Hold on for dear life, it’s a term that can mean a great many things. Sometimes it means just keep trucking, things will get better. At other times, as you actually grasp the roof of a truck, it can be quite literal.
For some souls, both animal and human, the term has a far greater relevance, a desperation that transcends the semi permanence that ‘holding on’ implies. Somewhere between holding on and hopelessness there is a place where you fight tooth and nail for each second of existence. For the mountain gorillas of central Africa they live every moment in this precarious state.
They cling to life.
Eight hundred and eighty, when you write it non-numeric it takes a while. Pondered as a monetary sum it’s middling at best. If you consider it as lives lost it would certainly be a tragedy. When it is all that remains of something, it is infinitely sad.
Eight hundred and eighty is the amount of mountain gorillas left in the world.
As a species mountain gorillas have it rough. They lose the battle for existence in so many ways it is freakish. Poaching and habitat loss are the standard calling cards of extinction, but for gorillas there is more. They only live in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, some of the tougher countries in Africa, all of which have spent decades beset by bush wars. Landmines from these wars have killed and maimed countless gorillas.
Gorillas are also still killed for human consumption, just eight words, but all I can write on that topic without feeling ill. Gorillas share 98.4% of their DNA with humans.
We are in plague times! As so many of you kindly informed us Ebola is on the rise around the planet. Actually the most common line was “Don’t comeback if you get Ebola” thanks guys.
Little known fact, Ebola kills gorillas. In 2003 in the Congo only 40 gorillas from a population of 380 survived an Ebola outbreak. Should Ebola become the greatest plague that ever existed it won’t wipe humans off the planet. However, should it make it a few thousand kilometres from Liberia to the Congo can we say the same for the gorillas? The Congo outbreak had a 10.5% survival rate. If the current population of mountain gorillas were struck down the same way, there would be 92 left in the world.
There is a Turkish proverb. Man is harder than iron, stronger than stone and more fragile than a rose. After spending a day with the mighty mountain gorillas of Africa I couldn’t help but feel that this proverb should be about them. For all their fantastic strength they are among the most vulnerable species on the planet. We their close cousins bear the blame for that. I believe that if gorillas had a proverb about us it would be a lot shorter. Man is cruel.
To see a mountain gorilla be prepared to pay for the privilege. Most people book their permit to see the gorilla months in advance to avoid disappointment. The price for that permit is US$600 dollars. It’s expensive, that can’t be argued, in the end you have to ask yourself a question about regret. What price can you place on seeing mountain gorillas before they slip from the earth forever?
The answer then becomes simple.
Here is some of our journey to see the mountains gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Most of our guards carried AK47’s. Since I’m not on the critically endangered list I figured they were to use on me if I threatened the gorillas, so I behaved.
After walking for half an hour we found a freaking huge Puff Adder right in our path. Seriously I was like forget the gorillas I’ll pay another six hundred for someone to get me the hell out of this jungle.
Mountain gorillas are shy and elusive quarry. At times you have to walk for seven hours through the mountainous jungle to find them. Take it from me if you are going to literally wade through dense jungle for seven hours it’s a lot better not to find a puff adder in the first few minutes.
It seemed wise to let everyone go first and pretend to take photos. I had no desire to go on point with the puffs.
Jenny’s sock fashion statement is to prevent leeches getting into her pants. This would be a bit like ants in your pants… but maybe a little worse.
If you wondered why mountain gorillas are so big when they are 99% human its really quite simple. They love escargot. The snails in Bwindi are so pumped full of roids it turned the gorillas into the man beasts we know and love today.
Be prepared! Risking snakebites is for tourists.
At one stage I asked our guide Sam if he would take my brand new Nike trainers in a permanent trade for his shitty old snake proof gumboots. He laughed and then firmly refused. This did not help.
Stumped.... where the hell are they?
Some men are born for the hunt. With an innate sense of nature and its wild ways I felt sure that I would be first to find the mighty mountain gorillas. Despite my tracking skills somehow the elusive and wily apes were always one step behind me.
Nothing to fear here…
Interesting fun fact. The AK 47’s are actually not to stop me from injuring gorillas. They are really to protect us from extremely grouchy and dangerous pigmy bush elephants. I was very surprised, and somewhat sceptical, that such a beast exists! So I decided not to mention to Sam the strange eyeball thing I had noticed in the bush we were passing…. It’s possible that the malicious side of me was enjoying the prospect of seeing Sam struggle to flee a rampaging elephant in his snake gumboots. Vindictively I spent quite some time imagining witty one-liners to call out to him as I jogged past in my trainers.
Eventually we found the elusive mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Park. I was a little surprised it wasn’t me that found them.
This is what seeing your first mountain gorilla feels like.
Surprisingly they aren’t scary at all. They just hang around eating bark.
Some eat more bark than others.
Some look cute eating bark.
But they are basically all ringbarking bark connoisseur.
We were taught not to move under any circumstances should the gorillas approach us. Unfortunately the cheeky bastards know this. This one used my leg as toilet paper! As I gritted my teeth, and took the gorillas shit, I couldn’t help but think, if this is how they make friends, no wonder the buggers are almost extinct!
Hanging out with the gorillas was an incredible and humbling experience. One neither of us will ever forget, even if you only get a short hour with them. The shear adventure and wildness of getting to Bwindi and then hunting down our mighty cousins is something that if it all possible everyone should experience.
Just a note, photographing gorillas is perhaps the hardest thing you can imagine trying to shoot. The light is terrible, your focus goes up the wazoo and there are bushes everywhere. We are stoked with the pictures that we got when the photo stars aligned (Particularly the top ones in the story). But its always nice to see them moving so here is a video of our gorilla experience, which shows what it is like in a different way.