Saturday, February 14, 2009

Save the Gorillas

My favourite, but slightly sad, Adam Ant story is when the poor bloke went a bit cuckoo a few years ago, he got it into his head that he had to save the world's gorilla population and went as far as to re-record a special versio of Stand and Deliver.

Instead of chanting 'Stand and Deliver' when it came to the chorus, he sang the refrain 'Save the Gorilla' instead. At the time, he was more out of his tree than the gorillas he was trying to save.

It was all a bit embarrassing really and the story died in the UK media out of a demonstration of sensitivity that UK journalists seldom show.

But the man had a point. After my sister, her boyfriend and I went gorilla tracking in early January, we worked out that in visiting the one family group who numbered twenty-three individuals, we had spent time with approximately one thirtieth of the entire mountain gorilla population.

Imagine one thirtieth of the world's human population? No wonder they don't let you track any of the remaining estimated 720 mountain gorillas if you've got a bit of a sniffle...

We tracked ours at Buhoma, in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Which allowed our ranger to tell us, as we were about to enter the Forest boundaries, that we on the verge of penetrating the impenetrable.

Which I'm sure he says to all his trackers, but there you go.

Before we left Kampala I was concerned about how hard the tracking would be and whether it would be worth it.

Friends who'd done it before warned me of 8 hour take-no-prisoner hikes up steep volcanic slopes, slip-sliding between slimy tendrils and ruining hiking trousers all for staring into the eyes of some close relatives for no more than an hour tops.

Plus the permit alone costs $500.

So was it worth it?


It ranks as my all-time top wildlife encounter as a landlubber. It was close to the thrill of seeing a shark for the first time when diving in the Red Sea. But with the sort of intimacy that comes with sitting your arse down on top of layers of rainforest mulch and just simply watching something eat, play, fight, sleep and fart.

And No.

It’s $500 for goodness sake. That’s now something like £350. And maybe it feels worth it to someone on a London salary, but to me on my Kampala salary it feels pretty darn steep.

And you know the discount you get for being an East African Resident?

A measly $25. And I didn’t even qualify for that as I was buying cast off permits from some tour company who’d had some tourist cancel on them probably out of a knee jerk reaction to the squabbling over the border in the DRC.

Ah well, you only live once etc...

So there we were, penetrating the impenetrable. Following a well worn track that was about half a foot wide, it didn’t feel that impenetrable. But then we went off-road. The slip-sliding had begun. We were heading down into a steep ravine, so steep you couldn’t help but simply lurch down from sapling to slimy vine. Except they weren’t that slimy. We had the dry season to thank for that, I guess.

The porters were incredible - all should have been handicapped by their local gumboots or simple leather soled shoes - but all were more sure-footed than any of us put together.

Every so often somebody grabbed a trailing vine that was just the wrong side of rotten, and with a crack and a tumble, they would accelerate slightly. A porter would somehow always be there, hand outstretched, ready to steady them, all the while carrying a couple of day packs and the best part of a camera shop in spare lenses, video cameras, extra memory cards and all sorts of photographic paraphernalia.

We were a relatively young and fit group. I’ve heard horror stories of enormous 250 pound tourists attempting the steep slopes with no fitness training, and usually having come straight off a plane and not be acclimatised to the altitude. One backpacker I knew was in a group with a couple of such specimens. A husband and wife from the US of A, whose love handles alone could have incurred an excess baggage charge. Apparently the husband collapsed on the way up to the gorilla group, and was pushed, pulled, hauled and carried the remaining distance by the hardy porters. When he got to the gorillas, he had to lie down to recover, and so saw nothing of the apes themselves. When his wife was asked how she had found the climb, she proudly declared that she had been fine by comparison, she’d only blacked out twice.

I hate to think what state those two were in. I consider myself grossly unfit and while it was tough going and pretty sweaty work, it was not that bad.

But then maybe we just had an obliging group of gorillas. There are three groups in Buhoma. One group that day had been found within forty minutes hiking. Our group was found within two and half hours. But by the time we’d spent an hour with the gorillas, hiked back for ninety minutes, been distracted by some local dancing and singing, and had the debrief back at the Park HQ, the third group had still not even found their gorillas. It was 3pm at this point and the day had started at 7.30 that morning.

I was glad I was not in Group 3.

On the hike back down the hill, you start to get a feel just how the local villagers and hill farmers are affected by the tourism. Once you are out of the forest and walking alongside tea plantations, small boys set up temporary stalls selling hand hewn gorilla statuettes and child-like drawings of the apes. When we pass, smiling and greeting but not stopping to buy, they wait for us to pass, then gather up their wares and bags and make off down the other side of the bushes lining the path, only to reappear round the corner, having laid out the same stall all over again.

We still didn’t buy any of their hand hewn gorillas, not even second time around.

We did stop and watch a performance by a local orphans group. While I usually find the carefully contrived ‘performances for tourists’ rather hard to stomach, this was actually quite special.

Most of the group donated a few dollars or shillings at the end, but the Slovenian couple with us chose to hand out boiled sweets. I do hate it when people think they can cheer up a poor little African with a piece of candy…

Even worse is when they hand out a sweet to each and every orphan, get everyone lined up (in a remarkably well behaved fashion – no pushing or shoving to be seen) and then discover they’re three sweets short by the time they near the end of the queue.

The three patient children at the end of the line looked like they were about to burst into tears.

As for the gorillas themselves, they were pretty special. We caught sight of the large silver-back first, an enormous black face through the parting leaves. He was far larger than any other gorilla in the group, and there were plenty of them.

From tiny baby gorilla twins, only a month or two old, to black-backed adults and playful sub-adults, and even a second silver-back who was just about happy to play submissive Lieutenant to the lumbering bulk of the lead silver-back’s General.

Every so often a young, inquisitive gorilla would pop over and try and approach one of us. Because of the danger of transmitting diseases, the rangers would break off a branch and wave it at the curious gorilla, warning them back. But had it been the silverback or an adult gorilla, we would have been behaving differently. Then it would have been incumbent upon us to sit or squat down, avoid eye contact and generally be submissive.

Thankfully it never came to that. The big apes kept their distance, busy being groomed by their adoring medium-sized groupies, and the little ones tumbled around learning to climb trees and play-fight.

So were they worth it? They were definitely worth doing once. But the cost prohibits most people from doing it twice. Once is certainly enough for me on my current budget.

Not so the Canadian couple that were part of our tracking group. They had tracked gorillas in Rwanda 8 years ago and were here on a four day trip to Bwindi, to track on four consecutive days. That’s $4,000 on gorilla permits. Upon hearing that, we were all too busy inwardly computing their madness to ask them why.

Finally, whenever I think back to looking at that silver-back, or review my photos of the day, I am constantly reminded of one thing.

Bollo, the I've got a bad feeling about this gorilla character from The Mighty Boosh…

1 comment:

dk said...

Funny, and sad.
Having recently tried to hike up pissy little south african hills in 38degrees - when i'm a lithe 11 stone and walk 50 miles a week already, i can't imagine what these fatties are thinking.

On the other hand maybe it's just pacing, I always go flat out. I bragged of covering 18 miles on my last day in the Cape (in my expensive Scarpa walking shoes), to a cute but rather big arsed English girl. She in turn told me she'd climbed table mountain through skeleton gorge in flip-flops, that broke half way and had to be fixed with gaffa tape. I was suitably humbled.