When I booked to go gorilla trekking in the mountains of Uganda, I couldn’t help thinking of Sir David Attenborough and that time, many years ago, when he was filmed being cuddled on the lap of an enormous silverback.
I never imagined that I would have a close encounter of my very own with one of these gentle but dangerous giants. It just goes to show how wrong you can be.
The trip began with a flight on Qatar Airways, taking me to Entebbe, near Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where I had a stopover for the night.
Stan Cullimore (pictured) ventured into Uganda to follow in Sir David Attenborough’s footsteps and get up close with gorillas, one seen here peering up at him from beneath a tree
Luckily, there is a small and perfectly formed boutique hotel – The Boma – very close to the airport.
After a dip in the hotel’s inviting pool, I spent the first hours of my African adventure trying not to get over-excited. The next day, after a short flight, I set foot in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where over half the world’s endangered gorilla population roam wild and free.
I was going to spend time experiencing the very best that jungle life has to offer, at the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp. It is described as a luxury tented camp, but that really doesn’t do it justice. It offers so much more than camping.
The setting is breathtaking: it overlooks the forest valley where shy monkeys and colourful birds fill every corner with sweet music and crazy antics. After a welcome drink, I was shown to my sleeping quarters, complete with luxurious bed, a fullsized bath and rainfall shower.
It was more like a palace than a tent – I felt as if I had somehow walked on to a Hollywood film set.
After a refreshing sleep, I was ready to see the gorillas. The day started with a briefing from our guide, Moses, who told us to stay at least 25ft from the animals at all times. They are used to humans, but they are still wild creatures.
In the surrounding forest, he had a terrifying but humbling close encounter with a dominant male gorilla. Pictured (left) an adult and (right) a ridiculously adorable baby
Next he told us that if any of them should approach us, we should kneel down, avoid eye contact and try not to show our teeth, as these things could be seen as aggressive acts by the gorillas. With all that in mind we set off.
The impenetrable forest certainly lived up to its name. It took us a couple of hours to make our way to the spot where our trackers had last seen a family group. However, by the time we reached that spot, they had gone.
Then, as we walked on in single file, not sure which way to go, something brushed against my leg. Looking down, I could hardly believe my eyes: a mother gorilla with a baby on her back, casually pushed past me. We all stopped and stood in silence as the rest of the gorillas whizzed by.
Another highlight was finding myself in a clearing where the dominant male was having a rest. After taking a quick selfie with the silverback, I beat a hasty retreat.
Later that night, after a feast fit for a royal family, we sat around the campfire, swapping stories under the clear mountain sky. The superb staff moved among us, like delicate ballerinas, topping up drinks and bringing supplies. It seemed as if they knew what we wanted even before we knew it ourselves.
Stan stayed here at the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, a luxury tented camp nestled in the Ugandan rainforest
The next day we set off on another trek, this time to meet a different group of gorillas. I thought nothing could possibly match the excitement of the day before. But, once again, I was wrong.
Our trackers soon found the gorillas, close by the camp and in a relaxed mood. While a young adult female sat at the bottom of a nearby tree, I watched in delight as one of the youngsters scampered up and down various trunks.
He was treating the forest as his very own adventure playground. I was busy snapping pictures of the youngster until I heard a low rumbling sound from behind me. Turning around, I saw a fully grown adult male gorilla, standing just a few feet away, gazing in my direction.
Kneeling slowly, as instructed by Moses in the briefing, I raised my phone and took a single picture. Hearing the sound of the camera clicking, the silverback decided to edge closer. That was when it dawned on me that this enormous creature, twice my size, was much closer than 25ft away.
In fact, he was close enough to reach out and touch me if he wanted to – which I really hoped he didn’t.
The setting, he writes, is breathtaking – overlooking the forest valley where shy monkeys and colourful birds fill every corner with sweet music and crazy antics. Pictured is a waterfall on the site
Time seemed to stand still. I desperately wanted to get out of the way, but didn’t want to make any sudden movements. Sensing my confusion, the gorilla turned to look me straight in the eyes.
I’m afraid to say that at this point I did something rather foolish. Forgetting everything Moses had told us, I fell back on good old fashioned manners: I looked right back at the gorilla and flashed the politest smile I could manage.
That was exactly the wrong thing to do. No doubt seeing my soppy grin as a ridiculous challenge to his supremacy, the silverback moved closer, leaned in towards me and gave a nudge with his shoulder as he brushed past.
There was no anger, no aggression, no malice, but even that small movement was enough to send me sprawling on my back. He then casually put out his back leg and flicked me out of his way.
It was a modest but highly effective way of reminding me of my place. While he was prepared to tolerate humans, there could only ever be one king of the jungle.
As close encounters go, it was short and sweet and its denouement was entirely my own fault. It was also strangely exhilarating.
I just wish Sir David had been there to give me some advice…
Abercrombie And Kent (abercrombiekent.co.uk, 01242 547 702) offers a four-night gorilla-trekking holiday, staying at Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, from £3,995pp.
It includes return flights from Heathrow on Qatar Airways, three nights all-inclusive at Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp in Bwindi, a gorilla-trekking permit, all road transfers, light aircraft flights and activities.