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Gorillas in Uganda

Follow the multi-adventures of Fyllis Hockman, resulting from her ElderTreks journey through southwestern Uganda, which brought her in close proximity to dozens of animals during both land and water game drives on a safari, carousing with chimps tracking through a forest, and surviving an experience of a lifetime trekking mountain gorillas.

Trekking Mountain Gorillas
In Uganda:
An "Experience of a Lifetime"
In More Ways Than One…
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block (Unless otherwise noted)

he eight of us huddled together, warned repeatedly to stay close and keep quiet. A soft cough escaped from one of our party and the guide looked immediately askance. Coughing and sneezing were very much frowned upon. If you're scraped by a stinging nettle, don't even think about screaming – a usually fitting response. Sharing 98.4 percent of our DNA, the elusive mountain gorillas are very susceptible to human-borne illnesses and more gorillas die from such infectious diseases than from any other cause. We were carriers and they had to be protected from us.

Still, eight humans a day are allowed to visit these gentle giants, as they are known, for no longer than an hour, as we did during a recent visit to Uganda as part of an ElderTreks tour.

This is not exactly a drive-by photo op. With a vigorous (to say the least) trek of 1-7 hours, depending upon where the gorillas are that day, you have to REALLY want to see them. But even with visitation restricted to an hour, it is usually well worth the effort. But more on that later.

There are about 880 mountain gorillas in the world with almost half located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a World Heritage Site clearly worthy of its name, in southwestern Uganda, an 18% increase over the last census due to increased conservation efforts, education and veterinary care. This is very good news.

The prelude to the hike is itself intimidating. Treks range from 1-7 hours according to the promotional material, with a maximum increase in elevation of 500 meters. Wear good hiking boots, don gloves for the nettles, a walking stick is mandatory, bring lots of water, don't get closer than 25 feet and remember these are wild animals.

Anticipation mixed closely with apprehension as every person on our tour, whether expressed aloud or not, felt "I hope I can make." The tale I'm about to tell about my travel-writing husband Vic and myself is not the norm. The tale for the other eight members of our ElderTreks tour, from whom we were separated because of the limit of eight people to a gorilla trekking group, is the opposite extreme also not the norm.

Now Vic and I, despite our somewhat advanced ages, are in pretty good shape and are avid hikers, so while nervous about the challenges ahead we were fairly confident of our ability to handle them. And we knew the porters, provided compliments of ElderTreks, were there to literally lend a hand, a shoulder, to push or pull or do whatever was necessary to get us there safely.

hikers in bush at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

Boy, were we ever wrong. The trek was somewhat strenuous from the start, with steep climbs and slippery descents traversing narrow ravines, but we were holding our own, feeling pretty good about ourselves. Until we entered the forest. And there was no semblance of a trail at all. The guides were trail-blazing with the help of machetes deep into the clearly "impenetrable" woods, the rocks, roots and brambles beneath our feet not even visible because of the thick underbrush.

With walking stick in one hand and the porter's in the other, I tried valiantly to move forward though at times the porter was literally dragging me up the precipitous slopes or rescuing me from sliding down sheer declines, twigs and vines attacking from both sides of the non-trail, entangling my feet and arms to further impede progress in either direction. At times, I thought either my arm would be pulled off by the porter or my legs by the vines.

trekkers ascending slope in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

All the while, I couldn't help but feel guilty for thinking to myself how little at that point I cared about the gorillas and how much I was worried about surviving the grueling trip back. I was seriously considering becoming a modern day Dian Fossey and staying with the gorillas, assuming we ever reached them, just to avoid the return trip.

I wish we could say the trip was worth it but by the time we finally dragged ourselves or more appropriately were dragged by the porters to the designated area where the gorillas had been, they had left. This is just not what you want to hear after what several of us on the trek agreed was the most difficult thing we had ever done in our lives.

Another 15 minutes down yet one more very steep embankment finally brought us into view of a couple of gorillas chowing down in the bush. Yes they were fun to see but most were hidden in the trees and bushes and admittedly for several of us though clearly not all a younger couple was far more enthusiastic there is very little that could have justified the arduous journey there. On the other hand, if the whole troop of gorillas were carousing about in an area where we could see them, we might have changed our minds.

gorillas among trees, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

But I would be remiss if I didn't recount the one highlight: All of a sudden, the mammoth silverback in front of us the alpha male of the group turned from chowing to charging, coming very close before the tracker waving his AK47 quickly sent him into retreat. And he both tracker and silverback remained immune to our pleas, now that we all had our cameras ready, to please try that again!

author taking picture of male silverback, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

Did I mention that the literature says the treks can take as long as 7 hours? We left the bus at 9:30 a.m., returned at 4:30. You do the math.

The rest of the tale? While Vic and I were immersed in the most harrowing experience of our lives, our eight ElderTreks traveling companions had one of the best for which I will say they did feel a little guilty on our behalf. They related they walked along a road repeat: road near our lodge and within 20 minutes were in sight of their first gorilla. Another 15 minutes took them to a local farmer's banana plantation, which the 19 gorillas in the group were happily dismantling. Good for the gorillas, bad for the farmer, though the trekkers later took up a collection to compensate him. At some point, they told us sheepishly, they were totally surrounded by gorillas. So much for the 25-foot rule!

gorilla eating banana stalk close up
Photo courtesy of Jon Perica

But despite those two extreme experiences, most people experience something in between that no doubt qualifies as the "experience of a lifetime" promised by the tour. "The Eldertreks Uganda trip offers the most diverse scenery and wildlife highlighted by mountain gorillas and chimps than any other country in Africa," enthused Jon Perica, an environmentalist from Northridge, California.

author with traditiional medicine man

And it is important to note that as much as the gorilla trekking is touted as a highlight of the trip, it is only one day in a 16-day adventure that includes magnificent safari game drives on both land and water in multiple wildlife reserves, each offering different inhabitants; chimpanzee tracking that compared to the gorilla trek was a stroll through the park; unusually scenic terrain and cultural outings that ranged from meeting with members of a Pygmy tribe, a demonstration by a traditional medicine man who uses indigenous herbs to cure almost any ailment, a visit to a local school and a lunch of native Ugandan delicacies prepared by a farmer and his wife. It was an incredibly memorable trip despite our somewhat less-than-satisfactory gorilla encounter. For more information, visit eldertreks.com, which promotes "Small Group Exotic Adventures for Travelers 50 and Over."

Related Articles:
Chimps in Uganda; Uganda Safari; Namibia: Where Arid Desert Meets Frigid Sea (Part 1); Namibia Part II: Where Wild Women Meet Wildlife; Deutsch-Südwestafrika

(Posted 5-17-2013)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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