Saturday, February 19, 2011
Close Call Gorilla Treking in Nigeria.
Without a machete it would have been hard getting through this mess.
Most of the time you were under the trees, but a few cliffs allowed you a little view of the surrounding area
From Drill Ranch the Ali mountains rose up like some granite cathedral, blanketed with mist, covered with rain forest, and stood as one of the most rugged landscapes I have ever seen. I was warned about the dangers that hide in the jungle, the famous Gabon viper with the longest fangs of any snake in Africa, puff adders and rhino vipers, that hide under the leaves and won't try to move out of your way, the green mamba which is very aggressive and blends right into the green leaves, spitting cobras, army ants that march like soldiers through the jungle, and attack everything in their path.
The ranger that was taking back into the mountains was named Peter, and was recommended by one of the biologists working at drill ranch, who swore by his integrity and said that he was the best they had and most experienced ranger in the sanctuary. He had hiked with him before and was amazing how much he knew about the area.
Peter has been working in the sanctuary for 16 years, and knows how to track the animals. If I was going to be lucky enough to see the gorillas, chimpanzees, or drill monkeys in the wild, he was the best bet. He told me that people had spend years in the park, and only twice have the rare gorillas been photographed.It didn't matter I was just excited for the adventure.
Peter had just spent the last three days alone, on patrol, along the border of the sanctuary. His backpack, was full of snares, shot gun shells, and the head of a dikar,that he found along the way. He was on mission trying to stop poaching in the park.
Because of the poaching problem the manager at Drill Ranch was happy to have Peter and I head back into the sanctuary, because we would be heading three mountains back from the border, an area that hasn't been visited in a long time and the biologists were glad that there would be some eyes watching the area.
Peter agreed to take me back into the park, but also warned me that this wasn't going to be a normal gorilla trek, that if we came across poachers he would arrest them, and that if I was scared that we should not go. I was a bit nervous about this, but realizing this was the experience I was looking for, I said I understood the dangers. The biologist laughed and said you will be one of only a few people who can say they have gone on a fucking gorilla trek in Nigeria. I said good bye to my truck and arranged to meet them at the Cameroon border three days later. And so began one of the most epic experiences of my life.
As he headed back into the mountains, Peter caught me up on the problems he was facing as a ranger in Ali Mountains Sanctuary. That the villages around the place aren't realizing the damage they are doing with poaching and illegal timber cutting. That he took it as his responsibility to try and stop it, even if it kills him.
He told me about a guy in a village up north, that had bragged about killing some chimps in the park, so he went to investigate and found out that he had really killed four drill monkeys. So he confiscated the guys rifle, took the meat, as evidence, and arrested the guy, but then the village chased him out of the village trying to kill him. Because of that, it started a huge war between the his village and that village, that ended in a huge battle where Peter's village, even though smaller massacred the other village, killings hundreds.
It didn't take long to find out just how serious Peter was, how tough he was, and find out first hand, just how dangerous Peters job is guarding the sanctuary.
Just hours into our trek, we came across the sound of two chain saws cutting up a falling tree. Peter went to investigate. I kept my distance at first and let him confront the three guys, walking right up to them like he was ten feet tall. They were caught off guard, the nervousness on their face, expressed their guilt, they knew they were breaking the law. One tried to hide his chain saw. Peter waved me over and I started taking photographs as evidence.
Nothing crazy happened for about 15 minutes, while Peter talked calmly and professionally with the three guys, about why it was illegal to cut wood. The three guys only listened, everything seemed normal. But nothing is normal about logging, it's big business. A hard wood tree the size they had cut down, can earn a logger 1,000,000 Nira. Since the wood is rare and resists rotting.
So it wasn't a shocker that out of the bush appeared the head boss, with a machete in his hand. There was so listening from this guy, or carrying who we were, he just walked up and started threatening that he would kill us if we didn't leave.
The ranger tried to calm him down, but he only got more heated. I really thought I was about to watch someone get killed in front of me. It didn't matter that Peter was a government employee, that he had the power to arrest this guy, he just threatened Peter over and over about cutting his head off. At one point he bluffed Peter by hitting him with the side of his machete. Peter didn't even flinch.
He then took his anger out on me, not carrying who I was, he raised his machete on me, a crazy look in his eye, expressed he wasn't fucking around. Since we were now out numbered 4 to 2 and getting out numbered faster and faster, as more of his posse came walking through the woods. I realized we were in deep shit.
I started backing away, and would have just left the scene, but because they had the upper hand, they saw an opportunity to get more from us. Peter never moved, even when the the guy with the machete raised his hand like he was going to cut Peter. Stealing Peter's GPS, he walked up to me and demanded my camera, raising his machete and threatening to cut my hands off if I didn't let go. It was the first time I had ever been robbed.
I stood there for a split second shocked at the shit we were stuck in, and the idea that I was losing my expensive camera. I've never been the type to panic, but I was damn nervous.
At first I tried to reason with the guy, "I'm sorry,but I need my camera for my work, that I was a stupid tourist.blah blah blah" I looked over at Peter who gave me this look, and without saying anything, I knew that the passive approach wouldn't work with this guy. Nigerians only feel more empowered if you beg.
Knowing he wasn't going to get rid of Peter easily, he would start to threaten him even more. That he would kill us if we, didn't leave the area. But Peter promised me that things would be OK, that he would get back my camera, there was no fear in his eyes. Peter backed me up, informing the group what big trouble they were making if by robbing us, that I was a tourist and he was a government ranger, that they were illegally logging, and that we would inform the police and they would come arrest him.
This really pissed him off, and he ran at us yelling that he should just kill us where we stood. Peter then stood up to him and said you can kill me if you want, but that will only makes things worse for yourself. I started feeding off of Peters invincibility, my courage began to grow, even though we had no weapons, we had only one advantage, and that was not to fear them.
There was no way I was losing my camera, I had too much of my trip left to just give up, As much as he threatened me, the more I kept on him. I kept my distance, so he couldn't hit me. I started working on his friends telling them how much trouble they would all be in if they didn't talk this guy into giving back our stuff. The other members of the group, I think understood the boundary this guy just crossed robbing a tourist and government employee and then threatening to kill us. So they actually started talking the guy into going to the chief of the village and working this all out. So we all started heading to the next village.
After an hour of this guy threatening us, arguing with the group, finally the guy started coming to his senses, even though we were out numbered 15 -2 and surrounded, Peter's courage made me stronger. With them now listening, we saw our chance to go on the offensive, telling them that if anything happened to me that my government would come looking for them. I used the threat that the United States would send the special forces to track them down.
I had my audience, so I gave the best convincing speech I had ever given in my life. I talked about how most tourists are scared to come to Nigeria, because they think Nigerians are crazy, but that I loved Nigeria and liked the people. That I wasn't scared to travel on my own, that I wanted to experience more of the country. But that this would change my opinion about Nigerians, that they were just thieves and killers. And I would go home and tell everyone not to come here.
I could tell they were very patriotic about their country because most of the guys started agreeing with me and feeling bad. So some tried to convince me that if I just gave them 10,000 Nira for the trouble we created, they would give back my camera. Which we argued was just robbing us again, because Peter was only doing his job and I was just along with him and didn't have anything to do with it.
The guy with our stuff started to calm down and listen and talk with us. I told him I understood him, that I knew he was trying to make money himself,that Nigeria is a hard place to make a living, but Peter was only trying to stop them because he was looking out for the future of Nigeria. I told him I wanted to photograph the mountains and maybe if i got lucky even the gorillas, and that I would go home and show everyone what beautiful place it was, which would hopefully attract more people to come visit.
It must have worked, because we then all shook hands, we were handed back our stuff without having to pay anything. I forced Peter to get the hell out of there, he wanted to still try and arrest the guys.
It was one hell of a way to start a three day trip. I really didn't want to come across someone like that again. I was just relieved that I had my camera back.
The hike up the mountains was steep and hot. I have never sweat more in my life. The thorny vines ripped my clothing to shreds. The three days we spent hiking, we crossed over three mountains, hiked 12 hours a day, and tried to catch up to the gorillas that we had no clue where they were. The signs took us up step cliffs, down step gorges, across rivers with boulders the size of houses. We slept where ever we found water, the second night sleeping on a huge flat boulder the size of a house,wild chimps, called in the trees above us, as they laid down for the night.
We saw lots of amazing things along our trek. Came a across the largest snake I have ever seen, a spitting cobra. It was at least 7-8 feet long, had a metallic black body. He reared up and showed his hood, before disappearing off into the jungle, faster than any snake I had ever seen move. It looked as if he was running through the jungle because he was raised two feet up in the air, with his hood out. Never seen a snake move like that.
After miles of trekking through the dense jungle we finally started seeing signs of recent gorilla activity. We counted their beds where they slept, checked dropping to see how old they were, so we knew they were in the area. Just as the sun was setting on the second night, we sat on a ridge to listen.
It was getting dark, but just before we were going to give up we heard cracking in the jungle. My heart rate began to increase. Even though it was almost dark I got my camera ready to just get proof that we saw them. But just as fast as the sound came it disappeared, leaving me disappointed but energized.
The most annoying thing sleeping in the jungle isn't the bugs that bite or crawl over you, it's every morning the bees came in big swarms to lick the sweat off your body. It took all your focus to sit their eating breakfast with bees covering your body, and not freak out. You could feel them crawling everywhere. I was still stung over 20 times, because I would squash one with my armpit or they would fly under my shirt or up my leg and I would sit on them.
Overall it was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. Just experiencing the serenity of being way back in the mountains was a cool thing to experience. The short time I spent with Peter formed an everlasting friendship. He was one of the most interesting people I have ever met in Africa. I learned more about Nigeria in the three days I spent with him then three weeks that we spent traveling through it. He taught me all about the life of the jungle, what to eat, what to look for. He stopped me from grabbing on to the wrong trees, kept me from being stung by some nasty ants, even stopped me from stepping on a green mamba in the trail.
Nest made by gorillas.
We didn't see any gorillas along our trek. But saw evidence that they still live back there. Though he estimates that only 40-50 live in the mountains rather than the few hundred that people think. While I was disappointed not to see them I was at least happy to know that even though we trekked over a large percentage of the place, trying to find them, they could still hide from us somewhere, meaning they can hide from poachers as well. Every animals and monkey we did see back there took off like a rocket when ever they spotted us, so there much be a lot of poaching still going on.
Ali Mountain Sanctuary has everything a place needs to be an amazing Eco-adventure destination. Maybe someday it will become as popular as trekking for the mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda. Since the chance of seeing the "Big Three" in one location, makes it so unique.
I've photographed the gorillas in Uganda a few years back and for 525 dollars, I was lead by a guide with eight other people, for two hours up the side of a volcano, and was given a limit of one hour to view the family.
In Ali Mountain Sanctuary, it would only have cost me only 20 dollars to hire the ranger for three days, of gorillas treking though a landscape that was full of water falls, canyons, and beautiful mountains. Peter kept apologizing for not finding the gorillas for me. He was more disappointed than I was, not seeing them. But then I handed him a big tip, smiled and told him that it was one of the best times of my life hiking with him. That I wanted him to go buy something nice for his wife and family for Valentines, and he perked right up.