There was a time when the dark forests of Central Africa were remote, untouched, perilous… In them dwelled mysterious creatures that inspired fear and fascination. We now have a better understanding of Mountain Gorillas and Chimpanzee. Travelling to their natural habitat is a clear possibility for those who wish to meet them.
I am surrounded by thick vegetation, by unrelenting green. The canopy creates a world that truly appears impenetrable. Here and there, sunbeams find a way through the roof of the forest and a curious play of shadows comes to life. The humidity and the terrain take me out of my comfort zone. It is well worth it. I am tracking gorillas in Bwindi, Uganda.
Central Africa was the ultimate unknow for 19th century explorers. In our own century, now that the maps have been drawn, geographical exploration gives way to exploring ourselves. The modern explorer is not after natural riches to exploit. I am pursuing the experience of the wild for my own happiness.
What is it about gorillas and chimpanzee that I find so fascinating? For one, we share 98.8% of our genome. When looking at these great apes the similarities are evident, but so are the differences! This is the natural habitat from which we sprung. In the rainforest once roamed an arboreal frugivore, our common ancestor. Here in the primeval forest I seek to get a clearer picture of our origin.
The forests engulfs you with layer upon layer of canopy. One of the rangers is opening a path through the forests with a machete. My shirt is sticking to my body. I am not comfortable in the fecundity of the forest, in the canopy that bars the sky. The dark jungle is where you lose yourself, as Dante did. The mythology of the North makes it a place of dark power My Mediterranean heritage makes me prefer the silence and emptiness of the desert, which is experienced as a non-empty void, a place for introversion. The hermit went to the desert to be cleansed from the corruption of the city, while the forest was a place of witches… I did not know back then that Buddha meditated in the forests.
Leaves are moving…
It is the first sign of the Gorillas. They can hear us approaching. One of their sentries sends out three short notes to warn the others of our presence. First we see a female on a tree with her baby, who is exploring. Suddenly, behind us, the alpha-male shows himself, his body stiff and upright, his coat bristling, displaying dominance. He looks massive. He shows us his side, then turns away his head and gives us short glances every now and then. His profile against the light is magnificent. He is Bahati, of the Bushaho family.
Bahati sits and starts to feed. He emits a soft rumbling, a sort of humming to show that he is comfortable. When we get too close he roars. It is an intense sound, one of the most explosive sounds in nature. The roar is followed by a mock-charge. My heart skips a beat.
He stops only one metre from us.
Then he retreats and resumes his meal, happy and serene. His demeanour reveals his emotional state. His face is not tense, his lips are not curled back, his teeth are not visible.
The rest of the family defer to him, he is a powerful creature. And yet he is so peaceful! Dr. Janine Benyus in her Secret Language of Animals asks a poignant question:
“Don’t you wonder how anyone could have portrayed this peaceable animal as ‘nature’s most savage beast’ for so many years? The answer, of course, was in the profits. Circuses that housed a ‘dangerous killer’ drew record crowds, and safari hunters who killed a ‘bloodthirsty beast’ seemed that much braver to their friends back home. As a result, fears and myths about gorillas became deeply embedded in our culture.”
Travel is about coming and seeing for yourself, breaking down the myths. This is necessary to appreciate the wilderness, which is an endeavour not only for scientists, but for anyone willing to look closely, sincerely. Rachel Carson, the pioneer marine biologist, said that “[...] natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society.” I happen to agree with her. I believe that appreciating the wonder of the Earth means finding calmness and courage.
Three days later I enter the Kibale Forest National Park, now looking for chimpanzee. Ten minutes into the walk, a black-necked spitting cobra crosses my path. A minute later, I spot a black mamba on a branch above the path. Trekking in the jungle is no joke… the tone is set.
We are tracking with no guarantee of a sighting. Chimpanzee do not leave footprints, so they are much more difficult to track than gorillas. However, they communicate with long and powerful calls. My guide is navigating by sound.
At last, his keen ear leads us to the Chimpanzee, who are resting on the ground rather than on the trees. It is a great opportunity for a close encounter. They come down for just a couple of hours every day. It is a group of ten. Some are squatting and grooming each other. Others are happily taking a nap. All of them are oblivious to our presence. I marvel in silence.
Later, I would look back and wonder why it was so fulfilling, just sitting in the wild with ten chimps.
I remember the stories of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, the remarkable primatologists that despite great resistance changed the way we look at animals. I’m inspired by the way they let go of the “normal life” and pursued their dreams instead. Goodall was fresh out of college when she left for Africa in 1957. Fossey was a therapist who took her life savings and asked for a loan to go to Africa and change her life. "This is what I came into this world to do," says Goodall in her memoirs. "I really do simply adore Kenya. It’s so wild, uncultivated, primitive, mad, exciting, unpredictable. It is also slightly degrading in its effect on some rather weak characters, but on the whole I am living in the Africa I have always longed for, always felt stirring in my blood."
Their dreams were made of unimaginable stuff. Unimaginable to the people back home was that a young woman could be brave and live in the dark forests of Africa. Unimaginable to the scientific community was that they gave real names to what they studied. “David Greybeard, bless his heart…,” Goodall used to say when talking about the chimpanzee that paved the way to understanding that humans are not the only ones that make use of tools. She redefined what “man” is.
Empathy is at the source of my fulfilment. Not the arrogant anthropomorphism that places me at the centre of the world. This empathy is a connection towards a real being, not the abstract animal symbols that populate our word. The sense of awe I experience looking at these chimps enlarges my awareness of the world. In Dr. Goodall’s words: “Empathy is really important… Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”
The rainforests of the national parks are not as primeval as we think. Ancient societies consciously changed and shaped this ecosystem, favouring those species that were useful to them. The ancients managed the forest and one could say they were its gardeners after a fashion. The impact that they had was quite the opposite of that of modern farming methods.
We meet a group of the people of the forest ― that is, who used to live in the now protected forest. They are the Batwa, hunter/gatherers commonly known as Pygmies. One of them, Emme, guides us into the forest. He shows us the herb to run faster, a berry to see farther, he knows of a root that makes you stronger, and a stalk to look smarter.
“How many types of green can you see?” Emme asks.
They are no longer allowed to hunt in the forest.
Two weeks ago I was with the Bushmen of Botswana. A month ago with the Sámi of Lapland. They are all minorities who had achieved symbiosis with the natural world around them. For this very reason they have become marginalised, their land taken away.
“The forest is the place where I was born,” Emme says all of a sudden. “Even if I cannot live here anymore, I know this is the place I am from.”
I look into his eyes and something painful stirs within me.
“I miss the forest.”
Walking with the Batwa is a pretend act. Yet I am doing it with the heart. I can feel their plight and it is an opportunity for them to be proud of their traditions, away from their marginalised village, back in the forest they so long for.
“By doing this demonstration we can teach our young about the old ways,” Emme says.
This place is not just apes and jungle. It is also people.
Away from the impenetrable forest, we come to Lake Albert. Sandy and I are on a boat looking for the rare shoebill. When we finally find it, it is completely immobile. Then, with a lightning-fast movement it springs and catches a fish. We also spot red throated bee-eaters, African jacana, and the African open-billed stork... We hear the voices of fisherman far away.
I see a village, Ntoroko, by the shores of the lake. Instead of looking for another pelican I ask our guides to take us ashore.
It’s Sunday and the musical sermon of a pastor is coming loud from a brick warehouse without windows. The roof is made of tin, the ground is but sand. It is the local church, with red crosses on white linen for all ornament. A group of children stand up first and sing to the crowd accompanied by a small band, then the teenagers, then the adults. They praise the love of God with melodious voices, with all the rhythm of Africa. Their energy is contagious, and we are moved to join the celebration of life.
When to go:
Most of Uganda is tropical and travelling to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest can be done year round. However, there are two rainy seasons than span from March to April, and from September to November.
How to get there:
There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Entebbe in Uganda. The main connecting cities are Dubai, Addis Ababa and Johannesburg. From Entebbe take a local flight to Kisoro, from there, it's a 2-hour drive to the forest. Remember that you need a permit to track gorillas in Bwindi. These are limited, so plan in advance.
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We at Blueflower have organised an exclusive itinerary where you will go gorilla-trekking, spotting chimps and enjoying the best wildlife experiences in Uganda.