Deep in the dense jungles that skirt Uganda’s western Rift Valley, you follow the footsteps of your primate-specialist guides. All is quiet in this lush primeval world, the last remaining habitat of the mountain gorilla. There are only about 350 in this vast expanse of misty protected land. But you have faith that your long hike will pay off because you are in the hands of experts who intimately know the behaviors and routines of these gentle beasts. You have been reminded, too, that the families you are seeking have gotten used to human presence. Far from intruding on their territory, you are merely paying them a visit. So you persist, silently and meditatively losing yourself to the rhythm of your boots falling on the forest floor.
Then, a rustle in the bush, a soft crackling. Your guide raises his hand for you to stop and be still. Through the thicket of ferns and vines and past a cluster of trees, you see her dark form. You catch glimpses of thick black fur rising and falling as she reaches into the foliage for a snack. She pays you no mind as she sits on her haunches. There must be others around, you think to yourself, just as you hear more rustling farther up the slope. But your eyes dart back as she tugs at a branch, revealing the leather-like patina of her face: deep, sunken eyes, protruding snout, rounded jaw around pencil-thin lips. As she plucks a morsel from the leaves, she looks straight into your eyes.
It has been said that when you look at a mountain gorilla, you are in essence looking at yourself. No matter how you feel about the idea that humans are descendants of the great apes, there is no denying the mirror that they hold up to us. That is largely why the threat to their very existence (poaching has decreased their numbers to just 700) is so alarming. And why Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, works vigilantly to protect those that remain.
Make no mistake: though the realm of the mountain gorillas may not be impenetrable, it does present the visitor with some challenging terrain. You might walk for just an hour before spotting a family, or you might trek for several hours. It all puts a fine point on what a privilege it is to be in their presence … and on their turf.
But what a trek it is! This is thick African jungle, a tropical rainforest unlike any other. As you walk, you may encounter any of the 120 mammal species from bushbuck to forest elephants, as well as 23 endemic species of birds or vervet and colobus monkeys cavorting in canopy overhead. Even chimpanzees have been spotted here, though you are more likely to see them in Kibale National Park, which your itinerary also visits.