The eight of us huddled together, having been warned repeatedly to stay close and keep quiet. A soft cough escaped from one of our party, and the guide looked immediately askance. Coughing and sneezing were very much frowned upon. Sharing 98.4 percent of human DNA, the elusive mountain gorillas are susceptible to human-borne illnesses, and more gorillas die from such infectious diseases than from any other cause. We were carriers, and they had to be protected from us.
Eight humans a day are allowed to visit these gentle giants, as they are known, for no longer than an hour, and that's what we did during a recent visit to Uganda as part of an ElderTreks tour.
This was no drive-by photo op. With a vigorous trek of one to seven hours, depending upon where the gorillas are that day, visitors have to really want to see them. But even with visitation restricted to an hour, it is usually well worth the effort.
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. This number represents an 18 percent increase over the last census due to increased conservation efforts, education and veterinary care.
The prelude to the hike is itself intimidating. Visitors are told that in addition to the length of the treks, there is also a maximum increase in elevation of 1,640 feet. They are instructed to wear good hiking boots, don gloves as protection against stinging nettles, and bring a walking stick and lots of water. They're also reminded not to get closer than 25 feet to the wild animals.
Anticipation mixed closely with apprehension as the people on our tour wondered if they were up to the challenge. The tale I'm about to tell about my husband Vic and me is not the norm. The tale for the other eight members of our ElderTreks tour, from whom we were separated because of the limit of eight people to a gorilla-trekking group, is the opposite extreme and also not the norm.
Vic and I are avid hikers who are in pretty good shape, so while we were as nervous as everyone else, we were fairly confident of our ability to make the trek. And we figured the porters, provided by ElderTreks, were there to do whatever was necessary to get us there safely.
The trek was somewhat strenuous from the start, with steep climbs and slippery descents traversing narrow ravines, but we were holding our own and feeling pretty good about ourselves. Then we entered the forest, where 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 were not even visible because of the thick underbrush.
With walking stick in one hand and the porter's hand 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 to myself 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.
By the time we finally dragged ourselves -- or were dragged by the porters -- to the designated area where the gorillas had been, they had left -- not what a person wants 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 steep embankment finally brought us into view of a couple of gorillas eating in the bush. They were fun to see, but most were hidden in the trees and bushes and probably not worth the arduous journey there. Admittedly, if a whole troop of gorillas were carousing about in an area where we could see them, we might have changed our minds.
But there was one highlight: All of a sudden 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. Both tracker and silverback remained immune to our pleas, now that we all had our cameras ready, to please try that again.
I mentioned before that treks can take as long as seven hours. We left the bus at 9:30 a.m. and returned at 4:30 p.m.
While Vic and I were immersed in the most harrowing experience of our lives, our eight ElderTreks traveling companions had one of the best. They related that they walked along a 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. The trekkers later took up a collection to compensate the owner. At some point, they told us guiltily, they were totally surrounded by gorillas. So much for the 25-foot rule!
Despite these two extreme experiences, most people experience something in between that no doubt qualifies as the "experience of a lifetime" promised by the tour. "The ElderTreks Uganda trip offers the most diverse scenery and wildlife highlighted by mountain gorillas and chimps than any other country in Africa," said Jon Perica, an environmentalist from Northridge, Calif.
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 on both land and water in multiple wildlife reserves, each offering different inhabitants. The chimpanzee tracking, compared to the gorilla trek, was a stroll through the park. There is unusually scenic terrain, and cultural outings range from meeting with members of a Pygmy tribe and a demonstration by a traditional medicine man who uses indigenous herbs to cure almost any ailment to a visit to a local school and a lunch of native Ugandan delicacies prepared by a farmer and his wife. Despite our less-than-satisfactory gorilla encounter, it truly was the adventure of a lifetime.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information, visit www.eldertreks.com, which promotes "Small Group Exotic Adventures for Travelers 50 and Over."
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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