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Sunday, May 22, 2022

African Adventure 2022: Gorilla Habituation Trek in Rushaga

Back to the early morning wake-up to be ready to leave by 6am to go on our Gorilla Habituation Trek. We wake up with the alarms a few minutes before the gentle knock of Agnes to confirm we were awake. I jumped in the shower to help wake myself up while Kari started getting herself organized. We were out the door by around 5:30am to have breakfast. I had another cheese omelette with bacon, sausage, toast, and fresh fruit. Kari had her medium fried egg with bacon, sausage, GF toast, and fresh fruit. Instead of passion fruit juice, they had watermelon juice, which was good. Around 6am, the other couple came up for breakfast, and Michael came in to let us know he was ready when we were.

Out into the darkness we went. We could see lightning in the distance; an ominous sign for what was to come. We chatted about the earthquake we felt the night before and about heat lightning, hoping that was what we saw. The journey was similar to the journey to our first gorilla trek until we got to the good road. Today, we went right where we went left on Monday.

The area seemed to get more built up as we approached the entrance to the park. Michael got us there on-time, which ended up being quite a bit earlier than the other couple in our group. We took the opportunity for one last bathroom run before coming back down to wait for the start of the briefing. Shortly before the other couple showed, the sky open and started soaking the ground with rain. We all took shelter and updated ourselves and bags for the now guaranteed chance of rain in our future.

Finally, it was time for the briefing. Luke, our guide, brought us into the building to chat. He described a bit of what we had in store for us and asked if we would like to hire porters. Kari and I declined; however, the other couple chose to hire two porters to help. While I wasn't trying to judge, I was a little concerned that the other couple, Bill & Theresa, were going to make it, as they were a bit older and didn't look in the best physical condition. I did feel pretty confident that we wouldn't be the weak links.

As the rain slowed, we set off towards the park. The first section was downhill, which was Theresa's Achilles heel. I can relate, but we managed to put a pretty sizeable gap between us at the front with the trackers (John, James, and Nbed) and the ranger, Bryan, from her, Luke, and Zappani (other ranger) at the back. Luke, wanting to keep the group closer together, had her at the front to help set the pace and set the trackers on ahead to find the gorillas. That worked pretty well until our first uphill, Bill's Achilles heel, causing another fracture in the group. Kari and I hydrated well, so we needed to use nature's washroom. Luke had them keep going for us to catch back up. That seemed to work fairly well. By the time we caught back up, we were close to the gorillas.

For our first view of the gorillas, one of the group's silverbacks was standing on the path 40-50m away. I hurried and assembled my camera to be ready to take photos as the silverback moved into the vegetation around the path. This began our four hours with the gorillas. Unlike the gorillas we visited on Monday, this group is still going through the habituation process to be comfortable around people. They were noticeably more timid, taking more shelter in the vegetation to hide from us. They also let us know if we got too close with bluff charges. The lead silverback charged a couple times when the trackers got a bit too close. Super intimidating!

Luke and the trackers helped position us around to get good views of the gorillas while also helping us stay out of the gorillas' way. It was so cool to spend some quality time with the gorillas and watch them move around, eat, take a short nap, etc. We learned a few things too. First, due to the almost 100% vegetation diet, gorillas are gassy. We heard a few rip out some farts to be proud of. Second, they are masters of picking their nose and eating the boogers. One of the females was going to town before taking a brief nap. Impressive. Third, it is possible to determine the age and sex a bit by looking at the dung with the silverbacks having a diameter of ~7cm, an adult female a diameter of ~5.5cm, and so on. Given we were close to their nests and spending a lot of time with them, we were treated to many examples of their dung.

When the gorillas moved over the ridge away from the nests, Luke invited us to come see them. Kari and I jumped at the chance to go learn a bit more about the gorillas, while Bill and Theresa did not want to make the walk and continued watching the gorillas. Thankfully, the group was ok to split to help everyone have the experience they desired. We scrambled down after James, one of the trackers, Luke, and Bryan, one of the rangers, to go see the nests. Of the 8-9 nests we saw, they were all within a few meters of each other. You could tell the gorillas took time to make the nests as comfortable as possible for themselves. Luke explained that they would only defecate on the nest when they were leaving in the morning. Otherwise, they would aim off the nest to keep it clean. This is where Luke pointed out how to tell the different gorilla's size and sex by dung. He also pointed out where a juvenile likely slept by its mother as there were two nests touching each other. They then pointed out the silverback's nest, which was easy to spot with the pile of dung that remained. Luke went on to explain how they know they are tracking the same gorilla family by counting nests and confirming it is the most recent previous night's nest based on signs in the nest like dung, leaves, and branches. it was pretty fascinating stuff!

once we saw all we could with the nests, we headed back up the hill to rejoin the group. When we reached the top of the ridge, we saw that the gorillas had not moved much, so we settled into the group to watch them eat. At this time, the rain also started coming down again, somewhat forcing me to watch instead of taking pictures. It was fun watching them eat bark and the various techniques employed. One little gorilla a few meters from me was taking bits out of the tree while the silverback reached up and yanked until the bark he wanted fell down. We saw one shy gorilla not take kindly to our presence and move away from us down the hill. Another climbed a tree a different one was eating the bark off to access the bark further up. I questioned the logic of eating the tree you are sitting on, but hey, what do I know. She looked pretty happy with her decision and got comfy, releasing a solid fart as she settled in. The rest of the gorillas and our group continued down the hillside. We opted to watch our friend in the tree a bit longer. It was so peaceful watching the gorilla on the edge of the forest while farmers tended their fields a short distance away.

Finally, we continued down the hill to join the others and get our final photos and time with the gorillas. The silverback was in a thicket near the path munching on some fruit. I managed to get a few good shots of him before he continued deeper into the forest. I also found a gorilla in a tree who "sort of" posed for me for a bit. She was fickle though. It was not until the end of our time that she moved to a better spot for photos. Oh well! I managed to get a few before we started to work our way back to where we met in the morning. We also said our goodbyes to the trackers who were going to stay with the gorillas.

When we made it back to the main trail, Luke had us stop for a quick lunch break of our packed lunches. He warned us that we might need to be quick as the weather looked like it was about to turn. And turn it did! No sooner had I finished my sandwich did the heavens open again, soaking us completely.

We set off slowly back to the start point on the main trail. Theresa took up lead position only to promptly pull away from Bill. Kari and I eventually closed the gap to Theresa, thinking it would likely be better to be at the front than the back. We chatted with Theresa a bit over the final bit as the rain started to let up a little. Michael was waiting for us, but before we could hop in to seek warm & dry, Luke had us up for a small ceremony. They awarded us a small certificate to commemorate our time and achievement. Pretty nice way to close it out. We said our goodbyes to Bryan, Zappani, and Luke, and then we jumped back into the truck with Michael. We chatted about how we appreciated and enjoyed this experience more. Luke was far superior to our previous gorilla guide and tried to make sure everyone was included and got the most out of the experience. We also laughed about the silly Brits and their lack of standard unit of measure system. It was a nice chat until we got on the "bad" road where we let Michael concentrate a bit more. He managed to get us back to Chameleon Hill Lodge without getting stuck. Granted, we had one close call.

Upon our return, Agnes greeted us and took our boots and gaiters to clean them, offering us crocs to wear in the meantime. She also took our dinner order and confirmed dinner time before releasing us back to our cottage to get clean, dry, and warm.

After a bit of relaxing, we went back up to the lodge to fill out the Tanzania Health Forms and catch up on the connected world. Given we were still a bit chilled, we each had hot beverages: hot chocolate for me and tea for Kari. It was a nice way to get warm before dinner. Speaking of dinner, tonight we had pumpkin cinnamon soup (surprisingly good), chicken stir fry with potatoes and veggies, and pineapple crumble with homemade ice cream for dessert. Another fantastic meal to cap off another fantastic day here at Chameleon Hill Lodge!

With the closing of tonight, we close our time here at Chameleon Hill Lodge and in Uganda. It has been more than we ever imagined. We look forward to when we can come back and spend more time soaking up life here.

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