Judy Bailey's unforgettable encounter with gorillas during a Ugandan trip

''To see such a huge, imposing creature in his own environment, so close, so relaxed, is awesome… in the true meaning of the word.''

By Judy Bailey
A woman toting an AK47 leads us single file into Uganda's Impenetrable Forest. A man similarly equipped follows at the tail end of our group.
No, we haven't been kidnapped by armed rebels.
We are, in fact, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. We're on our way to visit a family of endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
"What are the armed guards for?" we ask.
Our guide, Boaz, explains that elephants roam the jungle and some can be aggressive if they're caught unawares. The guns are for shooting into the air to scare them off if they look like charging.
"And what happens if a 180kg silverback gorilla happens to take exception to us?"
"Don't run," Boaz says firmly. "If he beats his chest, don't beat yours. Be submissive, crouch down, eyes downcast and wait."
Uganda is one of Africa's lesser known treasures.
It has a dark past, known by those of my generation for the atrocities committed by its former dictator, Idi Amin, and for the daring raid by Israeli commandos on its airport at Entebbe in 1976, as they swooped in to save a group held hostage by Palestinian terrorists, supported by Amin.
Amin's ruthless, eight-year regime left his country in tatters. Uganda is still troubled by political unrest but it is in the midst of an economic recovery, and much of that recovery is driven by tourism, for Uganda is one of very few places in the world where you are able to see the remarkable mountain gorillas in their natural environment.
The "impenetrable" part sounds a little daunting, but as we press on into the rainforest we manage to penetrate pretty well.
It's pouring with rain and it's not long before we're all soaked to the skin. It's beautiful though, with the mist rising, the raindrops glistening on the moss and vines and a network of streams tumbling down the mountainside.
This forest is ancient, dating back 25,000 years, and it protects about 400 mountain gorillas, about half the world's known population.
Finding them can take up to six hours, as the families are constantly on the move.
It can be a pretty strenuous climb too, as it's at reasonably high altitude (2000-plus metres above sea level). Of course, there are no guarantees you'll find gorillas at all but the trekkers have a pretty good success rate, well over 90 per cent.
Our small group – only eight of us are allowed to visit the gorillas at a time – has grown. We were each encouraged to hire a local porter to carry our packs – packs that contain just our cameras and some water. We're providing much needed income for local villagers, we're told.
I thought we could easily have managed without a porter, until we come to the first of many slippery stream crossings. The tiny bridges made of narrow logs are treacherous in the rain and I for one am glad to have the strong hands of my porter, Grace, to keep me upright.
There are strict rules to be observed for any gorilla experience.
The first is that the visit is entirely on the gorillas' terms. We are not on any account to touch them or to approach within seven metres.
We must be absolutely disease-free; human bugs can be devastating for these giant primates – they can die from a common cold. We must be sure not to take any food into their environment or disturb them in any way. No flashes are allowed.
Buhoma Lodge, where Judy stayed, offers individual chalets tucked in amongst the lush foliage. Image:Getty
There are nine habituated family groups of gorillas in the forest, habituated meaning they are used to humans visiting.
The habituation process takes around three years.
Trackers go into the forest and spend time alongside a family, at a distance, mirroring their every move.
If the gorillas are grooming each other, the trackers do the same; if they are searching for bugs in the stumps of trees, so do the trackers; when they make their nests on the ground to sleep in overnight, the trackers make nests too. It's a fascinating process.
Eventually the gorillas learn there is no threat from the humans and are comfortable with their presence.
There are pros and cons to habituation. Some studies have found the gorillas are safer because there are more people around to deter poachers.
Researchers and park staff are able to monitor births and deaths and health problems and the tourism dollar helps maintain the park and the protection programme as well as provide jobs for local people.
On the other hand, sometimes the rules around visiting are not observed.
Too many people, too close, can cause stress, and stressed animals could be a danger to park staff and tourists.
Some researchers have also raised concerns that too much interaction with humans may cause changes in gorilla behaviour. It's a delicate balance.
An hour or so into our trek, Boaz gets word from scouts ahead that the group we're tracking is nearby.
We begin to notice tell-tale signs of gorilla movement through the forest – flattened undergrowth, broken foliage.
We smell him first, the pungent odour of the silverback, and there he is, just visible through the dense curtain of green, wedged halfway up a tree, feasting on a bunch of figs.
It is an unforgettable moment.
To see such a huge, imposing creature in his own environment, so close, so relaxed, is awesome… in the true meaning of the word.
As we move quietly through the forest towards him, our porters hold back, keeping numbers to a minimum.
He looks down at us, his dark, knowing eyes taking us in. He pauses for a moment, and then continues munching his way delicately through his bunch of figs.
A younger male sits quietly at the base of the tree, leaning his back against the trunk, chewing his very human fingers. And a female with a baby shinnies down the trunk of another tree close by.
I watch in wonder, almost forgetting my camera, entranced as I am.
Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, Boaz leads us out into a clearing as more members of the family emerge from the forest.
I trail in his wake – the others have gone ahead. I have to cross a dense patch of undergrowth to get to the clearing and it looks like the perfect place for snakes.
Right now, I'm grateful to be wearing sturdy boots and gaiters.
I cross to the clearing without incident to find I'm surrounded by half a dozen gorillas of varying ages. They're intent on rummaging in rotting stumps of gum trees.
They're so human in their movements and how they interact with each other – which may of course have something to do with the fact that they share more than 98 per cent of our DNA.
My husband, Chris, has his camera trained intently on a baby gorilla up a tree, and is oblivious to the huge male striding purposefully towards him. Should I warn him… or take the photo, I wonder. I place my trust in the gorilla but miss the moment with my dithering.
Fortunately, one of our mates got the shot. The male gorilla passes within inches of Chris's back, totally unconcerned about the human presence.
All too soon Boaz is rounding us up. Our allotted hour with these extraordinary giants of the forest is done.
It will be their one and only encounter with humans for the day. And, for me, a once in a lifetime encounter with them.

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