A baby gorilla hangs from a tree at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Although mountain gorillas are sometimes referred to as 'silverbacks', this is only true of older male gorillas, whose fur changes to grey after they are around 15 years old.
Uganda – Been There

Staggering along – and then the silverback's stare

Photo by Paul Souders

Uganda – Been There Staggering along – and then the silverback's stare

As I search for gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, I realise one thing: humans do not belong in this place.

Arne Doornebal
Arne Doornebal Journalist

The Uganda morning mist left the vegetation dripping and I wear rain-gear but am soon soaking from the sweat of climbing. My thick canvas gloves are needed to guard against stinging nettles, thorns and insect bites and a walking pole is also an essential aid on steep slopes, full of ankle-snagging roots. We break out into a high clearing when we can gaze down on on the valley below, still shrouded in mist. Researcher Dian Fossey‘s story was called “Gorillas in the Mist” for good reason.

Had I the energy to spare, I would admire her fortitude in devoting her life to working in this forest. It is impossible to walk for long. I slip, slide, slither, crawl under fallen branches and wade through vegetation that comes to my waist. The water I swallow continually from my bottle seems to re-appear immediately on my clammy skin, while more drops on my neck from every wet shrub I push aside. Although I cannot see the sun through the foliage high overhead, I can feel its rise as I start to suffer from its growing heat.

Although I curse it, the gorillas can be thankful for the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It is the reason for their survival. “There are only two areas left in the whole world where mountain gorillas live,” says Lillian Nsubuga of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). “One is in Bwindi National Park, which lies entirely in Uganda. The other is the Virungas, a mountain range that lies primarily in DR Congo but stretches into Rwanda and Uganda as well.” The gorillas in the Virungas move freely between the three countries, so they can be found in any of them.

The silverback is king of this environment and I resist the urge to stare back at this magnificent animal as his intense gaze assesses what threat our group might pose to his family. Looking straight in their eyes gives them the impression you want to challenge their superiority. Picking a fight with a 1,000kg animal, whose upper arms are four times thicker than mine, would not be a good idea.

Only a privileged few have seen a gorilla in the wild and not every excursion guarantees a sighting. I know I have been lucky. “Seeing gorillas is for many people a life-changing experience,” says Nsubuga. “Some people come back every year to spend time with them.”

As my hour with the gorillas comes to an end, I reluctantly take my leave to start the hellish three-hour scramble back down the mountain. The gorillas give me a parting look, then go back to stripping leaves off branches. While I will remember them for the rest of my life, they have forgotten me already. That is how it should be: we humans have a need for gorillas much more than any need they might have for us.

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