Gorillas in the Mist… And Pouring Rain
Although it has its fair share of excellent safari locations where you can see the so-called Big Five game animals, Uganda is also well known as a top destination to see primates. We had the opportunity to track chimpanzees in Kibale and mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable in the south-west region of the country. Gorilla trekking in Uganda is one of the country’s top attractions.
The mountain gorillas are critically endangered – there are only about 900 left in the wild and they can be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda and Rwanda offer a limited number of gorilla tracking permits each day. We chose to travel in the low season when it is more likely to be rainy, because the cost of the permits is reduced significantly during certain months of the year. It’s worth booking the permits in advance. They are really expensive, even out of season, but the money goes directly towards the conservation of these marvellous creatures. And it is really a once in a lifetime experience.
The Ugandan conservation programme has ensured that half of the gorilla population has been habituated – wild, but comfortable in the presence of humans – and the other half remain completely wild. This is a good strategy. The conservationists’ greatest fear is that the gorillas, which share about 98% DNA with humans, could catch a human disease for which they have no immunity. You are requested not to track the gorillas if you have a cold. Following the start of the pandemic, the area was closed off for a while, Covid presenting risks both from the disease but also an increase in illegal poaching activities, but it has now opened up with extra precautions in place that trekkers need to adhere to in order to protect these magnificent creatures.
Gorilla Trekking In Uganda – The Briefing
The trip starts with a briefing at headquarters. Then you are allocated to a gorilla group – a maximum of eight people join each trek. It can take any time between 30 minutes and 6 hours to reach the gorillas – some parties have returned after nightfall in the past. Additionally, we were tracking at altitude, around 2300m above sea level, which enough to knock the breath out of you going up some of the steeper slopes! We were assigned the Bitakura group in the Ruhija area. One member of our party had mobility issues and was carried on a sedan by a team of four porters (who rotated shift with an additional four porters at regular intervals) who did an amazing job and ensured that she had full access to the gorillas. Our guide called it “the helicopter”. This system can be used if any trekker becomes unwell during their hike.
You wouldn’t have known it was the rainy season for most of our trip – virtually every day was bright and sunny and it had rained for a maximum of 15 minutes on just a couple of the days throughout our trip. Of course, on the day we really wanted it to stay dry the rain absolutely chucked it down. That’s why we packed good walking boots and raincoats.
We were advised to borrow walking sticks and also to employ porters to accompany us on the trek. This was a really good idea. Not only do they carry your backpack (you are advised to take three litres of water and a box lunch because you just don’t know how long it will take to reach the gorillas and you will need the energy) they will also hold your hand to steady you if things get slippery and push/pull you over obstacles if necessary. Importantly, they are local people who can earn a decent living from tourists, so hiring a porter also contributes directly to the community. The porters are available at the starting location and will be allocated if you ask for one.
Gorilla Trekking In Uganda – The Trek
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA – apparently pronounced Oo-er!) have an excellent system in place which ensures that you have practically 100% chance of seeing the gorillas: each morning two trackers head out into the forest to find the troop based on their location the previous day. They then radio to the guide, who will lead the tourists via the best route to see the gorillas. The trackers do an amazing job – they spend all day with the gorillas, even after the tourists have left, so that they know where to trace them to on the following day. We were advised that they would appreciate a personal tip as most tourists don’t recognise the brilliant job they do and we were delighted to do this.
There’s a reason the region is named “Bwindi Impenetrable”. We trekked along a main path – up and down some very steep, muddy and slippery slopes, for a couple of hours. Then our guide indicated that he was close to the trackers. The rangers/trackers cut through the forest with machetes and we followed a newly made path, through dense forest to where the gorillas were located.
We were soaked through to the skin, muddied, shattered and utterly bedraggled. But nothing beats the sight of wild gorillas just a few metres away from you.
We saw one of the group’s silverbacks…
…some younger males…
…and a mother and child.
It’s difficult to find the words to describe how magical it was just being in their presence. The rules say that you are allowed one hour with these amazing creatures. It flew by. Then there was the slippery, steep trek back to base. It was a tough climb but we made it without difficulty. Gorilla trekking in Uganda was one of the most amazing things we have done. We were exhausted but elated.
The gorillas were feeling a bit sleepy too.
At the Elizabeth National Park we managed to purchase some Gorilla Coffee. Made from arabica beans it is grown, processed and roasted in Uganda, and is delicious. It has a lovely aroma – it smells of sweet, buttery caramel and has a smooth taste with just a touch of distinctive coffee bitterness. Even better, some of the profits from its sales go towards conservation efforts to help the marvellous mountain gorillas.