Uganda's mountain gorillas approach far closer than we expect. And that's a good thing

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Our gorilla trek into the wilds of Uganda’s Bwindi National Impenetrable Forest brought us face to face with the 15-member Rushegura group, including this mother and baby.

BWINDI IMPENETRABLE NATIONAL FOREST, Uganda — The gorillas ignore us so completely that if one hadn’t brushed against my leg on her way to a new perch, we might have been invisible.

We’re trying to keep to the proscribed distance of 20 feet, but the family of 15 gorillas ignores the theoretical boundary. When a female suddenly moves out of the thick green bush, there’s no time to scramble out of the way. Our ranger tells me to stand still until she passes, then beckons me out of the way in case she reverses course.

Even without that simple brush, our encounter with the gorillas is far closer than we had imagined. So is their total disregard for our presence. We might share 98.4 percentof our DNA with these linebacker-sized cousins, but by most appearances, they couldn’t have cared less.

The opportunity to spend an hour in the wild with one of the world’s estimated 35 gorilla families drew about 40,000 trekkers last year to Uganda, home to more than 50 percent of the mountain gorilla population. Since 2007, the country’s total number of annual tourists has almost doubled, to 1.3 million, according to Stephen Asiimwe, CEO of the Uganda Tourist Board. Some 18 international airlines now fly to the international airport at Entebbe, including Emirates, Qatar, Brussels, and KLM.

Almost 40 years have passed since the exile of Uganda’s infamously brutal “Last King of Scotland,” the dictator Idi Amin, and almost 15 years since his death. Though  the 30-plus-year government of President Yoweri Museveni has been marred by questionable election practices and human-rights infringements, the U.S. government writes, “Under Museveni, Uganda has experienced relative political stability, democratic progress, and economic growth” and considers it a “reliable, stable partner.”

No argument from us. Our previous gorilla-viewing attempt — to see the lowland gorillas on the border between Cameroon and the Central African Republic some years ago — earned only distant sightings after a grueling, multi-day drive over mud roads. In Uganda, our four-day visit was filled with friendly locals, stunning landscapes, comfortable lodgings, and surprisingly good food — and left us with a yen to return. Gorilla-viewing tourism launched in the late 1990s to create alternative employment to poaching. In Uganda, 20 percent of every permit fee — or $180 per visitor — goes to the local community. Jobs as hotel staff, drivers, rangers, guides, and porters all go to locals.

Despite some persistent poaching and habitat loss, the plan seems to be working: Between 1989 and 2011, the number of individual gorillas grew from about 620 to about 880, according to Bas Huijbregts, African species manager for the World Wildlife Fund’s Wildlife Conservation Program. Data from the most recent census, in 2015-16, is still being analyzed, he says.

Gorilla-zone governments get their part: Uganda charges $600 per person per day for the highly coveted, date-specific permits. Rwanda recently doubled its fee from $750 to $1,500, with $150 per permit now going to the local community. The Democratic Republic of Congo charges only $450, but instability in the region makes it the least popular of the three, and the U.S. State Department warns Americans against visiting.

Getting to Bwindi National Forest requires a five- to six-hour drive on dirt roads. We’ve opted for the alternative: a 90-minute flight from Entebbe. A driver picks us up for a 60-minute drive to the hotel, through villages with mud-brick houses punctuated by pastel-painted churches, through the occasional herd of long-horned cattle.

Our upscale lodge, Mahogany Springs, is just a mile from the park office, on a hillside with a massive mahogany tree growing — quite literally — in the shape of Africa. The campus of six cottages fits its location: natural and comfortable without being ostentatious. What really makes an impression are the friendly staffers, who greet us with cool towels and drinks and anticipate needs before we’ve even voiced them.

A gorilla trek requires an early start: By 8 a.m., all visitors holding this day’s permits have gathered at the park headquarters for orientation and assignment, a maximum of eight visitors per group. In the rainy season of May, crowds are less than full force; there are only five in our group.

Technology sets the direction. Since dawn, Bwindi’s park rangers have radioed with the trackers who watch over each gorilla family to gauge their locations and deter poachers. Their reports establish launch points for the day.

My septuagenarian husband and I have requested a gentle trek due to his cranky knees; the thirtysomething New Yorker, Taryn, and her boyfriend, woozy from a long car drive, have the same request. But there are no promises about how long the search will take; some treks last the better part of the day. Despite the hefty price of a permit, there is no guarantee we’ll see gorillas at all.

We drive a few miles from park headquarters to the village of Nukoma. Omax, our ranger guide, is in the lead, followed by a rifle-bearing guard, a college intern — talk about an assignment! — and a trio of porters we’ve hired in the village as a way of supporting the local economy. Leaving our hefty camera lenses and extra shirts (we actually thought we might be chilled) on someone else’s back turns out to be the best decision of the day.

The mountain path runs next to the village church. Past the last windowless houses, their bricks cemented with mud; beyond a goat resting on a platform, above the reach of marauding red ants; through a blessedly shady banana grove; by an open hut where a handful of men carve wood into gorilla-shaped souvenirs. Buffering the village is a lush field of tea leaves, a cash crop with a bitter taste that creates a natural fence between humans and the great apes.

Even on the clear part of the path, the climb is steep. With thighs burning and sea-level lungs wheezing, we head slowly, slowly up the mountain.

We’re lucky. Just a few steps beyond the reach of the village boom box, the juveniles come into view. Omax watches as they clamber up a thatch of ficus trees, then jump from limb to limb. The gorilla family has traveled over the mountain ridge and down the steep incline far more quickly than our trackers, who lag a few miles behind. For now, the apes seem set in place.

Omax signals to drop the packs with the porters. We trudge through the low brush to begin our viewing in a clearing beneath the trees.

There, seemingly oblivious, sits the No. 2 male, Kalembezi, munching away on figgy fruits thrown down from the branches by the younger, lighter juveniles. Just up the slope, a female emerges through the green, a baby clinging to her back. Another with baby aboard shinnies down the trunk of the sturdy ficus. And finally, the silverback lumbers through the jungle and into view.

In Cameroon, we had only a passing glimpse of the gorillas at a far distance. Here, we’re within a few feet, close enough to hear the odd belch of a satisfied diner and the flatulence caused by a herbaceous diet.

Seeing the apes as human is no anthropomorphic leap. Palms are padded, giving way to four flexible fingers and a thumb used to break branches and brush off the figs. One of the babies keeps falling from its mother’s back. Another keeps wandering off into a low patch of ferns, hauled back by his mother just before he moves beyond her reach.

Kalembezi is messy, his mossy fur dotted with straw and the odd leaf. As the family’s No. 2, he keeps a slight distance from the others. His job is understudy, a backup in case Kabukojo, the silverback leader, gives way to age or illness. But Kabukojo is himself less than middle-aged in gorilla terms; Kalembezi could be in for a 20-year wait.

Despite the proximity, we feel perfectly safe, and in fact, dangerous encounters are almost unheard of, according to Asiimwe. Visitors aren’t allowed contact with a troop until rangers and scientists have spent two to three years habituating a family, and because the two species can share diseases, humans aren’t allowed to visit if they are sick.

That’s not to say that the gorillas are always cheerful. Just this summer, in Rwanda, a silverback charged a tourist group in a mock attack — typical behavior when gorillas feel crowded; beyond the minor scrapes from slipping down the hillside, there were no injuries.

Other travelers have posted videos of a touchingly close encounter when gorillas came into a camp; a recent Rwanda visitor has told us of a mother gorilla pulling her husband back from her wandering babies.

Fellow trekker Melissa Cameron of San Francisco has had this experience once before, during a visit to Uganda in 2006. “The gorillas were very much the same. They were gorgeous,” she recalls. Her first visit, though, was more arduous, with guides whacking through the bush on a hike that lasted almost three hours before her group found the gorillas.

And on that visit, the encounter took place in a thick jungle area. This time, we had the advantage of a small clearing. So while the rest of us were snapping away through long lenses, Cameron put her cellphone aside and simply sat down. “The best times are when you put the cameras down. That’s when the real magic happens. …  Every time I crouched down to the ground, the gorillas would approach me and come sit down near me. At one point, one was literally three inches away.”

The gorillas are always in charge. To ensure their comfort, viewings are limited to an hour. The apes don’t need a Timex to know when time is up. A fellow lodge guest told of the silverback that stood on his haunches, beating his breast to signal that her group’s time was up. In our case, the dismissal is less dramatic  but no less punctual. After almost exactly an hour together, the silverback quite literally turns his back on us, and the troop moves away.

Beyond gorillas

Though many visitors come just long enough to see the gorillas, we’ve booked three nights near Bwindi. That gives us plenty of time to stroll through Mahogany Springs’ bougainvillea- and ginger-filled garden and lounge on our private balcony, taking in a crayon box of birds with blue heads or yellow chests or bright crimson wings.

Time, too, for visiting nearby villages. Among them is a small community of Batwa, more popularly known as pygmies and the poaching villains of Gorillas in the Mist. Today, the Batwa are the victims. To protect the gorillas, the government coaxed the Batwa from the forest with promises of free land and education. Those promises, says our cultural guide, have not been kept.

The people we meet are lithe but elderly. The village’s oldest man died just a week before, at 96; his widow is among those who greet us in bark outfits and regale us with demonstrations of traditional forest life and dances. The presentation is slightly contrived but still worthwhile; the money from such visits is all these now-poor people have. The presentations are likely the last vestiges of a culture that will soon disappear.

Other encounters are equally heartfelt and more uplifting. People are welcoming, gracious, often hopeful. At a local soda stand, my husband hoists a beer while I chat in a rustic shop, admiring the work of a twentysomething artist who hopes to study in the capital. We wander down the dirt road, gathering a host of giggling child escorts who want no more than to play and sing.

It’s Sunday, and the mud paths are filled with children running to church in their Sunday best,  girls in flounced dresses and boys in bow ties, to join parents and grandparents for the weekly service. A group of parents rests in the shade, their children playing with toys made from bark and old tins.

A young man named Smith leads us across a stream, through a valley, and up the hill beyond our hotel, past fields cultivated with sunflowers and the protectively bitter tea. A gaggle of children runs to greet us, waving and smiling, the girls often balancing younger siblings on a hip.

We stop in to chat with the medicine man, a traditional healer whose remedies for bellyache and arthritic knees are mixed from local herbs and served in a dried calabash marked with dosages for young and old. Though visitors to his village clinic find him wearing a fur hat and vest, a blue hospital coat hangs in the corner for his visits to the local professional clinic, where he confers with modern medical practitioners when herbal remedies aren’t enough.

Under the wooden hut of the banana wine “distillery,” a local woman continues the business begun by her husband’s family generations ago. Here, bananas are smashed in a long wooden canoe-like vessel, then fermented and jarred into the popular local spirit with a surprisingly pleasing taste. She and her family also grow coffee, shaking the husks from the beans, to sell for roasting. In this rugged life, no one sits still.

At the Buhoma hospital, the positive power of tourism is on full display. Founded in 2003 by a visiting American, the Bwindi Community Hospital now holds 112 beds, including a children’s ward, dental services, and meeting space for HIV education.

By Western standards, the place is rustic at best; there’s no food cafeteria or sodium-regulated food delivery (patients and  families  go to a communal kitchen to cook their own food). The newly delivered X-ray machine is housed in the specialized shipping container in which it was delivered. But the facility is a model of medical outreach in Uganda, serving a remote populace of 100,000. Budget cuts have diminished the number of motorbike nurses who ride out into the community, delivering care to those who can’t make it to town, from seven to only three. A nurse earns $310 a month — a modest price for saving lives.

We stop at a child-care facility, built to educate children from outlying villages, where schools are few and residents are poorer than those near Bwindi. Even basic education in Uganda requires fees beyond the ability of many parents; this facility and others encourage contributions from visitors to foot the bill. Here, a few hundred dollars a year can literally change a life.

When Cameron, the San Francisco consultant, came to Uganda the first time, she decided to try to do just that. She and her partner committed to sponsoring four children until each had graduated. The price for two meals a day and schooling: $100 per student per year.

Now, 11 years later, one of her students was finishing the third year of advanced education. Another had two children and had lost three more in childbirth. Yet another had gone to the capital of Kampala to study business at the university.

“The fourth was my greatest sadness,” she said. “He was completely orphaned … his uncle and aunties couldn’t keep him in school.” Today he is illiterate, she found. She is working to get him into welding courses to give him “a bit of a future.”

For so many here, the future is limited. But it is brighter than it once was, thanks to the gorillas.

(Jane Wooldridge, business editor of the Miami Herald, is a past winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year Award. Recent stories chronicle adventures in Antarctica and a Danube River cruise. Follow her travels at fivestarstounderthestars.com and on instagram @janewooldridge.)

If you go

More than half of the world’s remaining mountain gorilla families are in Uganda, concentrated in two parks, Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest and the Virunga Mountains, which share a border with Rwanda. The mountains also spill into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most visitors go to Uganda or Rwanda. (DRC visitors typically travel from Rwanda.)

In all areas, gorilla-trekking permits are limited and date-specific. They must be arranged in advance. Uganda permits cost $600 per person per day; there are also some low-season discounts. Rwanda recently increased its permit fee to $1,500 per person per day. The DRC charges the least, $450.

Uganda: Our trip to Bwindi National Forest was arranged by the knowledgeable London firm Africa Travel Resource (africatravelresource.com), which arranged our flights to and from the international airport in Entebbe to Bwindi National Forest, our hotel in Bwindi, and a night at a  hotel in Entebbe, plus a flight to South Africa.

Coincidentally, ATR is owned by the same company as Mahogany Springs Lodge (mahoganysprings.com), which we had specifically requested. Lodge rates in the low season (March-May, October-November) start at $240 per person per night, double occupancy, and include three meals, water in the rooms, and wine or beer with dinner. High-season (December-February, June-September) rates start at $287 per person.

Locally, the firm Trek East Africa (africagorillatreks.com) has been recommended.

To learn more about the highly regarded Bwindi Community Hospital, contact bwindihospital.com

Rwanda: Rwanda’s big advantage is proximity; the gorilla region is a two-hour drive over paved roads from the capital of Kigali. One highly recommended agent is Phoebe Weinberg of Greatways Travel (greatwaystravel.com).

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