Meet The Mukizas

Recently returned from a gorilla tracking expedition, A&K’s Anthony O’Shea shares one of travel’s great privileges from a steep, wet slope in a rainforest in Uganda.
December 2018

Mountain gorillas have never survived in captivity. And despite real progress made in recent years to bring the gorillas back from the very brink of extinction, there are still only about a thousand mountain gorillas left anywhere in the wild, nearly half of them in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Which is why, crouching in rapt silence, heart racing, on a steep, wet slope in a rainforest in Uganda, A&K’s Anthony O’Shea is enjoying one of travel’s great privileges.

Uganda is a land of heart-stopping beauty. Flying in from Nairobi after two weeks on safari in the Serengeti and Masai Mara, our first sight of Entebbe in the late afternoon light is of a small city of red-roofed buildings arranged gracefully along a lush, green peninsula reaching into the tranquil waters of Lake Victoria.

The light plane flight early the next morning from Entebbe to the Bwindi region in the south-west corner of the country is equally scenic, a sequence of short hops between neat landing strips, banking first over the endless western shore of Lake Victoria and her inlets, before rising between escarpments and above mirror-finish alpine lakes, volcanic peaks and deep valleys. In places, the countryside is heavily forested, elsewhere a patchwork of orderly tea plantations and flourishing banana farms, like random carpet squares of different length pile in various hues of green. Seated directly behind the co-pilots, we’re on the lookout ourselves for distant landing strips, single discordant geometrical stripes in the wild landscape, and we descend at intervals into small towns with airport buildings, if there are any at all, only about the size of a suburban cricket pavilion, with perhaps a handful of motorcycle taxis waiting hopefully behind a low fence, alongside one or two liveried LandCruisers from a lodge nearby.

When we arrive in pretty little Kihihi, our third or fourth effortless landing for the morning, we are met by Moses from the Sanctuary Retreats Gorilla Forest Camp, who drives us the two hours to Buhoma, regaling us along the way with tales of the gorilla families we may encounter on the following day’s trek, the villages we pass, the agriculture, ecology, economy and history, of Uganda in general and the Bwindi region in particular.

We’re greeted at the Camp like long-lost friends, and after climbing the steps to see our splendid luxury tent in the high forest, and a light lunch in the camp’s main lodge, a grand cathedral space beneath a towering thatched banana leaf roof, we embark on a guided walk through the village of Buhoma.

The people of Bwindi have wonderful Christian names – Deogratius (‘Thanks to God’), First-Grace, Makarius (‘Supremely Blessed’), Patience, Charity, Elijah, January – the meanings of which – if they’re not obvious – are often explained upon first meeting, in many cases at the same time as you’ll learn in which parish someone lives, where they worship, and/or in which denomination they were baptised. It’s like visiting a village in the company of Miss Emma Woodhouse. The people of Bwindi are equally proud of their other institutions, healthcare and educational, and incredibly keen for visitors to see their hospitals, schools, women’s centres and programs for the disadvantaged, many of them supported by Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy.

The walk is a wonderfully diverting afternoon filled with insights into the real challenges and achievements of a changing community, but looming in the back of our minds the whole time is the next day’s trek, anticipation mixed with trepidation. After weeks of indulgent camps and relaxing game drives in comfortable jeeps through the national parks of Tanzania and Kenya – drive-thru arks – we understand we may need to earn our turns in Uganda, having heard conflicting reports about the difficulty of the hiking and how far we may need to walk and/or climb to find the gorillas. And then there’s the small matter of coming face-to-face or toe-to-toe with a silverback gorilla.

In our briefing back at the Camp, looking across to Bwindi’s infamous Impenetrable Forest, it’s clear south-western Uganda’s volcanic terrain, precipitous slopes, dense vegetation and high altitude are not for the faint of heart. Yet our camp manager Nicholas puts us at ease, introduces us to other guests returning from a successful trek that day, and kits us out with walking staffs, snake gaiters and a can-do attitude.  

Our permits – issued by the Uganda Wildlife Authority which manages the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – are for the trekking point at the distant north-eastern entrance to the park at Ruhija, so we set out before dawn the next morning for a spectacular albeit nerve-jangling two-hour drive over the mountains and through beautiful tea plantations in the sunrise light, looking down into deep valleys and picturesque villages, many with a commanding church on higher ground, some with a white cross visible on a nearby peak.

At different points of the drive, we skirt sections of the forest and the national park itself. “Bwindi” literally means “impenetrable” in the Ruchiga dialect of southwestern Uganda, and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is true-to-label in anyone’s language. Accessible only by foot, and even then only with the help of park rangers wielding scythes and machetes, there are no roads, no real paths or permanent trails, no signs or directions and, we are told at our pre-trek briefing on a sparkling October morning, probably no clearings in the places we’re most likely to encounter the gorillas today.

From our briefing point just inside the park gate, the forest rises before us as a sheer wall of vegetation, a dense understorey of ferns, vines and stands of bamboo beneath a canopy of towering hardwoods up a steep ridge.

Augustine, the head guide from the Uganda Wildlife Authority at our briefing point, makes it clear that reaching a gorilla family in the forest today or any day is no picnic. We’ll be trudging mostly uphill through thick tangles of vines, thorns and roots. He can’t say how long we’ll need to walk, nor when or where or even whether we’ll find gorillas. But he can say, somewhat ominously, “not everyone makes it.”

Our driver, the wistfully-named January, has been listening to the briefing and senses our trepidation. He insists we take a porter each, not so much to carry our small packs as to help us negotiate the terrain. He returns with two diminutive young women in neat blue-grey uniforms and small black plastic gumboots, Anitha and Patience, who prove invaluable, deceptively strong, stable despite their choice of footwear, and the latter as true to label as the forest in her own backyard.

The group at the briefing is now divided into several smaller groups, and we – my wife and I – set out with two other couples and a small troupe of assorted porters and guides, extra rangers at the head and rear of the group armed with rifles in case of close encounters with elephants in the forest, known to blaze their own trails even here.

There are several teams of professional trackers already out in the forest well ahead of us to locate the three or four gorilla families most often found from this trekking point. In all, there are 12 semi-habituated gorilla families in the park, a few of which can be reached from each of four different trekking points. Some days a gorilla family may be found within half-an-hour of a starting point; other days you may have to trek for several hours before encountering a family. Patience, however, is generally rewarded.
For the first hour or so the walking is relatively easy, with only a couple of marshy crossings on unsteady logs and anxious legs causing us to trouble the porters for assistance. Patience is also quick to point out the elephant footprints, knee-deep water traps the size of builders’ buckets at various points along our path. Otherwise, the walk is uneventful, and quite breathtaking, in the figurative, scenic sense of the word. We’re told the trek is much tougher on a typical rainy day, but today, though still damp underfoot, we’re blessed with clear skies and mild tropical weather tempered by the high altitude, and to this point this really is a walk in the park.

We carry on for another half-an-hour as the terrain becomes noticeably steeper, the vegetation heavier, our breath shorter, and our head guide’s radio contact with the trackers ahead of us more frequent and more animated.

We stop to take a drink from our flasks and are told we’re now very close to the trackers, who are only a few hundred metres above us with an extended family of gorillas! A frisson of real excitement now goes through the whole group – guests and guides – and here we leave the path altogether to climb the last stage straight up through the bush, the guides cutting a swathe through the vines above and ahead of us and the mighty little porters somehow managing to be both in front of us to pull us up, and behind us to keep us from falling back.

The level of challenge here is really more like low-angle rock-climbing than bushwalking as we know it, only there are no rocks nor toeholds. We’re clinging to branches, vines and porters where we can, sliding around on layers of wet leaves, barely keeping our footing between tree roots and fallen branches. There are moments where I look down and realise if I lose my footing now and/or Patience loses her grip on my forearm, I’ll likely slide a long, long way down into the forest. It’s hard going, nerve-wracking and there’s not a moment to consider what we’re about to encounter.

And then there, suddenly, right in front of us, unannounced and barely an arm’s length away, her head at our eye-level, is an adult female gorilla. She is leaning back in a bed of leaves and eating, stripping stems and shoots with her nimble fingers, like stringing beans. She glances at us momentarily, slightly raising her brows, before refocusing on the task at hand.
We meet the trackers waiting beside her who greet us with nods and knowing smiles and whispers, pointing in the trees behind us, above us, all around us. We are surrounded by gorillas. “This is the Mukiza family,” we are told in a whisper, “Named in honour of their silverback, the head of the family. He was just over there,” the lead tracker Benson tells us, pointing towards a thick tangle of vines off to our right.

“There are now 13 in this family, with a new baby,” Benson says, nodding to our left where a tiny gorilla clambers over his mother’s shoulder to stare at us with deep amber eyes, seemingly as curious about us as we are about him. His mother turns away, but he climbs across her face and almost on top of her head to keep us in his sights, squinting in the sunlight streaming through the high trees.

To our right, a toddler-sized young gorilla runs up a sloping branch, looking our way before leaping to another tree, and then, with long arms looped around the narrow trunk, climbing arm-over-arm to a frightening height above the escarpment, leaning back at the very top to look down at us like a lineman.

The family of 13 feels at times like many more as they constantly move around us, leaping from tree to tree, pulling saplings over onto one another and sometimes onto us, often while another gorilla is still in the tree. Two juvenile males, grinning or grimacing, lips pulled back over teeth and gums, are stuck in a ball-like wrestling hold, before rolling off backwards together, gathering speed, down the slope and away from us through a tunnel of trees like water going down a drain.

There is a loud movement in the bushes further to our right, and something massive moves off down the hill. Mukiza! Benson motions for us to follow, and Augustine the ranger goes ahead, scything away the vines above our heads. In a barely-controlled sliding gallop down the hill, with Patience at my side the entire time, we try to follow the silverback but lose sight of him before Benson stops me, puts his finger to his lips and points to the ground in front of me. He lifts a clump of vines like a giant manhole cover to reveal the massive adult male, sitting just below me in a little hollow. I am literally right at his shoulder, behind his great head, well within my arm’s reach and no doubt his, crouching on wet leaves on a 45-degree slope. Perhaps sensing my fear that I’m about to fall into the hole with him, or just nonplussed we’ve uncovered his hiding hole, Mukiza briefly beats his left chest with one cupped hand, and makes a stifled Tarzan cry. Benson gives me a reassuring wink, Patience never lets go of my elbow, and the Silverback pulls a leafy branch from the tree to his left and starts to eat.

We move quietly around and beside him, and at one point he abruptly stops eating and gives us a sideways glance, posing and frowning for about 15 seconds. Other members of the family keep moving past and the Silverback rises and follows them down the hill faster than we can follow him. We catch up with them again in a small clearing lower down. The silverback is sitting in a throne of leaves, eating whatever he can reach from the trees around him, the baby gorilla now at his shoulder with another toddler in the branches above reaching down to the baby.

Despite all we’ve read about avoiding eye contact, many of the gorillas look straight at us. Benson tells us it’s fine to look straight back. Mukiza is famously relaxed, only about 20 years old, and rising to the head of his family after his more imposing father was struck and killed by lightning several years ago. He has managed to keep the core of the family together despite several challenges from other males from outside the group.

Before we came to Bwindi, a colleague who had been several times before told me to treasure my brief time with the gorillas and not to spend it all looking through the lens of a camera. It was wise counsel. Seeing this family with my own eyes, and looking into theirs, has been one of the most profound and precious experiences of my life.

I have been asked since what it was like to have a gorilla in the wild look me in the eye?

When the silverback looks at you, it’s with a kind of winking but understood threat, you both know what he could do if he wanted, but you sense he really has no desire to harm you and wants nothing more than to just sit there and eat his whole lounge room in peace while his young family plays around him.

And when the baby gorilla looks at you… well that’s a moment that makes you feel somehow both more human and more animal. It reminded me of nothing less than the day our daughter was born, how I felt when she first fixed her gaze on me, with that dubious ‘Are you my mother?’ look in her deep eyes. That moment was for me one of profound recognition, unconditional love, and awareness of a responsibility that would never end, that I hoped to live up to, to embrace and cherish for as long as I was alive, that I knew immediately was the greatest gift I would ever receive.

And it’s this same feeling, albeit at a lower pitch, I take away from this gorilla encounter. A sense of blessed responsibility, not just to consider and to do what we can to care for this family of gorillas and the others that remain in this forest and elsewhere in central Africa, but also a responsibility to the people displaced by the gazetting of this forest, to all the other wonderful, earnest, devout people we have met in Uganda and East Africa, people striving to improve the lives of their families and communities. And it’s a sense of an even broader responsibility, to all the animals we’ve marvelled at on the savannahs in East Africa in the weeks before this trek, all the people who have made us feel so welcome, and all the people, disadvantaged, displaced, all the animals, threatened and endangered, across this mighty continent, and of course much closer to home.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. In Bwindi, it also takes a forest, and I suspect it takes the better part of a whole world to save a species, a habitat, a people, a way of life, perhaps even a planet. Certainly, it takes a change of hearts, helped perhaps a little by a life-affirming moment – an experience that makes you feel both more human and more animal, part of a much larger family than you may ever have conceived. A moment of the kind great travel can provide.

Anthony travelled as a guest of A&K’s Uganda Office, and stayed at Sanctuary Retreats’ Gorilla Forest Camp.