Google them right now!
You back? Okay…well there are only 300 of these gorillas left in the world and they can only be found in three locations. Nine families live high in the mountains of the Bwindi Rainforest. The Ugandan Government limits the number of visitors who enter the rainforest each day. If you wish to partake in a Gorilla Trek, you must pay the Ugandan Government $500 for a permit (good for one hour of gorilla viewing). Then you must find transport to Bwindi, which is a nine-hour drive from Kampala. I was fortunate to have a cousin who absolutely insisted I see these notorious gorillas of the Rainforest. He also acted as my travel consultant and sponsored my trip (He is really just that incredible. I’ve already started planning a grand adventure to take his children on someday…)
I had been looking forward to this trip for weeks and on Wednesday, July 27th I left my village for Kampala so I would be in an easy location for my 0700 pickup time on Thursday morning. My little body tried to change these plans though. Wednesday night I work up every hour in a hot sweaty daze and felt like I was a dried out sponge. Being the intelligent health educator that I am, I chalked this up to feeling dehydrated and I drank two full water bottles and went back to sleep. In the morning, I still felt miserable and I finally accepted that I had a fever. My cousin played nurse for the next hour and we were able to break my fever.
Then we literally had a life or death decision to make. Do I skip the trip (the non-refundable, un-repeatable, un-re-schedulable trip) and go to the doctor in case I was experiencing the beginning of some crazy African disease? OR: Do I ignore my symptoms and travel 9 hours alone to the border of Rwanda and the DRC where I will have no cell reception, no computer access, and no hospital to fall back on?
Well, if any of you remember the Kristen who went to class the day after her emergency appendectomy…you won’t be surprised to hear that I went with the, “ignore all logic: live a little!” route.
My travel group consisted of our slightly aggressive and extremely opinionated driver named Joseph, a lovely couple not much older than me from Denmark, and my disease-ridden weakling self. Quite a long drive, but it really was great company! Most of the drive was on a decently paved road…until we arrived at the bottom of the mountain. From the bottom to our lodge was about a two-hour drive up a narrow, rocky, and pot-holed road. When we [finally] arrived to our lodge, the staff greeted us with warm towels and tea. Since I felt ill, I drank enough tea to be polite and then left for my room and took a nap until dinner. The rooms were all scattered throughout the rainforest and it was absolutely beautiful! Yet, (despite my cousin’s warning) surprisingly cold! Our first afternoon it was 10o C [50o F but I have been in 85o-90o heat for the last two months] and it dropped even lower after dark. Our dinner was served on an outdoor canopy patio and we were treated to an authentic rainforest storm. If you have ever been to the Rainforest Café while the mock thunder and lightning storm takes place, then you already know what this was like. Only, it was much colder than the restaurant. Very fun. We were all giddy about how incredible it was to go from no rain and clear skies to total darkness and torrential downpour. The lightning would flash so bright it felt like I had looked into the sun, and then one M-i-s-s-i-s-s-BOOOMMM! It was so cool. However, I hardly ate a bite of my meal because I really did not feel well at this point.
The hot water in the hotel did not work, so I took a brief ice cold shower after dinner, and jumped into bed dressed for a snowstorm. Thankfully, the hotel provided a hot water bag that was waiting for me in my neatly tucked back covers. I didn’t get much sleep that night because my body decided it liked the bathroom better than my bed.
Despite the fact that my mystery illness had clearly worsened, I was still very much determined to see the gorillas. I put on my, “No, really, I will be fine” face and started my day.
The drive to the starting point took about a half hour. Much to my dismay, we stopped at the bottom of what felt like a very long hill and we half jogged up to the top. At the top, the lead guide gave us a talk about rules and regulations. The strongest point he made was, “If you have had a fever, vomit, or diarrhea in the last 24 hours, you cannot go to the forest. We are closely related to gorillas and as these are an endangered species, we cannot risk spreading disease.” All I could think was, “NOOOOOO!”
With great difficulty, I walked up to him after his talk and with tears of disappointment and defeat; I admitted I had these dreadful human malfunctions just this morning. I accepted that I could not go. He looked at me as if I was crazy and/or stupid. He and my driver sat me down and said it wasn’t that bad and I should stop being so weak and go for the trip of a lifetime. I was so confused, yet, also very relieved! I hired a porter (a local who carries your bag and helps you during difficult parts) who was my saving grace. After about ten minutes of hiking up a mildly sloped hill, I felt like I could collapse. I just kept thinking, GOOORRILLLAAAAA…..! My body was shaking, I was sweating, and my head throbbed as if I had a concussion every time I ducked it down. But, GOOORRILLLAAAAA!!! My porter was incredible. He walked in front of me and broke off low branches to prevent them from hitting my head. He carried me by holding one of my hands up the insanely steep mountain slopes. My favorite was when we stopped for breaks, he kicked into the nearby bushes until a box-seat formed and then disappeared into the forest to return with big fern leaves, and sat them down on the “seat” and said, “Here, Madam, please rest,” as he gently sat me down like a little girl.
I am not usually the kind of person to allow doting. In fact, I hate when I am vulnerable. However, I am a realistic person and I recognize that without that man I would have missed seeing the gorillas. By the end of the first hour, I was so weak that when we stopped our forward momentum, I could actually feel my legs shaking and if I focused on my hands when he was holding me up, I could see them tremble. I do not think I have been that sick for years. Of course, it would happen in the middle of the rainforest.
People say many special things are “once in a lifetime.” I tend to take that with a grain of salt because every day comes once in a lifetime; I try to appreciate each one. After three hours of cutting new “shortcut” trails into thick bush, climbing up 90o angle mud hills, fighting off African ants in my pants, getting attacked by a swarm of wasps (which left my left eye swollen almost shut), and witnessing views of the rainforest that have only been seen by a few hundred other people; after all of that, we were told we had reached the gorillas. We had to give up our walking sticks, backpacks, and porters to climb the final hill where the gorillas were resting. I stumbled up the last five strides up the hill and out of nowhere, a mother and her child came into view. I stood only four feet away from the duo as I watched in awe the tender, peaceful actions between them. My camera went crazy. Then one of the trackers summoned our group up to a higher point on the hill. Initially, I thought it was to get a better glimpse of this mother and child, but as I emerged from the plant-covered slope, I saw a family of majestic gorillas resting under a tree. Two teens playing in the tree (at one point one of them intentionally peed on the others on the ground and laughed about it), one silverback in the distance doing what looked like arm curls on a tree branch, one injured silverback hid in a bush, two mothers with two more babies, and the alpha male Daddy silverback sat quietly under the tree. Eleven gorillas total.
Despite my swollen eye and trembling hands, I managed to take about 100 pictures. Of course, only a handful is worth showing. Be aware, thee pictures were taken from only five feet away.
|View from the top of the mountain at the gorilla site|
|View on the way down from the mountain|
|My Danish travel-buddies, Henrick, Melina, and me at the Equator on our way back to civilization|
I just do not know how else to explain that day: it was truly once in a lifetime.