Trekking the Kahungye Gorilla Family in Bwindi

Gorilla trekking in Uganda finally resumed in an effort to reopen tourism. This was after the complete shutdown of tourism in Uganda for months owing to the Covid 19 pandemic. We were therefore lucky to have a group of 12 guests going gorilla tracking as one of the first groups to go tracking in a while. The residents of Rushaga village in Bwindi were visibly happy to see tourists return as their livelihoods rely mainly on tourism revenue. Upon arrival at Rushaga gate of Bwindi, it was clear new covid 19 prevention procedures had been well thought through and were being strictly implemented. We had to step and dip our shoes into 2 different basins each with a blanket soaked with disinfectant. This was to ensure trackers didn’t carry germs from their shoes into Bwindi. In addition, all trackers were required to wear a mask and sanitize upon entry. This was reassuring because the gorilla population is still quite low so a virus like covid could easily wipe out this endangered species. We were assigned to the Kahungye family. Kahungye means Hills in Rushaga area.This is where the first gorilla family was seen hence calling it Kahungye. We headed out into the forest in a group of 8 guests , two ranger trackers and 6 porters. This time round we started on a marked trail so the beginning was relatively easy. February is a dry season so it made it even easier to hike with no risk of slipping in muddy ground. We went through a secondary part of the forest which has rejuvenated over the past 3 decades so the undergrowth was noticeably less dense but still impressive. Up and down, we made our way through the endless ridges that make up this imposing habitat. Within a few minutes breathing was a bit difficult with the masks on and guests commented he had understood why Bwindi was named impenetrable.
We finally arrived at the gorilla’s location. The location had been located by the lead trackers who always set out much earlier than we tourist trackers. Once again we had to sanitize our hands as excitement of being in the presence of gorillas grew. Our first glimpse was of the silverback but only his rear side of the neck and head. A hint of silver hair on the lower back neck was visible and occasionally he looked up at us. The rangers told us that they could tell from the sheer size of the visible upper body and from his quiet confident demeanor that he was the patriarch silverback. Mr Silverback’s big upper body was visible but the rest of the body was covered in dense foliage. In the excitement of the moment, we all tried to get a better view of Mr Silverback as the rangers endeavoured to show each person in the group. He occasionally turned back to glance at us but continued stuffing his mouth with leaves confident in the fact we were no threat to him despite us occupying strategically higher ground. The rest of the gorillas were in close proximity to the silverback as is the case with gorillas families. However, the dense foliage obscured the rest of the gorilla family. It’s only the sound of breaking vines and movement alerted us to the presence of various gorillas in proximity. But as if on cue, the Silverback started moving away downwards further into the thick foliage causing the rest of the gorillas to follow him. We took heed and followed the family into dense vegetation. We carefully made our way through thick undergrowth and overhead vines at times holding each other’s hands to avoid falling. The rangers had told us the family was composed of 17 members. Eventually, we could see the mothers, the newborn, juvenile gorillas of between 2 – 6 years and the silverback watching over every gorilla and trackers. As the gorillas fed, we sat down to observe all the while making sure we moved away to keep a distance. The family had a two week baby who kept close to the mothers bosom in a tight embrace only interrupted by breastfeeding. This was especially good to see because news had it that there had been a gorilla boom since the lockdown in 2020. And here we were seeing one of the baby gorillas. The entire family was especially mindful of our presence and did well to watch our movements. In fact, at one point when the juvenile gorillas moved too close to the trackers,the Silverback explosively mock charged for a distance of about 5 metres. This however, felt like a 100 metre charge. In an instant second the silverback exploded into a rapturous charge that left some trackers on the ground in sheer fear. And strangely as the guests dived and took cover, the ranger screamed do not run under any circumstances. Thankfully, it all lasted but a mere 5 seconds. It however felt like a lifetime. At the end of it, the silverback re-assumed his indifferent position of confidence and the group casually continued to watch the gorillas. The charge was one of the most frightening things I have ever seen in all my experiences tracking gorillas in Bwindi.We continued to watch the gorillas in complete awe. It was fun watching other guests enjoy the moment as they all tried to get the best photos. It was especially rewarding when the intensity of the moment eventually forced guests to put aside cameras, sit down on the leafy ground and just watch the gorillas in silent amazement. I also finally decided to seize the moment without having to worry about the guests’ experiences well knowing time was fast ticking away. The silent moment continued only punctuated by our whispers and gorillas breaking vines, gorilla chewing sounds of the silverback. We have been blessed to track groups over the years but, here I was like it was the first time. Gorilla watching indeed is a once in a lifetime experience even if you did it a million times over it remains a once in a lifetime experience. It seemed we all sought to bring balance, get things in perspective and it seemed we all summoned our faculties’ senses to fathom what was unfolding right before us. But the gorillas kept feeding and the juveniles went about it in a frenzied manner. One juvenile hit jumped from one branch to the other and in no second was in the vines above a guest who got a lash to the head before he could move away. A pair of juveniles playfully and tumbled on the ground whereas another pair fought in the branches not that far from us. One juvenile gorilla held onto the branch with only one hand as she fought off her friend with the other. It was as though the gorillas were putting on a show for us. Needless to say, we were well impressed. The gorilla hour is the quickest hour in life and soon enough the ranger said Five more minutes before we go. And indeed in what felt like a minute the rangers advised time was up. It was time to head back to the lodge. We left the gorillas right before they started their siesta and climbed up the steep slopes from which we had descended. The entire group reconvened and in a mix of excitement and joy congratulated each other and our rangers. We started the hike back to the briefing office pOwered by the adrenalin of the elating experience. Upon arrival we gathered ourselves to thank the rangers and the entire team in Rushaga Bwindi. We were rewarded with our tracking certificates.