Follow the multi-adventures of Fyllis
Hockman, resulting from her ElderTreks journey through southwestern
Uganda, which brought her in close proximity to dozens of animals
during both land and water game drives on a safari, carousing with
chimps tracking through a forest, and surviving an experience of a
lifetime trekking mountain gorillas.
Trekking Mountain Gorillas
An "Experience of a Lifetime"
In More Ways Than One
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block (Unless otherwise noted)
eight of us huddled together, warned repeatedly to stay close and keep
quiet. A soft cough escaped from one of our party and the guide looked
immediately askance. Coughing and sneezing were very much frowned upon.
If you're scraped by a stinging nettle, don't even think about screaming
a usually fitting response. Sharing 98.4 percent of our DNA,
the elusive mountain gorillas are very susceptible to human-borne illnesses
and more gorillas die from such infectious diseases than from any other
cause. We were carriers and they had to be protected from us.
Still, eight humans a day are allowed to visit these
gentle giants, as they are known, for no longer than an hour, as we
did during a recent visit to Uganda as part of an ElderTreks tour.
This is not exactly a drive-by photo op. With a vigorous
(to say the least) trek of 1-7 hours, depending upon where the gorillas
are that day, you have to REALLY want to see them. But even with visitation
restricted to an hour, it is usually well worth the effort. But more
on that later.
There are about 880 mountain gorillas in the world with
almost half located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a World Heritage
Site clearly worthy of its name, in southwestern Uganda,
an 18% increase over the last census due to increased conservation efforts,
education and veterinary care. This is very good news.
The prelude to the hike is itself intimidating. Treks
range from 1-7 hours according to the promotional material, with a maximum
increase in elevation of 500 meters. Wear good hiking boots, don gloves
for the nettles, a walking stick is mandatory, bring lots of water,
don't get closer than 25 feet and
remember these are wild animals.
Anticipation mixed closely with apprehension as every
person on our tour, whether expressed aloud or not, felt "I hope
I can make." The tale I'm about to tell about my travel-writing
husband Vic and myself is not the norm. The tale for the other eight
members of our ElderTreks tour, from whom we were separated because
of the limit of eight people to a gorilla trekking group, is the opposite
extreme also not the norm.
Now Vic and I, despite our somewhat advanced ages, are
in pretty good shape and are avid hikers, so while nervous about the
challenges ahead we were fairly confident of our ability to handle them.
And we knew the porters, provided compliments of ElderTreks, were there
to literally lend a hand, a shoulder, to push or pull or do whatever
was necessary to get us there safely.
Boy, were we ever wrong. The trek was somewhat strenuous
from the start, with steep climbs and slippery descents traversing narrow
ravines, but we were holding our own, feeling pretty good about ourselves.
Until we entered the forest. And there was no semblance of a trail at
all. The guides were trail-blazing with the help of machetes deep into
the clearly "impenetrable" woods, the rocks, roots and brambles
beneath our feet not even visible because of the thick underbrush.
With walking stick in one hand and the porter's in the
other, I tried valiantly to move forward though at times the porter
was literally dragging me up the precipitous slopes or rescuing me from
sliding down sheer declines, twigs and vines attacking from both sides
of the non-trail, entangling my feet and arms to further impede progress
in either direction. At times, I thought either my arm would be pulled
off by the porter or my legs by the vines.
All the while, I couldn't help but feel guilty for thinking
to myself how little at that point I cared about the gorillas and how
much I was worried about surviving the grueling trip back. I was seriously
considering becoming a modern day Dian Fossey and staying with the gorillas,
assuming we ever reached them, just to avoid the return trip.
I wish we could say the trip was worth it but by the
time we finally dragged ourselves
or more appropriately were dragged
by the porters to the designated area where the gorillas had been, they
had left. This is just not what you want to hear after what several
of us on the trek agreed was the most difficult thing we had ever done
in our lives.
Another 15 minutes down yet one more very steep embankment
finally brought us into view of a couple of gorillas chowing down in
the bush. Yes they were fun to see but most were hidden in the trees
and bushes and admittedly for several of us though clearly not all
a younger couple was far more enthusiastic
there is very little that could have justified the arduous journey there.
On the other hand, if the whole troop of gorillas were carousing about
in an area where we could see them, we might have changed our minds.
But I would be remiss if I didn't recount the one highlight:
All of a sudden, the mammoth silverback in front of us
the alpha male of the group turned
from chowing to charging, coming very close before the tracker waving
his AK47 quickly sent him into retreat. And he
both tracker and silverback remained
immune to our pleas, now that we all had our cameras ready, to please
try that again!
Did I mention that the literature says the treks can
take as long as 7 hours? We left the bus at 9:30 a.m., returned at 4:30.
You do the math.
The rest of the tale? While Vic and I were immersed
in the most harrowing experience of our lives, our eight ElderTreks
traveling companions had one of the best
for which I will say they did feel a little guilty on our behalf. They
related they walked along a road
repeat: road near our lodge and within
20 minutes were in sight of their first gorilla. Another 15 minutes
took them to a local farmer's banana plantation, which the 19 gorillas
in the group were happily dismantling. Good for the gorillas, bad for
the farmer, though the trekkers later took up a collection to compensate
him. At some point, they told us sheepishly, they were totally surrounded
by gorillas. So much for the 25-foot rule!
Photo courtesy of Jon Perica
But despite those two extreme experiences, most people
experience something in between that no doubt qualifies as the "experience
of a lifetime" promised by the tour. "The Eldertreks Uganda
trip offers the most diverse scenery and wildlife highlighted by mountain
gorillas and chimps than any other country in Africa," enthused
Jon Perica, an environmentalist from Northridge, California.
And it is important to note that as much as the gorilla
trekking is touted as a highlight of the trip, it is only one day in
a 16-day adventure that includes magnificent safari game drives on both
land and water in multiple wildlife reserves, each offering different
inhabitants; chimpanzee tracking that compared to the gorilla trek was
a stroll through the park; unusually scenic terrain and cultural outings
that ranged from meeting with members of a Pygmy tribe, a demonstration
by a traditional medicine man who uses indigenous herbs to cure almost
any ailment, a visit to a local school and a lunch of native Ugandan
delicacies prepared by a farmer and his wife. It was an incredibly memorable
trip despite our somewhat less-than-satisfactory gorilla encounter.
For more information, visit eldertreks.com,
which promotes "Small Group Exotic Adventures for Travelers 50
in Uganda; Uganda
Where Arid Desert Meets Frigid Sea (Part 1); Namibia
Part II: Where Wild Women Meet Wildlife; Deutsch-Südwestafrika