Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda — You wake up fast when there's a 400-pound gorilla standing outside your tent.
"Ruth!" I called over in something of a whisper-yell to the woman in the tent next to mine. "Ruth! Wake up! There's a gorilla out here!"
The male silverback mountain gorilla was only about 20 feet away. I inched my way out into the cool mist of the morning. The stench of the animals cut through the crisp air.
The silverback noticed me, looked right at me but kept to his breakfast of leaves. Nine gorillas in all, including a couple of tiny babes clutching their moms, climbed trees, picked leaves and fruits and didn't mind us humans in the slightest. It was 6 a.m., and my day of gorilla watching was just beginning.
I'd come to southern Uganda just to see the endangered mountain gorillas, and the experience was already exceeding my expectations. By day's end I would hike deep into the jungle and sit in the middle of 15 more of the primates while they napped, ate, played and stared back at me with their deep brown soulful eyes.
Bwindi, known as the Impenetrable Forest for its thick jungle growth, sits in the precarious corner of mountainous land where Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) come together.
The region usually conjures up thoughts of guerrillas instead of gorillas, and that apprehension is warranted. Civil wars and regional conflicts keep these three countries perpetually locked in a state of high alert and ill ease. Soldiers with machine guns and questionable allegiances have been lurking in the dense mountain forests around Bwindi for years. And a brutal attack in 1999 that left eight Western tourists dead at Bwindi nearly ended Uganda's hopes for its budding eco-tourism industry.
But since then, the Ugandan government and several nonprofit research and conservation groups from around the world have made a herculean effort to regain a sense of safety and security around Bwindi, where half of the world's dwindling population of mountain gorillas lives.
Now Uganda boasts a growing tourism industry, and a trip to experience such a rare wildlife encounter can be surprisingly manageable even for a first-time Africa traveler.
The renewed attention to security is essential around Bwindi, not only to attract tourist dollars but also to ensure a safe environment for the mountain gorillas. The Ugandan villagers who live around Bwindi impressed me with their genuine concern for the creatures.
For two years before my visit, I'd lived as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia and had traveled extensively in regions rich with wildlife where the local communities ignored the need to protect rare or endangered species.
In parts of Zambia, many of the local people, struggling for their own survival, are cynical about Westerners who roll in with unimaginable riches to invest money on wildlife programs while the people languish. A wildlife management program takes time to develop, and until the economic rewards are obvious, it can be a hard sell to a community that survives on poached meat and black-market game hunting.
In Uganda, I sensed that something good had taken root. Several successful community programs were launched in the early 1990s when gorilla-tracking was first opened to tourism at Bwindi. A Peace Corps volunteer who had been based here helped develop the "community campground" where I stayed for three nights. The campground, a lush terraced slope of thatched bandas (huts) and cleared tent spaces beside the national park entrance, is run by the local Buganda people. It is managed so that a significant percentage of the campground proceeds is returned to the community to support a women's cooperative market and an orphans' center.
Villagers around Bwindi told me that poaching still happens but that it's not as much a problem as it used to be. I'm not so sure that's true, but the Uganda Wildlife Authority assures travelers that policing in the area has been increased in the last few years. A few days after my visit, I learned that a female gorilla had been shot and her baby stolen by poachers the same day I'd been with the gorillas. Some said the animals were shot for meat; others said the baby was probably sold on the black market.
Few permits issued
On the morning of my scheduled trek, we weren't supposed to have seen the gorillas already.
The group that provided the early-morning wake-up call had been lingering around the park entrance for several days, much to the dismay of wildlife rangers.
But through word of mouth -- and a few "gorilla tips" leaflets -- we knew the do's and don'ts of gorilla-watching: Stay calm, don't make any threatening noises or movements. And if you're lucky, a gorilla might approach you gently, out of curiosity.
We watched for about an hour as the group went through our camp, climbed trees, ate leaves and moved on. We were thrilled by the unexpected encounter.