Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
By William Hawke
Note: Click where indicated for photos.
Bwindi National Park in Uganda is famous for its population of Mountain Gorillas. It is located in the southern reaches of Uganda in the Rukiga Highlands, not far from the edge of the Western Rift Valley. My wife Linda and I took a weekend off during a business trip to Uganda in an attempt to see the elusive Mountain Gorillas of Bwindi. The following is our story.
We left Kampala at about 11 a.m. by safari vehicle. The roads were in good shape as we transited along a portion of the Great Rift Valley with its flat grassy grazing land, where tribal people tended cattle. Along the way, we took advantage of our first 'Kodac moment' where the equator is marked by a 3 metre tall ring, through which the invisible line of latitude runs.
Later, we transited out of the valley into a more tropic-like terrain, with rich vegetation, and at about six o'clock reached the town of Kabale, from where there was another three-hour (90 km) drive over gravel road. We reached the camp, which consisted of a common dining hall and a few cabins, at about 8:15 p.m. The accommodation was comfortable and light was by kerosene lanterns.
In the morning, we met our guides and two young fellows - one a doctor from Germany and the other an American backpacker - who would join us on the trek. The guides confirmed that none of us had so much as the common cold, as gorillas are susceptible to human diseases.
We asked, "Will we actually see gorillas?" The answer was that there were no guarantees, but that they generally know where they are located. Each day, a tracker goes up the mountain to locate the animals, whether there are paying trekkers with him or not. The next day, he goes back to the place where he located them the day before, and tracks them to their present location. So they always have a reference point from which to start. We were told that sometimes the trek could take two hours, but on other occasions, it could take all day.
We started out at 8:30 a.m. I carried the camera around my neck, packed the lunch in the camera bag and hired a porter to carry it - not because I'm a weakling, but more as a gesture to support the local economy. Our party consisted of the four paying trekkers, a guide, a tracker, our porter and three armed soldiers to protect the party from potential danger.
The trek was long and hard, as we passed through the jungle. They don't call Bwindi the Impenetrable Forest without good reason. It is full of rich, lush vegetation - ferns, vines, large and small trees, ravines, swamps and creeks - all on the side of hills. The sights, smells and sounds were of course very jungle-like. I had the urge to grab a hanging vine, give a Tarzan cry and swing across a creek, but restrained myself.
We followed a beaten path for a while, but unfortunately the gorillas are not very cooperative. We soon came to a spot where our tracker pointed out the path of the gorilla family from the previous day. We left the path, and started travelling through underbrush. After about an hour we arrived at a clearing where the tracker had found them the day before, but being constant movers, they were not in sight. We kept moving. The porter proved to be a good investment, because he also took Linda's hand and assisted her when the going got rough - most of the time.
We came upon a clearing where the grass and ferns were all crushed, indicative of our friends' bedroom the previous night, but they had moved out for the day. By this time we were getting very fatigued, and our guide seemed quite concerned as to whether Linda would be able to continue. But she did.
Then it happened! Our persistence had paid off. We spotted a female gorilla swinging in the upper branches of a thin tree, about 300 metres from our present position. Four hours of pleasure mixed with sweat and exhaustion were behind us at this point. The final half hour, as we hacked our way through the jungle, was the hardest. As it turned out, the female that we saw was on the other side of a deep ravine - unseen at the time of the sighting.
Finally, our companions told us to talk in whispers. We crept into a clearing, where the ferns were crushed flat. One of the guides shook the clump of bushes and a female gorilla poked her head out as if to say, "Hello there?" She was on a slope, and we were looking down at her. Then, a young one of about two years of age came to join her. The little one climbed on her back, and the mother and baby came right up to a point about five metres from our party. Others soon revealed themselves - as curious about us as we were about them. To our rear, we could hear some groaning and were informed that it was the silverback (head male) snoring during his mid-day nap.
There was movement in another direction, and a guide pulled away the bushes. Wow, what a sight! We were astonished to see a huge female, lying on her back and bouncing a baby in her hands. The baby couldn't have been more than 2 months old. The mother was playing with the baby, and they both seemed to be laughing. We humans do the same thing with our babies. The sight was simply amazing. Unfortunately they were silhouetted under the bushes and photography with flashbulbs is taboo.
We were with the gorillas for about fifty minutes (with the maximum time allowed being 1 hour) and then the silverback woke up. He exposed himself (not like a flasher) briefly as he slipped past our group and disappeared into the jungle. His family of about thirty fell in behind, and they were soon gone.
We backtracked, until a path was found, sat for a while to eat lunch, and climbed down the mountain. It only took two hours to get back to camp. We started back to Kampala at 3 p.m., arriving at midnight.
Were eighteen hours of travel time (to and from), the cost of gorilla passes (US$ 250 each) and six hours of trekking through the jungle, all for a 50 minute encounter with mountain gorillas really worth the time, expense and effort? We plan to do it again on our next trip to Uganda, so for us, the answer is YES! We obviously recommend the destination.
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