From the majestic silverbacks to the absurdly cuddly and impish juveniles, I have had a lifelong love affair with all things gorilla. When Aardvark suggested that I spend two weeks in Uganda and Rwanda, I was ecstatic if a little worried about tales of high altitude slogs. Several weeks of light training later, I was off to discover the world’s last mountain gorillas and so much more.
With Lucinda from Aardvark’s English office and Wilson, our superbly knowledgeable and entertaining guide, we explored southwestern Uganda’s crater lakes and visited Queen Elizabeth National Park where we were treated to Ishasha’s famed tree-climbing lions. We found the world’s most prehistoric looking bird, the shoebill, at Lake Albert and enjoyed extraordinary creature comforts in some very fine lodges. We trekked chimps who kindly played and posed for us in Kibale Forest and Kyambura Gorge, stopped for fresh papaya in roadside villages and sampled the annual speciality, roasted grasshopper. At lodges like Semliki and Clouds, the fare was more familiar and infinitely more delicious – think wild mushroom risotto and chocolate fondant – and the hospitality everywhere was warm and gracious. We had a picnic with schoolchildren and spent time at a community hospital in Bwindi that could and should be a model for sensible and effective healthcare worldwide. *078Every corner we turned revealed another mind-boggling view of the Mountains of the Moon, of fertile valleys, of tea estates and tranquil lakes. Multi-hued birds abounded and it was common on our drives to see mangabee and colobus cavorting in the trees, while our boat trip on the Kizingo Channel was a wildlife paradise of hippo, croc, elephant, buffalo and kingfishers. From Bwindi Lodge we did our first gorilla track in the Impenetrable Forest. Off we went from park HQ with two other travellers, our gorilla guide leading the way and porters, lugging our lunches, cameras and water, bringing up the rear (and occasionally my rear on the steeper bits). It wasn’t long before we found our quarry, the Rushegura Group, a dozen gorillas including an enormous silverback and a 14 month old baby named Kabunga (use pic?) who was endlessly entertaining and stole my heart. We spent 60 minutes just a few feet from them and it was the most moving, humbling hour of my life. When we left Uganda, I was quite sure that no experience could top it. For our final gorilla trek in Rwanda, we were assigned the Agashya Group. After a couple of hours walking through thick bamboo, we came upon 25 gorillas. And then a crash and a flurry of movement through the forest: the Sabinyo Group was paying a visit, a very rare event. We were awestruck by the sight of 39 gorillas as the two families came together, including three silverbacks chest pounding and mock charging each other. We stayed back from the macho action while females and their tiny babies moved around and passed within feet of us. A thousand photos and indelible memories later, we walked back through the forest and across the fields. Back at Virunga Lodge, sipping drinks beside a roaring fire, Lucinda and I, known for tireless chatter, were speechless. I’ll never be able to describe adequately my time with the gorillas: the joy of youngsters posturing and imitating the silverbacks, the exquisite tenderness of mothers with their babies and, most of all, the astonishing wisdom and sadness in their eyes as if they know how few of their number remain. The best way to protect the world’s mountain gorillas is through tourism. Gorilla permit fees support conservation, anti-poaching and research in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the last 800 mountain gorillas make their home.