Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
One of our biggest bucket list events was completed in January. We were blessed with the opportunity to go to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where about 400 of the world’s remaining 1,000 mountain gorillas roam free in a protected national park. You need advanced tickets, accommodation and a willingness to climb the steep, densely forested mountainside to experience a once in a lifetime chance to be in the presence of these powerful adults, playful juveniles and adorable babies.
This was part of a 3 week tour through Kenya and Uganda organized by the amazing Namiiro Flora B of Katella Uganda Safaris. More posts to follow on all that wonderful adventure. She arranged for us to stay in our own little cabin in paradise right near the entrance to the park, Buhoma Lodge. The passes were also obtained for us by Flo, for this adventure and all the other parks we visited as well.
The passes are not inexpensive, but it is less expensive than Rwanda, which is the other place you can go to see them in the wild. Only a certain number of passes are issued each year, no exceptions, and you need to book your trip way in advance. For your fee you get guides armed with rifles ( they swear they would never shoot an animal, just use the noise of a shot to scare them away if they showed aggression). There are also scouts that go out early in the morning and locate the troops that the visitors will see later that day. They take a group of visitors, a limited number in each group (I think ours had 8), to each troop. You are met with their very professional and organized staff, given a trek briefing and a wonderful performance of song and dance from the ladies at Ride 4 a Woman.
Afterwards you’re assigned a group and guides who own you for the rest of your adventure.
The groups are divided up so that the strongest hikers go to the farthest troop that day and the less, erm, able go to a closer troop. I had an issue the previous day that wound up with me visiting the local clinic to get checked out. I was pretty incapacitated the day we were scheduled to do our trek and the miracle workers Flo and Richard ( the owner of Buhoma Lodge) got me to a doctor (ends up I had an electrolyte shortage) and somehow, amazingly, got our trek rescheduled for the day after we were supposed to go. So, I choose to believe that we were assigned to the closest troop for that reason! Our group also consisted of a family of 5, one of whom was displaying the symptoms I had the day before. He was much younger and gamely soldiered through. We were driven around to the other side of the mountain and had about a 45 minute steep uphill hike in to our troop.
For an additional fee, which greatly helps the locals and is insignificant to most visitors, you can have porters carry your things and assist you in difficult areas. I had two! These guys hiked up with us, at times hiking backwards in order to balance me or pull me through the tough spots. You definitely have to be ok with strangers grabbing you everywhere if you are going to have them assist. At one point my foot disappeared up to my knee in a hole. I was pulled out of it before my foot could even hit the bottom! They also assisted the rangers/guides in cutting a path through the forest to follow the gorillas to where they finally settled down to eat and play.
Once the guides located the gorillas we had to go off the trail that we used to hike up the mountain. Our troop happened to be on the move so we were following them through the truly impenetrable part of the aptly named forest. The machetes were flying fast and furious cutting a trail for us. Our feet were constantly being snagged by vines and roots and we were getting smacked in the face with branches as we breathlessly, but quietly, followed the effortlessly moving gorillas. It was at this point that it hit us. We were following gorillas in their territory!
After a few minutes the troop settled down and our guides immediately cleared enough area near them so that we could stand, crouch or kneel and observe them. It was hot, biting ants were everywhere and we were knackered from the rush to follow them, but we didn’t care. We had 40 minutes to stand in the presence of a massive silverback, some females and a bunch of juveniles and babies. Our troop, see how possessive I became there, was comprised of 12 gorillas, a big troop. The effort to remain silent was so difficult as we watched the silly youngsters swinging on vines and branches, the silverback settling down for a nap (making himself a perfect playground for the youngest) and the mothers watching their young.
I’ve seen gorillas plenty of times at the wonderful San Diego Zoo and delighted in their antics there but somehow, being with this wild (albeit habituated) troop was something else entirely. So calm, so peaceful and so like us that I immediately felt a connection and it redoubled my awareness of how important the conservation efforts are to these brothers and sisters of ours.
We were instructed to stay a certain distance from them, always wear a mask and to remain quiet. If the gorillas approached us we were supposed to back up slowly. In our case none of the gorillas ventured near, so we were able to stay in our spot. Other than glancing at us in the beginning, they pretty much acted like we weren’t there, or that we were part of what they expect in the forest. Their gaze sometimes resting on us in a very comfortable way. Humbling.
Before we knew it our 40 minute session with the troop were up. We regretfully left the troop. Last lingering glances over our shoulders. Deep sighs as we got back to the ordinary experience of coming back down the mountain. The trip back was arduous, but I think we were all in a kind of trance, forever changed by our time with these majestic creatures with whom we share 98% of our DNA.
I am going in August and can’t wait. I loved reading your story and can’t wait to create my own,
You will love it even more than you thought you could!
Uganda is the best! The pearl of Africa