Some of the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas can be found in Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and a gorilla trekking is rare bucket-list adventure you should consider. You could fly to Uganda for a weekend to track and watch these beautiful rare creatures in their natural habitat and fly back in time for Monday meetings. Here, let’s peak a little into the journey to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the heart-stopping moment hits you when you finally get to see these gentle creatures.
The journey to track rare mountain gorillas, deep in the the mountain rainforests of Uganda, is one that will leave you with wonderful memories you’ll live to cherish forever. This is a trip that be easily joined with your big game African Safari in Kenya, Tanzania or Savannah Uganda safari but you’re allowed to spend only one hour with the gorillas unless you embark on a gorilla habituation experience. The US$700 cost, just for the gorilla permit alone, means it is not the kind of trip you make often but this year, make that promise to myself and venture to the south west corner of Uganda, near the border with Rwanda.
Seeing these creatures is 90% sure deal and It is reassuring to know that, as you wake from your slumber in the middle of the night at your Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, the same thing will be happening for the trackers a few hours away in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, as they set out to locate the gorillas each morning so that you’re able to see them when you join them later with a ranger team. After seeing a gorgeous African sunrise, the small village of Rubuguri, Bohoma or Nkuringo could be your entry point for the Rushaga sector, Buhoma or Nkuringo Sectors respectively, in which we would start the trek. An entertaining briefing at the start consisted of a lot of marketing (selling postcards, books, t shirts etc) and not much gorilla info – like the appropriate amount of eye contact to make, or what to do if one runs at you! However, the Ugandan Wildlife Authority realise that the gorillas are “worth” more by protecting them from poachers, so your money goes towards conservation of the gorillas and their habitat. Besides, money also covers the cost for the rangers and their AK-47’s, who you’ll at the front and back of your assigned eight person group.
The Mountain Gorilla Trekking Experience
Oh, be warned that the tracking can take anywhere from 15 minutes to more than 8 hours, but is so many cases trekkers can walk for about an hour before their first encounter – off the path, hacking through forest. You may have to make the Impenetrable Forest marginally less impenetrable, but this is nothing the gorillas themselves don’t do as well! The ranger calls out on his radio frequently to find the trackers. You’ll eventually see the trackers who have been out since early morning – which means your assigned gorilla group are close by. You’ll leave your food, water and bags with the trackers and continue with the rangers – keep your camera ready, your eyes peeled and your wits about you. You’re in the presence of the mighty mountain giants.
Like many wildlife experiences, you’ll hear the animals before you can finally lay eyes on them. In fact, the first noise you hear is more of a scream, which us first-timers mistake as aggression. Habituated Mountain Gorillas are the most peaceful of all primates in that forest, so keep your cool. Still, that first roar could startle everyone especially if not prepared for it, including the rangers – but you’ll then calmly be beckoned on to follow them. The first look is fleeting – a flash of silky black fur amongst the foliage, then the sound of a beating chest. You’ll be teased with more snatched glances through the dense bush, but then hear the groans of the 200kg primates you’ve come to see. Finally after 60 minutes of this intense encounter, you’ll be asked to leave, the gorillas can only bare so much of your presence. You’ll hack through a little more forest, in the knowledge that these gorgeous creatures are only metres away but still largely unseen.
We recommend you watch David Attenborough documentaries and Gorillas In The Mist by Sigourney Weaver, you’ll be amazed at their close-up experiences. Also, remember to stop taking photos and just simply observe them. Watch the very leisurely youngstars go at the games and the elder gorilla while they sit back and have a bite to eat – it’s usually mid morning so I guess elevenses are popular in the gorilla world too. Content that you’ve have your money shot, move along and find the male silverback in the group, the dominant one. He’s a more energetic eater – rearing up to pull down a massive branch of leaves as though it were a tiny twig. Don’t make too much eye contact, just a little. Often, rangers say this is the moment when the gorillas seem most “human”, and recognise you as a descendent. You’ll find the young gorillas more fascinating – playful, full of character, lounging about in the trees, rolling onto theirs back. The experience only lasts for so long, until your ranger informs you that your allotted hour with them is over and you have to head back.
How to get there
From a practical point of view, unless you’re travelling in the country for a while you’re best off doing a bit of forward planning. With a strict limit on the number of permits issued each day, you’d be taking a risk to leave it until you were in Uganda to sort out the permit. However, your efforts to buy the permit directly in the UK, from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, may turn out completely fruitless. There are numerous large adventure travel companies that will sort it all out for you, but fortunately for you Katsam Adventures will purchase the permit for you at no extra cost and make sure you have it on time. An excellent bit of advice we would give you is to fly into Kigali (Rwanda) as the bus journey to Kabale (Uganda) is a more manageable 3 hours rather than the bumpy 8 hour journey from Kampala. Otherwise, you can contact the UWA in person in Kampala, or have us put together a couple of tailor-made Uganda tours for you. Despite the high cost of the permits you rarely hear of any complaints, and personally I doubt you’d ever regret it.
Please bear in mind that despite their immense strength, gorillas are susceptible to human illnesses (and have little to no immunity) so you shouldn’t go tracking if you have symptoms of cold or flu. You can also track gorillas in Rwanda (though the permits are currently US$2000 more expensive) and the Democratic Republic of Congo, though the issues of infrastructure, safety and reliability of seeing the gorillas would need to be addressed before taking that option.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where you find the gorillas.
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