"It can be a difficult journey. If you have a cold, cough or sniffle, don’t even bother lining up. Good hiking boots and a walking stick are a must. Bring plenty of water. Be sure to stay at least 25 feet away. Remember these are wild animals. If we need to carry you out, that will cost an extra $300."
I was already intimidated by the pre-trek briefing and we hadn’t even started on our mountain gorilla expedition, which was part of a 16-day tour to southwestern Uganda sponsored by ElderTreks. The 25-foot rule, I learned, was for both their protection and ours. Sharing 98.4 percent of our DNA, the gorillas are very susceptible to human-borne illnesses. We were carriers and they had to be protected from us. They were wild animals and we had to be protected from them. A fair quid pro quo. Thus, eight humans a day are allowed to visit a gorilla group for no longer than an hour. Works for us; works for them.
This is not exactly a drive-by photo op. With a vigorous 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.
Anticipation mixed closely with apprehension as every person on our tour, whether expressed aloud or not, felt “I hope I can make it.” What subsequently happened to my husband, Vic, and me is not the norm. Nor is what happened to the other eight members of our ElderTreks tour, from whom we were separated because of the eight-person limit to a gorilla trekking group, 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.
Boy, were we ever wrong. The trek was 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.
All the while, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for thinking 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 not what we wanted 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; admittedly, at that point, there was very little that could have justified the arduous journey there. Okay, if the whole troop of gorillas had been carousing in an area where we could see them, we might have changed our minds.
Luckily, there was one highlight: Suddenly, 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. Alas, the silverback remained immune to our pleas, now that we were camera-ready, to please try that again.
The rest of the tale? While Vic and I endured 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.
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. 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, unusually scenic terrain and a variety of cultural outings. It was an incredibly memorable trip despite our somewhat less-than-satisfactory gorilla encounter. If you're over 50 and longing for an exotic adventure, check out eldertreks.com.
Fyllis Hockman is an award-winning travel journalist who has been traveling and writing for over 25 years -- and is still as eager for the next trip as she was for the first. Her articles have appeared in newspapers across the country and websites across the internet. A sampling of those stories can be found by visiting seniorsoftheworld.com and clicking on The Travel Adventures of Fyllis and Vic.
[photo credits: ElderTreks (trekkers), Joe Perica (Gorilla closeup), Victor Block (author photographing)]