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HOLIDAYS: Close encounter of the hairy kind.

A SAFARI-SUITED David Attenborough did it first. Then came comely Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek in her BBC1 series Cousins.

Now it was my turn to crouch down, smile stupidly and drop the voice to a whisper in the breathtaking presence of mountain gorillas.

Watching the word-perfect TV pundits slip silkily into small-screen frame to confront these great African apes as if they were on the latest leg of some rural stroll couldn't be further from the reality of my - and I suspect their - close encounters of a very hairy kind.

It had taken 51/2 hours of lung-busting trek, the first two hours straight up a mountain, followed by a further three hours hacking through virgin jungle where every foothold was trippingly uncertain and handhold sharply dubious.

Then, without warning it was out into a sun-drenched clearing where a family of eight gorillas played.

We were in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a National Park and home to half the world's mountain gorillas. More than 320 of them live deep in the dense vegetation and steep slopes which also straddle the borders of the Congo and Rwanda.

Only 12 permits a day are issued to visitors, and from the outset you are warned that the exercise will be strenuous, with no guarantee of gorillas.

This is, after all, a sprawling rain forest and not just an enclosed safari park. Apparently some Japanese tourists arrived one day in this back of beyond and after being told it might take three hours to find gorillas simply piled back their bus and left.

I was gorilla-tracking in the company of Chris Buck and his wife, Shelley. Buck was co-director of Disney's Oscar-winning cartoon Tarzan and he was re-visiting the site where four years earlier he first began research for the animation, which is out on DVD and video tomorrow.

Watching a still-awed Buck quietly sketching our family group, it's easy to see the inspiration. However unlike Disney's gorilla mum, ours did not sing a Phil Collins lullaby.

VERDICT: Ape-tastic

FACT FILE

A 7-DAY safari to Uganda (3 nights at Volcanoes Camp, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, three nights at Mweya Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park), including flights with BA, all transport and driver guides in 4WD vehicles, accommodation and meals, one gorilla tracking permit per person, one chimp tracking permit and one boat trip in Queen Elizabeth National Park, costs pounds 2,750 with Tim Best Travel (0207 591 0300).
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Falk, Quentin
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 3, 2000
Words:404
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