and after that remarkable gorilla experience, we made our way back to Kampala, spending a night at Lake Mburo en route where, despite having the largest concentration of leopard in East Africa – we only saw the blurred shape of one leopard darting across the track far ahead of us. And then, finally, our trip was rounded off with a boat ride through the Mabamba Swamp in search of shoebill – and yes, we did see one – flying and standing, as well as countless herons, kingfishers, egrets, swallows, fly catchers, weavers, sandpipers – oh it was wonderful!
And, so in the same way that my mind had raced in a blur of superlatives when I walked away from the gorillas, it did again as the plane roared down the runway to bring me home.