We awake early morning to leave at 6:00, and the driver is almost an hour late. We arrive at the base camp at Ruhija (I believe) and are briefed on etiquette in the forest — no eating or drinking near the gorillas, stay 21 feet away, don’t go in if you are sick, and listen to the guide if one of the animals begins to charge. It is 9:00 a.m. when we finally set off. Trackers have been sent in advance, along with two researchers who are studying the behavior of the gorillas before and after they have been exposed to tourists. We tramp up the mountainside and then down through jungle, our guide cutting the way through with a machete. Our guide talks with the trackers over a walkie-talkie, and another wildlife service employee guards us with a gun from elephant attacks.
By a bit after 10:30 a.m. a family of gorillas has been spotted. Seven in all, including two silverbacks, the young ones are playing in trees while the older male beats his chest. We are allowed to watch and photograph them for one hour. The dense vegetation and their dark color make it difficult to see them, but they are indeed there. This and a site in Rwanda are the only places in the world where these gorillas are found. There appears to be much research and tourist trade. The entry fee per person is steep – $500 — and only a few people are allowed into the forest at a time. After we are within a safe range, we eat our lunch and are back to the base by a bit after 2:00 p.m. Given experiences on Kilimanjaro and in Wyoming, the hike itself and the glimpses of the gorillas does not seem the payoff that I had thought it might be. And, of course, there is the seemingly endless tipping, but not as over-the-top as the Kilimanjaro hike.
Melanie and Paula are eager to see more animals, and Joseph is happy to drive us to Queen Elizabeth Park. We stay just outside in the Savannah Resort Hotel, which requires more funds but is a pleasant upgrade. I find Joseph talking with a guide who has seen the lions that sleep in trees twice that day. He offers to take us out at dusk, so off we go. I am immediately captivated by the beautiful bush in the late afternoon light. We drive past many uprooted trees, now grey as if they have been struck by lightning, and our guide explains they have been bothered by elephants.
We find our first lion Daniel, sleeping in a fig (?) tree. It is a sight that is at once amazing and charming and captivating. After hanging out of the windows (there is no sun roof) and photographing, we drive to another tree not far away which is filled with a family of lions (Harriet, Caleb, and others) in various stages of sleep and repose. Truly remarkable — and bizarre! Our guide explains the rather complex but thoroughly African family structure with various wives and relationships and cubs. As we leave the park, I keep asking Joseph to stop so I can photograph the sun sinking (and it sinks about seven feet higher on the horizon here) behind the grass and trees of the beautiful bush. This part of the trip was wonderful!
We enjoy another tilapia meal, and pontificate on the future of NLM.