Mike MacEacheran | Gorilla tracking, Uganda, Scotland on Sunday
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Gorilla tracking, Uganda, Scotland on Sunday

Sunday Ndayakunze was only a boy when he first heard about the creatures that lived in the nearby jungle. When his grandfather went exploring from his village, he would catch glimpses of elusive jet-black shadows peering out of the dense rainforest canopy, their red-eyes shining beyond the sprawling vines and buffers of rugged vegetation.

Sometimes, after dark, when he had retreated back to his village, he could hear the creatures beating their chests and whooping into the night. Little did Sunday’s grandfather know at the time, that his backyard would soon be home to the world’s last remaining population of wild mountain gorillas.

That was 30 years ago, and now Sunday is one of the chief park rangers at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Western Uganda. “When my grandfather told me stories about the gorillas I wanted to help, their numbers were already dwindling,” he recalls. “I was only a young boy at the time but I knew that they were in danger and I wanted to do anything to help save them for the next generation.” In this remote part of southwest Uganda, it pays to be on good terms with your neighbours.

I have come to Uganda to track these very same gorillas, and with Sunday cutting a path through the jungle ahead of me in his khaki-green military fatigues, I couldn’t have a more experienced guide.  For nearly 20 years he has been tracking these creatures and his success rate is second to none: in fact, in all that time he has scouted them, has only failed to find them twice. But gorilla tracking isn’t a regular stroll in the park – it can take anything up to 10 hours to find them in the dense jungle undergrowth. Precipitous verges are climbed, rivers are crossed and a rusty machete, for hacking a path through the thick, thorny rainforest, is your best friend.

Our day begins at 6am with a rose-pink sun peeping up from behind the hills and rainforest that form a natural boundary between the mud huts and banana plantations of Bwindi village and the park sheer slopes.  Giles Foden, the best-selling author of The Last King of Scotland, which charts the rise and fall of the country’s tyrannical former President Idi Amin, describes these same plantations that dot the countryside as reminding him of the gleaming roofs of housing schemes in Edinburgh. This morning, I’ll grant him poetic licence. Looking out from the veranda of my canopy-level cottage at Wild Frontiers’ luxury Buhoma Lodge, I can see bottle-green treetops rattle with birdlife and red-tailed monkeys pounce from creeper to vine. Muirhouse, let alone Morningside, couldn’t be further from my mind.

The spell continues to hold as I join an eight-strong group at Uganda Wildlife Authority’s base at Buhoma to learn more about the park’s gigantic primates from Sunday and his fellow guide, Zipora Kabugho. We are required to be in good health, dress in green camouflage and keep our distance at all times. “If a gorilla charges at you, whatever you do, do not run,” says Zipora. “Stay calm, crouch down and be quiet – remember they are wild and can be incredibly dangerous. Trust me – you wouldn’t stand a chance against an angry silverback.”

She has a point. To help preserve the gorillas’ way of life, interaction with humans is minimised and park visitors are limited to one hour within the company of a group. Having similar DNA to humans, makes them highly susceptible to human illness and disease, and even catching a common cold could wipe out an entire family. Which begs the question, why is it even allowed in the first place? “Having 300 of them pays dividends for the locals,” says Sunday. “Without paying tourists, local farmers would encroach into the park’s boundaries and their habitats would be in great danger.” Fortunately, thanks to strict government measures – only 72 permits (costing up to $500 in high season) are issued every day – and support from environmental groups, the number of critically-endangered gorillas in the wild has steadied, and for the first time in decades, it is slowly on the rise. Their habitat, for now, is also secured.  It is a small victory but it seems like an endless amount of beauty to protect.

As we leave the park HQ, the reddish colour of the earth underfoot from the park HQ comes to an abrupt stop. Ahead of us is an endless canopy of green that stretches 300-odd kilometres to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, plagued by a very different sort of guerrilla. Vast, almost theatrical swathes of trees, vines, branches, bushes and plants soon surround us as we penetrate deeper into the rainforest. The smell of tropical vegetation is overwhelming. At times, according to Sunday, so are the mounds of gorilla droppings.

After only one hour, there is a violent shake in the canopy above my head. There is a fluster, a bang and a clatter, a branch snaps clean off and a dark shape come plummeting into a clearing in front of us. We have been spared the slow sweat of time and, within striking distance, can see a wild gorilla. My adrenalin levels rocket and in the warm, thin air my glasses cloud over.

We retreat behind a clutch of trees, and then, as the trees shut us in, one by one, a band of gorillas lumber out of the undergrowth to rest and feed. There are 10 of them, recognised by Zipora as from the Rushegura group, and each one christened in the local tongue because of their individual markings and characteristics. There is Karungi, Nyamunwa, Kibande, Nyampazi, Ruterana, Kalembezi, Buzinza and her baby; the appearance of each one more heart-stopping than the last. Their broad shoulders look menacing but their eyes seem to show wariness and compassion towards us. They are incredibly shy.

It is a humbling moment, almost primeval in a way, to see our ancestors so close in the comfort zone of their very own VIP jungle lounge. Kibande plays with her first born, Ruterana climbs effortlessly, with agility that would make Tarzan seek retirement, and Nyamunwa nurses a wound, from an unknown fight or injury. Momentarily, we are in the midst of playtime for gorillas, thousands of miles away from the nearest zoo enclosure.

Then, as we begin to relax, an unfamiliar shape and sound crashes through the trees to our right. It is the silverback that everyone has forgotten about. When I see him trudge into the clearing, I feel my stomach flip – he is colossal. Nearly twice the size of the female gorillas, he is thought to be the world’s largest silverback. And standing within seven metres of him, almost feeling his breath on my skin, I am absolutely terrified. “Just don’t move,” whispers Zipora, cradling the rifle under her arm. Seeing us from the corner of his eye, Mwirima shakes his neck in defiance, turns his back and the others follow him in suit.

It may be the world’s largest land carnivore but as I stand almost nose to nose with an inquisitive oncoming polar bear, I feel oddly at ease.

And then they are gone.  Though the woods are so dense in places, they leave behind muddy prints the size of baseball mitts, battered trees with broken limbs and chewed pieces of bark and bamboo – the sign of very hungry gorillas. Despite their size, seconds later they have vanished.