Trailing gorillas in Uganda
On John J King's last day in gorilla country, some special guests came for an early morning snack.
After two days in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda, and a couple of terrific encounters with the ‘Habinyanja’ and ‘Rushegura’ gorilla families, my wife and I were preparing to leave.
But on our final morning in camp, I was woken up by a hushed, but undeniably urgent, summons from Simon, one of the guides in the next-door tent.
“John, John, get up quick! You won’t believe this!” he whispered.
You don’t hang around when you’re in mountain gorilla territory and you hear something like that, so I bounded out of my bunk and grabbed my Handycam as I ran out of the tent.
Creeping down the path, full of anticipation, I was not disappointed.
In the fresh, moist light of dawn, several youngsters from the Rushegura group were chewing quietly on small shrubs about 10m from the trail.
I sat down on the spot and started the Handycam rolling, but within a minute or two the small caravan of gorillas began ambling in my direction.
When the first individual passed by less than a metre away, I moved to a safer place by the side of the trail and assumed a submissive posture. Head down, I watched out of the corner of my eye as the others moved silently by, sure that they could hear my heartbeat, which was pounding in my ears.
Suddenly, a young male trailing behind the others stopped directly in front of me and reached out cautiously to touch my leg. It was the gentle gesture of a curious child and I could smell the sweet scent of the forest on him.
The youngster continued his investigation with bolder pats on my arm, then my shoulder, back and head. Soon he was joined by another youngster, and then some older but still sub-adult females came over.
One of the males actually started grooming me, though I suspect he was disappointed by the lack of tasty bugs in my hair – all he found was a single twig, which he pulled out and discarded. Conscious that such an encounter would never happen again, I hoped the moment would last as long as possible.
I was almost in a trance as the young gorillas sniffed and caressed me.
Then I became aware of the dominant male silverback in my peripheral vision. This dramatically changed things – now I just had to trust that, as long as I stayed calm and still, I would come out of this scenario unhurt.
I quietly switched off my camera so that I could concentrate on absorbing every detail of the experience. It was exhilarating. And I was pleased that my friend and guide, Jonathan Rossouw, was sitting nearby commenting on the behaviour – at least he would be able to confirm my unlikely story.
All good things come to an end and eventually, for some unknown reason, the silverback raised his huge bulk and moved up the hill. The entire family followed.
Immediately afterwards, it was difficult to comprehend what had just happened, but I knew that I had – for a rare and intimate moment – shared the creatures’ lives. As I said to Jonathan: “I am a gorilla.”
Sadly, since this story was written, John J King heard that Mwirima, the beautiful silverback patriarch of the Rushegura Group at Bwindi, died of natural causes.
Mwirima left behind a family of fourteen individuals who are now under the headship of Kabukojo, a blackback, assisted by Kalembezi another blackback.