Suppose you meet a gorilla at Christmas

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Simone Bardi

UGANDA Try to imagine the scene: it’s Christmas morning and we are in the middle of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, far south of Uganda, at the border with Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, trying to meet some gorillas in their natural habitat. Just the time to get there and we find out why they call it impenetrable forest: there are no marked paths, only dense vegetation.

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We are a small group of travelers, walking with a thousand difficulties, among trees, high grass, cliffs and midges. The balance is always precarious. The rangers accompanying us are armed with old rifles, they say they only serve to scare away the wild elephants that we might encounter along the way, elephants who apparently are not very friendly towards humans. They say they are not authorized in any way to shoot the animals (except in case of death risk for a human being attacked), but that in many cases they scare them on purpose shooting in the air to make them run away from poachers, a real scourge for Uganda.

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Despite the movements difficulties, we remain in absolute silence. We are over excited and expectations are high. And after only one hour walk (we were lucky in this, I admit, it usually takes a lot more) we find ourselves in a small clearing along with a pack of eight gorillas.

A huge Silverback, three young males, two adult females and two cubs. They are all quite “distant” from us, at least twenty meters. Some are on the trees, others are stretching out on a bed of leaves and twigs. They do not seem worried at all by our presence. They look calm, self confident of their superiority in their own environment, much more comfortable than us all. With calm and slow gestures we begin to pull out cameras to capture these beautiful creatures.

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To see them move inside their habitat and not in a zoo cage is something wonderful. Grace, gentleness and puissance alternate in slow and stately movements. It sounds awkward, but these giants manage to convey a unique and absolute sense of peace.

In that moment all we can do is forgetting about anything else, we are dazed by such beauty, it’s like being thrown into a parallel reality, where we are only humble observers of life manifesting itself in all its stateliness. Nothing is out of place, nothing can be closer than this to the definition of harmony and balance. We are so small and yet so immense, out of time, inside a very small slice of the world that is giving us an unforgettable sight. And I think back to that old proverb that says that real life begins where the road ends… Nothing could be more true in this case.

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Cristiana is crouched on the ground, in loving contemplation of one of the two females blissfully sitting near a tree and eating her daily dose of leaves, while a little further up the pack leader observes the scene with watchful eye. Here is where things take an unexpected turn. One of us loses his balance and slips, the whole group diverts their eyes from the gorillas to see what’s going on. Cristiana is still mesmerized by the object of her contemplation.

Instinctively she reaches out her hand toward her and that is when the gorilla, with a disarming calm, interrupts her meal, gets up and comes toward her. Some of us notice this change of scenery and freeze up breathless just to observe the development of the situation. The risk is huge, but at this point common sense and wisdom are quite useless, it is too late to withdraw the hand. And the beast seems to know very well what to do.

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It’s an absurdly poetic scene. The gorilla is moving with extraordinary delicacy and stops just a few inches from her. She looks at her, sticking his muzzle forward and with her lips she touches the back of her hand. She smells it, she “feels” it. We remain petrified to enjoy this unique show. With the grace of a princess, the gorilla takes us into her world, in this strange “poetry exploration”.

Her curiosity is the most harmless and wholesome thing you can see. It’s a statement of elegance. It’s an emotion that you would have never thought to feel. It’s the confirmation that nature can always find new ways to amaze you. It’s our long moment of pure ecstasy, the longest thirty seconds we have ever experienced. And when the ranger sends away the gorilla to avoid that something might get her nervous and react badly, we watch her going away and we slowly recover from our state of apnea, still in disbelief about what just happened.

We stay there for a bit more, in complete silence, to observe the harmony of this pack, then we set off on the way back with a new indelible memory in our souls.

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UGANDA in pictures | www.simonebardi.net

Simone Bardi