The alarm goes off. It is 5:00 AM. Too dark. Too cold. You dress, still sleepy. You climb into the Land Cruiser for the two-hour drive to Ruhija. It is not an easy drive. The road is dusty, rutted, and potholed, only 42 kilometers from Buhoma where you are staying. But very slow. You skip breakfast. It is too early to eat, and anyway, you suspect you’d never be able to keep it down on this roller-coaster ride.
The sun is rising red. You see the mist in the mountains surrounding you. It is quiet, beautiful. People are beginning to stir in the villages you pass. Men and women and children fill the road. Children run barefoot in the clay, dressed in their colorful school uniforms. They wave madly at you as you pass, yell Hello! and give you a wide smile. The adults carry all manner of material on their heads–baskets, water jugs, wood, farming implements, bananas. It amazes you, as always.
You arrive in Ruhija and check in. You meet your assigned group. It is called Orozogo. There are eight of you, the maximum allowed. Your guide, Obed, gives you instructions: Speak softly. No sudden movements. No flash photography.
You begin the trek, steeply downhill, and then the same uphill. You are glad to have walking sticks. After some time, the trackers stop and listen. They are waiting for a special sound. They hear what they are waiting for and abruptly turn off the trail. Then you are bush-whacking. The trackers use their razor-sharp machetes to chop the vines and stinging nettles from in front of you. The terrain is very difficult, so hard to get your footing. After all, this is Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest, so aptly named.
After two and a half hours, Obed tells you to stop. Drop your sticks. Leave your packs. Follow the trackers a bit further. And then you see one: what you came for. A huge head covered in thick black fur. A face so human, so expressive. And a hand, fingers, so much like your own–only much, much bigger. Massive shoulders.
You hear what sounds like a bark, and you back away. Is this a charge? You follow Obed’s directions exactly. The silverback runs away.
You spend the next hour following the family. You never stop whacking bushes. You never stop moving. You see a young one climbing in a tree eating the fruit.
You see an adult female pulling on a big tree, enjoying its leaves.
After six hours, you return weary but fulfilled. You have seen the elusive mountain gorillas of Uganda.