By David O’Connor
To say we were excited to see the gorillas would be an understatement. We had worked through the previous weekend in order to take a three-day weekend that involved over 20 hours on the “road” (I use this term in the most liberal sense) to catch a glimpse of a few of the last 800 mountain gorillas left in the world. Frieda Park, Kate Robertson, and I met up with Bharath Balasubramanian, Daniel Karr, and Isabelle Strauss of the TEM Lab Uganda: Small Solutions team to journey into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
I could write an entire additional entry on the 11 hour drive to Bwindi as a cross-cultural experience, an off-road adventure story, or a testament to Bharath’s ability to sleep in truly any environment. For brevity’s sake, I’ll just say that the ride was an experience and we were all very happy to arrive in the jungles of Bwindi. Since we arrived at dusk we were also able to see rural Uganda at nighttime and were reminded once again of the important role that Solar Sister plays here. Most of the communities along the main “road” to the park were fortunate enough to be among the small percentage of the country that was close enough to access power lines. Despite this, the large majority of houses in these mountain communities did not have any lights turned on due to the high price of electricity or the common power outages. Luckily for us, our lodge in Bwindi was solar-powered so we were able to find our beds and get an early night’s sleep in preparation for our big day.
We awoke in the morning to meet our guide and 2-armed guards (with automatic weapons) who promptly took us on a hike through a local community and up a mountain. Upon reaching the top of the mountain we discovered that the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was nothing more than a series of mountains and…an impenetrable forest. The next two to three hours of our day consisted of going up and down these mountains whilst hacking (with a machete in our guide’s case) through the brush and falling down repeatedly on the muddy ground. After being told for hours that the gorillas were just minutes away, the allure of hiking in one of the most ancient and virgin rain forests in the world was starting to take its toll.
With little warning however, our once single file line began to scatter as we noticed the trees directly above us were moving a lot more than any of the trees around them. As large black figures began to emerge from the canopy of the forest, we remained as quiet as one could at the time while informing everyone within earshot that we had indeed found the group of gorillas that we had been tracking.
The next hour that we spent with the gorillas was one of those magical hours where time stood still, but seemed to pass almost instantaneously. The 400 pound, 40 year old silverback in the group greeted us by masterfully maneuvering to the forest floor from the top of a 60 foot tree and brushing within inches of us. He then sat down next to a tree ten feet away to chew on some nearby foliage. He knew we were there, but would give us only the slightest acknowledgement in the form of brief eye contact. Meeting eye to eye with this mythical animal who is almost thrice your size, shares 97% of your DNA, has been living (in the form of his ancestors) in these untouched forests for thousands of years, and could end your life with minimal effort, is a truly humbling and awe-inspiring moment. It is impossible to leave an hour with the gorillas without feeling more in touch with nature and changed in some way.
To be quite honest, the rest of the trip after the gorillas was mostly a blur. The hours in the forest and van that came next were a perfect chance to reflect on the experience. By the time we arrived back in Kampala we were overly excited to meet with the other half of our group and share our gorilla experience with them. After having such an intense and enjoyable weekend after three weeks of hard work, we felt rejuvenated and inspired to start our last two weeks of work with Solar Sister!