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Friday, December 22, 2017

Gorillas I Have Missed

Gorillas I have missed  

This is the big day that we’ve been waiting for the entire trip: coming face to face with gorillas.  Everything up to this point has been a lead up to today.

We’ve been instructed how to dress for this expedition.  We’re told it might be cold, hot, wet, dry, long and short.  We should to be prepared for all eventualities. 

I’m dressed in my best safari outfit.  I have my multi pocket safari pants tucked into my socks. It takes me half an hour how to figure out how to put my gaiters over my hiking boots and socks.  In the end I have them on the wrong feet, but they will suit the purpose – to keep swarms of red ants from getting into my pants, and deflect any snake bites.  I have my khaki colored long sleeve wicking shirt tucked into my pants and a quilted fleece over that.  In addition, I’m wearing my special Australian bush hat.  I figure I’m well prepared for any eventuality.   When I arrive at the orientation center most of the other people are just wearing street clothes.  They’ll be sorry.

In groups of eight we will be assigned a different “family.”   There is no telling how long we will have to hike through the jungle to find our particular family.  The previous day one group encountered their family in under an hour.  Another group hiked up the mountain and through mud for over six hours before they encountered theirs. 

We are given a list of do’s and don’ts:
1.      Keep 21 feet from the gorillas
2.      Keep your voices down at all time
3.      No food or drink near the gorillas
4.      If we were “attacked” by a gorilla we are told not to run, but assume a meek submissive posture.
And most important….
5.      NO flash photography

Sue Ellen had been warned about this yesterday when we visited the chimps yesterday and ignored the guides instructions.    She had affixed the space telescope to her camera and is focusing on the alpha male in a tree about 8 meters away.  The lens was practically in the poor animal’s face and when she pressed the shutter her flash went off.  The chimp screamed and fell out of the tree. 

Our group of eight is assigned the “Habinyanja” family and our guide, Gawdi, was the person responsible for habituating this particular family, so he knows all the individual members quite well.

We are encouraged to utilize porters – whether we feel we need them or not.  My porter’s name is Fred. The fifteen dollars we pay the porter goes a long way to supporting their family and community.  Besides carrying our packs, the porters lend a hand on the difficult parts of the hike, either pushing or pulling you up steep embankments.  They don’t have to ask me twice. 

My day pack weighs in at about four pounds - most of that bottled water, so it isn’t going to stress out my porter, Fred, too much.  On the other hand, Sue Ellen’s day pack is more like a steamer trunk with straps.  It weighs about 12 tons.  It would definitely be considered “marginal” as carry-on luggage.    I ask Sue Ellen why she needs such a large “day pack.”
“My camera lenses,” she explains.
“What have you got in there?” I ask.  “The Hubble Space Telescope?”

Sue Ellen’s porter, Jane, is about four foot eleven and weighs about 80 pounds soaking wet.  But Jane hefts the pack easily, and we are off on our hike.

The first part of the hike is relatively easy:  we just follow a trail through a cultivated tea farm.  After twenty minutes we approach the interface between the cultivated fields and the jungle and things get a bit tougher.  The trek through the jungle continues for about twenty more minutes when our head guide, Gaudi, calls a halt and announces the trackers have spotted the gorillas just ahead.

The trackers stay with the gorillas all day.  They only leave in the late afternoon when the gorillas begin to make their nests for the night.  They return early the next morning and radio their position back to our guide – so they know where the gorillas are most of the time.  It only gets difficult when the gorillas wake up and begin to move.  They can move several miles through the jungle in a short period of time so it’s a race to keep up with them.

In our case we’re lucky it’s only five more minutes until we reach the gorillas.  We’re told to take whatever we need out of our packs and leave them with the porters who will wait for us a few hundred yards away.   I already have my point and shoot camera in my pocket so I don’t need anything else out of my pack.  Sue Ellen unloads a few monster lenses.

Viewing the gorillas isn’t quite as easy as I imagined.  The jungle is dense and I have to look carefully to find them.  Taking pictures is even more difficult as my camera keeps focusing on trees and bushes rather than the gorillas.    Our guide tries to be helpful by carefully and quietly cutting out some of the intervening vegetation with his machete.   He eventually exposes the patriarch of the group – a very large silverback - resting on his haunches happily munching on a bamboo branch.

Sue Ellen is determined to get some great pictures.  In order to get an unobstructed view of the giant silverback she crouches down on her haunches and tries to aim her giant telephoto lens at the gorilla.  Why she needs a 200mm lens when the animal is a mere 20 feet away is beyond me.  Maybe she wants a candid shot of the inside of his left nostril.

Her unaccustomed stance with the heavy lens stuck out front of her has left her somewhat unbalanced and she tips over onto her back with a loud “whooomph!”

The silverback stops munching looks up startled searching for the source of the noise.  He spots Sue Ellen lying on her back and leaps up, pounds his chest, roars, and begins stomping towards her.  Everything seems to be moving in slow motion.  The gorilla looms over her. Sue Ellen gazes up the gorilla, he stares down at her.   A moment passes between them.  It must have been that way between King Kong met Fay Wray.

The moment is shattered when Gawdi, our guide, steps between them.
“Are you out of your mind,” I shout to him. “Get out of the way. Let nature take its course.  I’ve been waiting for this moment for a week!”
Gawdi turns to me.
“I’m sorry Jeff, but I have to think of the gorilla.”
The silverback seems to recognize Gawdi realize there is no danger, shrugs and heads back to munch on his bamboo branch.

The hour passes quickly without further incidents and I get some amazing shots of a mother gorilla and her baby.   We’re reunited with our porters and head out of the jungle and back to the orientation center.  It’s all over before noon.

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