So as to not bury the lede, a blackback gorilla (the second largest gorilla, and the second in command behind the silverback), RAN UP TO ME AND GAVE ME A PLAYFUL SMACK ON MY RIGHT LEG, THEN GRABBED MY RIGHT THIGH (which felt sort of like an 800-pound gorilla smacking me on my right leg, then grabbing me on my right thigh) today while I was gorilla trekking in Uganda.
I’m told this is pretty rare — a tap from a juvenile is rare enough, but a tap, and a grab from an adult — a blackback no less — pretty cool.
The tap meant “come play with me,” as opposed to say, “I plan to destroy you,” and will definitely go down on my list of coolest things ever. Here are a few iPhone snaps of “handsy” before he asked me to play…
We also encountered a black mamba that was blocking the path. Until today I’d never heard of a black mamba, possibly because it’s pretty rare to encounter a black mamba (like never), or because I live in New York. Turns out to be kind of a good luck/bad luck situation because black mambas are the world’s fastest snakes, with the fastest-acting and deadliest venom of any snake species. Its bite is called the “kiss of death” (charming) because of how quickly it kills man, elephants, etc. So, we threw shit at it until it moved away, and then ran past it quickly.
I’d asked for and received a permit to track the hardest to reach, and most remote group of gorillas today, the Oruzogo group. So I went in expecting a challenging trek, having been told it was the toughest trek of the nine families here at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
But due to an unusual amount of difficulty finding the group (it took over four hours), and then when we did, realizing they’d stopped to eat and rest in a highly unusual, extraordinarily hard to reach area, I ended up finishing the trek nearly 7.5 hours later. It was so crazy (and at times dangerous) it was nearly farcical — but I finished with two new compatriots from Minnesota, and two from LA, and memories forever.
Our guide and SIX trackers agreed the trek was one the two hardest days any of them have ever had. We all agreed, as it included slipping repeatedly (often uncontrollably) down 500-foot slopes at 45-degree angles, grasping for anything that wasn’t covered in prickly shit, or so dead that it immediately broke loose, or both.
Climbing back up, hand-over-foot, at 45- to 50-degree angles, so steep my stomach was dragging along the dirt — NO exaggeration — basically rock climbing with no rocks (thank you Brooklyn Boulders for all the practice), up and down over and over again, hands bloody, pulling each other up — trackers included — with gorillas by our side at times, until two hours later when we finally reconnected to the path, was exhilarating and insane. I wouldn’t want to do it again, and luckily I won’t have to.
From what I gather from the trackers, when they realized four hours in that the gorillas had parked themselves at the unusual, difficult to reach spot, they had to go off reservation or forgo us seeing the gorillas, which really never happens since they more or less guarantee seeing gorillas in Bwindi (and the permits are not cheap). They took a huge (probably questionable, and from what our driver told us, not entirely kosher) risk to get us there.
Not that I minded for a second — I got smacked by a gorilla (!), and tomorrow’s trek to see the Mumbari group is supposed to be merely strenuous.
My final encounter (but hopefully not my last) with the mountain gorillas of Uganda — the Mubare group — did NOT disappoint. Here are a few quick iPhone snaps of the Silverback — what a beauty! And one of me with him, just to give you an idea of how close we got to these amazing creatures. No one smacked or grabbed me like yesterday — but one did bum rush me. Never get between a hungry gorilla and food.
Between the Baku, Kingo, and other groups of lowland gorillas I trekked to see in the Republic of Congo, and the Oruzogo and Mubare groups of mountain gorillas I’ve trekked to see here in Uganda, I’ve probably taken seven million photos, and experienced nearly as many incredible moments this past month. And I’ve also met so many wonderful people, who I will know forever as friends (…and that’s just the gorilla part of this amazing odyssey I’ve been on!).
Just as importantly, I’ve learned so much about these beautiful, incredible beings, with which we share 98% of our DNA, and the dramatic need for their ongoing and vigilant conservation (MANY predict the lowland gorillas of the Congo will be extinct in as few as 10 years…something too tragic to even imagine).
Trekking to see the gorillas was not easy in any sense of the word — but of all the many journeys I’ve been so fortunate to be on, and experiences I’ve been so lucky to have…walking, sitting, being among the gorillas in their natural habitat — mountain or lowland…just do it if you can. I’m tearing up writing this…that’s how magnificent it has been.