Gorilla Habituation Experience
This is organised by the UWA and was first made available earlier in the year as an alternative to the normal 1-hour tracking. It meant we would be helping to habituate a family of gorillas who had been only partially habituated – ie. habituated to the rangers but not yet (fully) habituated to tourists and it meant that we would be able to spend more time with the gorillas, and would go in a group of 4 instead of the usual 8. It also meant that we would require higher levels of fitness as we would need to be prepared for more rugged terrain, would need to keep up with the trackers and would be left behind to be picked up on the way back if we couldn’t keep up, and that we could expect to be out for up to 12 hours and possibly be covering up to about 20 kilometres. It was also at a higher cost.
We had known we wanted to do this as soon as we had heard about it but had also known that we were going to have to get into training for it and had swapped the second normal – ie 1 hour - tracking trip already in our itinerary for this one.
In the time leading up to our departure we had been told that the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) had adjusted their approach to make it ‘a bit more’ tourist-friendly - meaning they would wait for us a bit and give us breaks but that they would still leave us behind if they thought we weren’t able to keep up, and so we still felt unsure just what to expect. They had not said anything about bigger groups though so when we were told the night before that there were 3 other people joining us – making a total of 5 - we were a bit put out.
The registration point (which is much more rough and ready than in the Bwindi Sector) is about 30 minutes drive from Clouds and when we arrived there we found yet another couple waiting for the habituation experience – making a total of 7! This was not starting well and we were extremely disgruntled, and became even more so when we learned that one of the group of 3 was an octogenarian who was going to be carried up the mountain in a sort of elongated wicker basket-cum-stretcher. This was definitely not what we’d been led to expect or what we had paid for.
The other couple were also unhappy but they were going to be in the area for a few more days so they negotiated to change to a normal tracking trip that day instead and to do the habituation experience the next day – still leaving the 5 of us.
We expressed our concerns to Davis, our driver/guide, and he brought the Lead Guide – Augustine – to talk to us so we could express our dissatisfaction to him too. One of the UWA guys was saying that they were still not co-ordinated in making the reservations and that different people might be taking bookings for the same day without knowing how many people were already booked for that day. Clearly this was something that needed sorting out locally, and is probably the result of it still being a relatively new offering.
Once we’d registered our dissatisfaction we decided that we would go anyway as it was the only opportunity we had and would lodge a formal complaint when we got back, and we then decided to focus on enjoying the day and making the best of it.
As we set off, it quickly became evident that our octogenarian in his stretcher/basket wasn't going to be a problem as the porters (in 2 alternating teams of 4) rushed off up the 300 metres (elevation) of almost vertical mud that was the path up to the forest, leaving the rest of us to make our way up, ably assisted by our porters (don't even think of doing this without one, though you may have to swallow your pride as George did to be helped by a 20 something slip of a girl who was carrying his rucksack and wearing wellies). Augustine had quickly spotted that one member of the family group was quite a bit slower than us and he had brought us past her so we weren’t being held up and we were very appreciative of this.
By the time we got to the top of this first steep slope the varying fitness levels of our party were fairly evident and so Augustine then sent the two of us ahead with a couple of the trackers whilst the rest of the group stuck to the (longer) path. For us, this involved working our way through the undergrowth and vegetation, following the tracker with the machete, up and down across various surfaces and steep inclines.
We got to the area where the Gorillas were after only an hour and a half in total, (rather than the possible 6 hours that we had been prepared for) and we stopped to have a good drink before, again, leaving our packs, water bottles and sticks behind with the porters to go the last few minutes to where the gorillas were.
We had a wonderful time tracking them as they roamed through the undergrowth for the next (almost) four hours (we stopped 10 minutes early because it started to rain very heavily and the gorillas took to cover, as did we). We were scrambling over and under undergrowth, and up and down very steep and slippery slopes with gradients of between approximately 45 to 60 degrees, treading on and over the vines and vegetation that had been chopped down so the surfaces were often springy and shifting underfoot and we had to watch out that we didn’t get our feet caught up in tangled vines. As we had left the porters behind the trackers or rangers often helped us (often holding one of our hands in one hand and a machete or rifle in the other hand!). Our octogenarian was allowed to have 2 of his porters with him to assist and sometimes bodily carry him, and the slower member of their party was also allowed to keep her porter with her. When the exertion was too much for our elderly companion he stayed behind and then rejoined us again when the gorillas were a bit more accessible. All the scrambling up and down used up quite a bit of energy and I wished I had had an energy bar before starting this section of the day as I started to feel a bit depleted, but I soon got a second wind when thinking about keeping up with the gorillas. Talking to the other family, who were American, it seemed that they hadn’t been properly advised of what to expect and hadn’t known that there was an easier 1–hour tracking trip so full marks again to NWS for their expert knowledge.
We noticed that when tracking a fully habituated group the gorillas stay mostly around one place and it is easy to stay with them, but as these gorillas are still being habituated they move around a lot more and often work their way into the midst of the undergrowth, and we were on the move a lot following them wherever they went.
The silverback was huge and the trackers were very focused on following him mostly, sometimes stopping as he made a bit of a charge, which we’d been told to expect. There were again several youngsters playing around – one in particular putting on quite a show for us with cartwheels and pirouettes in the trees, and also doing his own bit of a charge in imitation of his dad.