Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest
Words and Photography by Alex Lostak
There is something unique about photography that sets it apart from most other art forms. Most art, whether it’s a painting, a film or a music composition, is often created over a period of time. Photography though, in its simplest form, takes place in a fraction of a second. Months of planning, research, and travel can go into capturing that fraction of a second, and much can happen after during post-processing, but the exact moment of pressing down on the shutter to get the desired shot, is so quick you could miss it. This series of photos is a collection of those moments. Months of planning, research and preparation for a trip into the middle of Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest, all led up to standing just a few feet from wild Silverback mountain gorillas.
The journey begins in the mountains sprawling across the border of Uganda and the Congo. Mountain gorillas cannot live in captivity, and their mountainous natural habitat is found only in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. The Impenetrable Forest in Uganda is home to approximately half of the almost 800 wild roaming mountain gorillas in the world. Once numbering in the thousands, the population was slashed by poachers and hunters. However, thanks to conservationists and government protection, these gorillas are beginning to bounce back, and are no longer on the verge of extinction.
As the sun rises we eat breakfast and talk excitedly about what the day has in store. We are in the mountains of Uganda, staying at the Nkuringo Gorilla Lodge. We landed in Rwanda a few days ago and have made the bumpy drive from Kigali up to the top of the Ugandan mountain range. Today we will be trekking through small villages and the mountainous landscape to reach the Impenetrable Forest, in hopes of finding gorillas.
After finishing our breakfast we all pile into the Land Cruiser and are ready to go. From here we go to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. At the park office we are given a safety and information briefing, and are off to drive to the starting point of our trek. The roads are rugged and raw in this part of Uganda. Even in our sturdy 4×4 vehicle there are moments when we nearly fly out of our seats. The roads have no barriers to block vehicles from falling off the side of the mountain. This makes even a five minute drive full of excitement. The safari drivers often joke that riding on the rutted dirt roads is known as getting an African massage. With our debriefing completed, the gorillas await. We drive to our starting point and exit our vehicle. From here we will journey down on foot through a few settlements, eventually venturing into the hills before finally (and hopefully) discovering the gorillas in the thick of the forest.
On a gorilla trek, you’re hoping to find wild animals that are moving freely throughout the vast forest, so there is no guarantee that you will actually find them. By the time of starting our hike, there are scouts ahead of us, who have already been out trekking and tracking the movements of the gorilla troop we have a permit to see. The scouts start early in the morning from the last known location of the troop from the day before and search for signs of where they are going.
One thing not emphasized in advance, is the physical intensity of these treks. The total distance we hiked throughout the day was about 12 miles. Hiking 12 miles is not an incredible feat, however, combined with heat, humidity and the rough, uneven terrain; it adds up to challenge that proves too great for some tourists. Everyday, tourists get taken out on stretchers (hand carried by locals) out of the forest. Once you walk away from the roads and into the forest, there’s no other way out but hiking out the way you came in.
Continuing our journey, we leave the villages behind and drop into some of Uganda’s black tea fields. Black tea is one of Uganda’s leading exports, exporting more than $68 million of black tea each year. This part of Uganda is ideal for growing black tea, with its high altitude and uniform year-round warm temperatures.
Reaching the end of the tea fields we approach the edge of the Impenetrable Forest. Here we are instructed to leave behind our backpacks, monopods and hiking sticks. Due to decades of poaching, the gorillas have an instilled fear of stick-like objects; as they remind them of spears. As a result, everything but our cameras is left behind with one of the guides, as we venture into the dense landscape.
Only a few minutes after entering the Impenetrable Forest, we hear rustling in the bushes ahead of us. There shouldn’t be anything just yet. Our guide has told us the troop of gorillas is still another ten minute hike away, but suddenly, out of the brush comes a massive Silverback gorilla. He is the non-dominant male, whose role is to constantly survey the perimeter looking for threats. Excited and a rightfully nervous, we stop dead in our tracks and lower ourselves quietly as he approaches. Crouched, frozen with shock and awe, we watch as the gorilla stops, looks straight at us, then sits down resting his great back against a tree, as he stops for a lunch break. He begins pulling down branches and devouring leaves as he watches us watch him. We weren’t supposed to get this close to the gorillas, but our guide told us our safest bet was not to move. All we could do was stay silent, still and take in the strong yet somehow peaceful presence of nature’s impressive beauty sitting before us.
After several minutes, the gorilla dismisses himself from his post, perhaps deciding we are not a threat to his troop, and disappears quickly back into the thick brush. With elevated excitement of what lies ahead, we follow his tracks, exit the dense dark forest and enter into a sunlit clearing that straddles a river. This is where things start to become surreal, we suddenly see several gorillas peacefully wandering through the clearing all around us. Upon seeing us they simply carry along, making their way through the tall grass. Deciding that we are not a threat, the gorillas calmly cross the river, one after the other, using a nearby fallen log. What else are we to do but to follow?
One by one we make our way across the river, and follow the gorillas into the thick foliage of the forest. It all seemed too good to be true. Little did we know that what we had seen so far was just a teaser. The main event was the 25 gorillas waiting for us just a little further into the forest. The troop was comprised of the dominant male, his female companion, along with several other mature females, adolescent males and females along with several very young ones, all spread out, napping and relaxing in the afternoon shade.
On these guided treks, the government only allows visitors to spend one hour in the presence of a gorilla troop, Once we crept into position to observe the troop, our guide informed us that the clock was starting. My objective of coming on this trip was to capture the strong human aspects of these gorillas.
All of them sitting, sleeping and resting so peacefully, that vision quickly came to life. Some were laying down, gazing up into the sky; others were napping, with resting faces similar to that of an exhausted parent. The toddlers were swinging on vines, playing with sticks and horsing around, acting just like young children do before settling down to take a nap. Whether it was the look in their eyes, their human-like hands and fingers, or the serenity with which they rested, all of it was so relatable, so human. When our time with the gorillas was up, we quietly snuck back out of the forest and made our way out of the forest and back up the mountain.
Nothing gives you a stronger connection to nature or the animal kingdom than being only a few feet away from a troop of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. The natural beauty of the mountains in Uganda and the incredible experience of spending time in close proximity to the mountain gorillas is something I will carry with me forever, both in my memories and in these photos.