Gorilla trekking in Uganda
The gorilla trekking is the top tourist attraction and one of the major must do experiences in Uganda. To do the Gorilla Trekking you need to book the permit well in advance, as there are limited permits available each day.
Does anyone have a cold? the ranger asked. Nobody raised their voice, but some shook their heads. Myself included, even though I had a sneaking feeling I might catch one after the upcoming hike in the pouring rain. “If you do, it is important that you let us know”. «The mountain gorillas share 98 % DNA with humans, and can easily catch deceases, so you have to stay at least 8 meters away from them», he continued. All of us nodded, and equipped with a walking stick each, we ventured off into the woods. The ranger Fred and the guide Augustine were slowly guiding our group of eight on the quest to find the Mukiza family lead by the Silverback male with the same name.
In the beginning I tried to step on the sides and jump from rock to rock, but I soon realized it was pointless, and (almost) acted like a child in a pond. I kind of regretted it when I had to dig the dirt of the hiking boots, but I haven’t really been afraid to get dirty before, so this was absolutely not the time to start. The muddy trail embraced my shoes and the vacuum gave a popping noise for every step I made.
As the rain was seriously pouring down, there was not much use lifting my head to look around, so I kept the eye on the path to escape the largest mud ponds and jumping over the large wet roots (do NOT step on them, you will slide and fall).
As on the chimp track, we suddenly made a quick turn off the path, only this time it soon led to a steep incline. As the rangers had got notice that this was where the gorillas were, so we were going up as well.
Wearing the large rain poncho (thank God for that, by the way), it was sometimes too big, so I stepped on it and stumbled. The tall green grass was facing downwards, making it perfect to slip on. For a moment it felt like nature was putting us on a test. But we aimed to pass.
Ferns were spread all over the hillside, and was sometimes the only thing to hold on to when crawling up the hillside to prevent falling backwards. I tried to ignore the fact that the plant is called “ormegress” in my native language, directly translated to worm grass….
Huffing and puffing while climbing steady upwards, I could not quite make out if it was rain or pearls of sweat running down my forehead, but anyway I was determined to get up there.
After the accent, we walked for a few minutes before we were told to stop. “They are just over there”, one of the rangers said, and pointed in between the bushes. The distinctly grey hairs on the back of the gorilla clearly made us recognize the large silverback male, the leader of the group.
And just as surprising as lightning from clear blue sky, it turned the other way and the rain stopped! I cannot believe the luck, after the constant heavy rain, it completely stopped as a stroke of magic. We instinctively started to whisper, and slowly moved towards the tribe.
The silverback male soon zigzagged among the trees, joining the rest of the family. From courageous young juveniles, to mothers with their shy babies. All minding their own business, continuing their everyday life without caring about our presence.
One of the youngsters seemed not to be informed about staying 8 meters clear of humans, and suddenly ran passed me on the path before climbing up the nearby tree for some delicious green leaves. Paralyzed by the close encounter, I just stood there, staring at the distant relative having his pre-lunch snack. Far away from the urban noises (though with the loud sounds of the forest), I could almost hear the leaves crush between his teeth.
A noise behind me made me snap out of my moment. Some of the youngsters were playing up in the trees, rattling the bushes. Initially turning towards them, I noticed the youngest in the group, sitting with her mother being petted and cleaned.
Our carefully measured hour was up, and we started the hike back. Even though the rain had stopped, we had to watch every step on the slippery grass going back down the steep hill.
As the mood was a little bit brighter (along with the weather), and we could focus on other things than looking straight down on the ground just in front of our feet, we had a nice long conversation with the rangers on our way back. The Mukiza’s that we had just met are a group of 13 gorillas, and one of four habituated families in Ruhija. In the whole of Bwindi impenetrable national park, there are 31 families, 15 habituated and 16 wild. To habituate a family, the rangers first spend just a little time with the gorillas every day, imitating their behavior and gradually making them used to having humans around. The whole process takes 2-3 years.
The Gorilla permit in Uganda is 600$, and needs to be booked well in advance. The price might seem a bit over the top, but it is important to know that parts of the money goes both to the community and the work to help save the species and increasing numbers. The census from 2010 counted 4oo mountain gorillas in Bwindi, and 480 in Virunga National park. The latter park is shared between the three countries Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic Congo. According to WWF, the numbers have however increased to more than 1000 in 2018, but they still face danger and annoyance.
It is highly recommended to book far in in advance, as spaces are limited to four groups per day (one for each of the gorilla families) with 8 people in each group. The permit cost 600$ and you can buy it directly from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, or if you book your tour around Uganda through an agency, they will probably arrange it.
We did the gorilla trekking in Ruhija, but there are also other places to go in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
What to bring:
First thing you need, is your passport to get registered. Depending of the season, it can be quite wise to bring a rain poncho or waterproof clothes to keep dry. As you will probably need to hold on to roots and grass or whatever the will prevent you from falling, it is recommended to wear gloves. We were not advice this upfront though, so here you go 😊 It is essential to wear good shoes, I was debating to bring my high cut hiking boots or the lower ones. The first ones won as we were also going to hike the Nyiragongo Volcano in Congo, but I was very happy to have them. As you will be hiking (and partially climbing) up and down in uneven terrain, you probably will feel quite warm at times. Wear layers so you can adjust the temperature, and bring both water and food as you never know how long you will have to search for the gorillas. And a small daypack to carry your stuff. And last but not least – a camera to catch some of the impressions, even though nothing can recreate the real experience.
Where to stay:
We stayed at Bakiga Lodge, an eco lodge aiming to limit the impact on the environment. By collecting rain water in large tanks and using solar panels, they are self-sufficient for water and electricity. It probably will not be the longest and hottest shower you ever had, and you may not be able to change your phone, but that is a small price to pay to contribute to a better environment.
Bakiga lodge is also a non-profit NGO that help finance water projects across the Kabale district.
We got a nice wooden hut with a terrace overlooking the green forest and fields below.
* We were offered the gorilla permits complimentary by Uganda Tourist Board. The description and opinion of the wet but amazing experience is of course my own.