Hot and humid, the pulsing Ugandan rainforest is pressing in from all sides. I am grimy and exhausted, yet triumphant. After hours of following uphill trails, I am no longer aware of the rustling through the leaves around me or the wild shrieking from the canopy above; my focus is on my prize.
I am face to face with a huge, magnificent mountain gorilla, cradling her impossibly sweet, saucer-eyed baby.
I have made a gruelling expedition to see these mesmerising creatures, made famous by Dian Fossey and Sir David Attenborough, in order to experience this deeply soulful inter-species connection. ‘‘When you meet the gorillas, stay calm; do not go closer than seven metres,’’ my guide had warned me. ‘‘If the gorillas approach, let them do whatever they want. It is better that way.’’
He goes on to explain that the gorillas are a law unto themselves; they are not wild but nor are they tame. They are ‘‘habituated’’. A number of family groups in this region of Virunga National Park have been visited by trackers and park rangers on a daily basis for more than two years. There is now neither fear nor hostility, simply acceptance of human presence. They might choose to ignore us or groom us; it’s their call.
But in the excitement, I have forgotten my manners and find myself within touching distance of the pair. I gaze, transfixed, when suddenly, the mother rears up, screaming in anger and pulling back her gums to bare her horrifyingly sharp teeth.
She lunges furiously forward at me with her long arms. I am absolutely terrified, and in the tiny eternity before I meet my fate, I imagine the cautionary Hilaire Belloc poem that will commemorate my demise; the story of Judith, who ventured too close to a mountain gorilla and got her face bitten off.
I curse myself for forgetting the guide’s other dire warning (and my mother’s); don’t stare, it’s rude. But fortunately, some scrap of ancient survival instinct kicks in; I cast my eyes downwards, look away in overt submission and hunch to make myself smaller. A snack, rather than a banquet.
Miraculously, peace is instantly restored. Having satisfactorily put me in my place, the female pulls back and blithely nurses her offspring as though nothing has happened. I am shaken and pale. The rangers are unfazed.
‘‘See, she treats you like another gorilla,’’ a ranger beams. ‘‘That is a very big compliment.’’
It’s an even bigger compliment to Uganda, a country where you can still get up close and personal with wildlife. Trekking to see these magnificent and critically endangered creatures feels extraordinarily intrepid. It’s a far cry from sitting in a Jeep and cruising around peering through binoculars (although we do that too, with spectacular results).
But today’s experience is one we had to earn; which is why you get a personalised certificate at the end.
I have travelled to Uganda to see its spectacular wildlife, and within 48 hours, we’ve seen plenty; elephants, hippos, lions, golden monkeys and chimpanzees. We’ve also encountered a heart-stoppingly beautiful leopard that padded across the road in front of us, white tail twitching with insouciance. But the mountain gorillas have star billing.
In Rwanda, gorilla permits were recently raised to $1,500 (Dh5,510) per person, but here in Uganda they cost just $600. Across Virunga there are 600 gorillas, while a further 400 live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The entire species population numbers just 1,004 individuals, and their continued survival is made possible by tourism – not least because locals employed in this sector have a stake in the gorillas’ welfare and are no longer tempted to capture or kill them.
Access to these iconic primates is tightly controlled; as well as paying park fees, visitors are expected to employ porters to carry rucksacks and to tip their guides. To save tourists like me from dying of embarrassment, Volcanoes Lodges has mercifully provided a list of suggested amounts to tip.
Every gorilla visit is flanked front and rear by armed rangers trained in wildlife diversionary tactics. Their job, apparently, is to ward off unwelcome approaches by buffalo and mountain elephants, but they carry Kalashnikovs rather than dart guns, and wear wellington boots, which on consideration is an unexpectedly troubling combination. However, I am put at ease by the park personnel, who are relaxed, informal and helpful.
My porter, Jerald, is short, wiry and ambitious for his children; we chat about his daughters, Angel and Divine. The younger, Divine, is going to be a doctor. Angel is studying to be a lawyer, he tells me proudly. She is six years old. But so long as the tourists keep coming, Jerald should be able to afford the education to which he aspires for his children.
At the lodge, we are housed in bungalows. Here, the feeling is one of luxury but not decadence; we dine on exceptional local food prepared with professional flair while the plentiful wine is imported from South Africa, rather than Europe.
Every morning, my butler brings me a pot of hot strong coffee; instead of hammering on the door he sings as he carries it through the trilling, hooting dawn chorus. I awake to the words ‘‘Good morning to you’’ softly sung to the tune of Happy Birthday. It’s still a source of deep disappointment that back home my husband refuses to do the same.
On the day of our gorilla encounter, we drive for three hours to reach the trekking centre, where our group of five is combined with a smaller group of three. We all receive a briefing and then we are off, past a welcome committee of black-and-white colobus monkeys.
From the outset, an elderly couple are unable to keep up. They wordlessly delay us by several hours; every time they stop for a lengthy breather, the rest of us are left clinging by vines to the steep slopes. When I address them, they don’t respond at all. Generalised frustration builds. This hike was supposed to result in an epiphany, not ‘‘Gorillas in the red mist’’.
But thankfully the tension evaporates as we arrive into a clearing and catch our first glimpse of a black pelt in the trees. The rangers start grunting, a reassuring vocalisation that approximates to ‘‘all good, all good’’, vouching for our peaceful intentions.
We had hoped to catch the family in a lull of postprandial indolence and essentially just hang with them, shooting the breeze. After all, we share just over 98 per cent of our DNA with gorillas, so of course our meeting would be moving and momentous, wouldn’t it?
It’s moving all right, but literally instead of figuratively. Our allotted hour is best described as complete bedlam and involves a lot of crashing through the undergrowth. Unexpected maybe, but exhilarating and authentic.
The gorillas amble purposefully, making their way down the thickly covered slope, pausing to strip branches and eat shoots with surprising delicacy. At one point, an impatient adolescent brushes against my leg, pushing past to perform a fabulous roly-poly down through the lush undergrowth.
We follow like anxious paparazzi, cameras snapping, the guides hacking back foliage to afford us better photo opportunities. But I don’t have my camera phone. I lost it in transit on the plane. I have been through all the stages of denial and grief. Now I feel a little like a United Nations Observer of the melee; all virtue, no power.
I am trying not to get irritated that my companions are too fixated on the pictures to actually appreciate the moment. ‘‘Isn’t this all terribly intrusive?’’ I murmur priggishly.
But in truth the gorillas aren’t taking a blind bit of notice, just getting on with their day, largely indifferent to our presence. Then comes the rumble in the jungle. A noise like an approaching train in a tunnel; the mighty silverback male has finally put in a cameo appearance.
Except he is down the hill and I am half way up, stuck in a human traffic jam behind the septuagenarians who have just collapsed once more on to the freshly macheted path. They will not move or even let me clamber over them – and believe me, I try. They seem so bewildered and out of their depth that I’m beginning to suspect their family may have sent them on this trek in order to finish them off.
I cajole and beg them to let me pass, but to no avail. By the time they are hoisted vertical again, the silverback has gathered his females together and has disappeared. Showtime is over.
We make our way back down the mountain, stopping and starting until we grind to a halt and the decision is made to call ‘‘an African helicopter’’ for the elderly gentleman. This turns out to be four strong men with a stout stretcher who load the tourist on board and carry him aloft on their shoulders back to the base and to safety.
Later, at the lodge, I discover that most tourists book two treks to see the gorillas - just in case the animals are up in the trees or on the move during the first visit. I also discover that there are multiple warnings in the literature about required fitness levels.
The two-trek strategy makes a lot of sense, but I feel perversely pleased by my unique experience. I have always been more drawn to chaos than to contemplation – and besides, there are few more life-affirming experiences than not getting your face bitten off by a mountain gorilla.
The Daily Telegraph