Mountain gorilla tracking in Bwindi

by | 2 Feb 2019

December 2018 : today is day 14 of our road trip through Uganda.This day is more special than the others. This day is the one that made us come here. This day is the one we’ve been dreaming of every nigh in the last three months. Today we’re going to see gorillas !

Bwindi impenetrable national park

Moutain gorillas – which population barely exceeds 1000 individuals at the time of writing this article (early 2019) – live in two separate areas : in the Virunga massif (which spreads over Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda) and in Bwindi forest (in Uganda) slightly to the north. With 14 habituated groups of gorillas, the latter is a perfect place to go and meet those amazing apes. Be careful not to mistake habituation with any form of domestication. Gorillas are and remain wild animals. It just means those groups do not fear humans anymore : they don’t run away when they see (or hear or smell) them. This allows us to to go and observe those gorillas, one hour per day in order not to disturb them. As a matter of fact, they don’t seem surprised to see us. They live their lives as if we weren’t there.

Discovering moutain gorillas

Briefing

You probably already imagined it, you have to get up early in the morning. The meeting time for the briefing is 7:30am in the park amenities of Rushaga sector. A ranger welcomes us and gives lots of very interesting bits of information about gorillas, their environment and their social structure. If only we had started our voice recorder, it would have been easier to write our moutain gorilla page ! The second part of the briefing is more practical : it is about the conduct of the trek and the rules we have to follow.

Once the briefing is over, we are split into groups of 8 people, depending on how fit we are and how motivated we are when it comes to walking. As a matter of fact, each group is going to go and meet a different gorilla family. Some of them are reached in 30 to 60 minutes when others will require up to 3 hours. The encounter with gorillas won’t be better if you walk more, but those who choose to go for a close group will enjoy less time walking in the jungle… As far as we’re concerned, we are going to meet the Bweza group (which means “school” in swahili).

Trek

We’re back into our vehicle for a 10 minute-drive until the beginning of the trek. We’re starting to follow the guide on a very steep descent. We then walk during 45 minutes on a more or less maintained track. It is slighty muddy and slippery. We occassionnaly cross a river by walking on a tree trunk or on stones. But overall, it is rather easy. The landscape around us is absolutely gorgeous. We are in the lushest forest I have ever seen. After a 5 minute break, the guide shouts some sort of “whooo” in the air. A few seconds later, the same sound comes back from the trackers who found the gorillas earlier today. We start moving again but now we’re walking straight to them, no matter what vegetation is in front of us. That’s when we really figured why it’s called the IMPENETRABLE national park ! The guide actually creates a track with its machete so that we can climb the mountain. Now that we’re going the most direct way, we’re walking straight into the slope. It is a rather steep one but we’re still not struggling physically . As the guide has to clear the way, we stop every other 5 meters.

Straight ahead !

A grizzly in the jungle…

Meeting the gorillas

We finally reach the trackers. They point their fingers to the right. Two young gorillas about 3 years old are there, playing. They’re chasing each other and rolling over in the vegetation. It is amazing to see how easy it seems for them to move in this environment !

When one of them moves away to feed on some foliage and branches, the other one stands on his hind legs in order to beat its chest with its fists. We feel like we’re the luckiest persons on Earth to be able to witness this.

The most amazing moment will be when one of them runs towards Alexandra to grip her legs for a few unforgettable seconds.

A huge thank you to our travelmate Matou for recording those moments and allowing us to publish those videos here.

After 20 minutes, the guide asks us to follow him. He starts clearing another ten meters of jungle out. We catch a glimpse of a female but she runs away as soon as she sees us. Then in the middle of the vegetation, there is a huge silverback male lying on its back. His many scars clearly show he is an old guy. We’ll later learn that he was the dominant male about to be overtaken by a younger one. The ranger keeps on moving forward and there comes the surprise : a female with a three month old baby by her side. You can’t look more naive than this little guy ! They’re eating, up in a tree.

But they will soon have to move away because another silverback wants their spot. He is going to gorge himself with leaves for the next 20 minutes (there was no remaining leaf on the tree when we left !).

Unfortunately for us, the rule has to be complied with very strictly : we can only spend one hour with them, no extra minute is allowed ! We therefore let them be, hoping they will make a lot of babies in our absence !

On our way back, the rangers walk fast. We must admit we had a few close calls with all those slippery leaves on the ground ! Halfway to exiting the forest, we stop for a short lunch break in order to provide us with the energy needed to finish this trek.

Practical information

Permit

You need to get a permit from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) if you want to do this activity. It is expensive : $600. But this is money well spent. On the one hand because this is an amazing experience you will never forget and on the other hand because the money goes to gorilla conservation efforts. Tourism is one of the reason why gorilla population is increasing today.

The demand being very high, it is recommended to ask for your permit 6 to 9 months ahead of time. As far as we are concerned, we realized we wanted to go to Uganda a little late (three months before). Since we were planning going there during the low season, we managed to get our permits early September for a trek early December. The travel agency did all the work to book the permits for us. For those of you who are planning a self-drive trip, we read on travel forums that your 4x4 rental company can book the gorilla permit for you.

Porters

It is possible (and probably a good idea !) to hire a porter for the trek. You will just need to tell your guide once the groups are formed. You will pay your porter at the end of the trek. You choose how much you give, but the national park asks that it is no less than $20. Porters are people from local communities. They have the opportunity to do that once or twice a month (so that everyone can do it and get equivalent benefits from the money tourism brings in the region). Your porter will have many use : carry your backpack of course, but they will also help stabilising you, pulling you and even pushing you in the hardest parts of the trek ! With our really heavy photography equipment, we did not hesitate long to hire one porter each. It was been a good opportunity to meet two extremely friendly locals.

Do you think we enjoyed the gorilla trekking activity ?

Equipement

It is obvious but it goes easier with saying it : you need some good hiking shoes. Imagine how disappointing it would be to sprain your ankle in the middle of the trek ! Then, pack a pair of high socks because you will need to tuck your pants in. There are lots of ants all over the country and some of them only dream is to bite you ! If there’s one thing you must not forget, it’s your rain jacket. Here, rain goes away as fast as it arrived but when it’s raining, we’re not talking drizzle, if you see what we mean… And as the elevation is quite high (generally more than 2000m), you can get cold quicker than you would have expected. We read that specific gloves might be useful to hang on branches without getting hurt. Let’s be honest, we did good without them. Finally, don’t forget to pack lunch with a lot of water (lodges can prepare that for you). Because well, we know the time when we’re leaving but we can only guess when the time we’re returning. So it’s better to have food to fuel up if the trek lasts a little long.

BONUS : Once the group is formed, the guide will offer to lend a beautiful, Uganda flag coloured, hiking stick. Accepting the offer is a good idea. Our sticks have proved useful more than once in order to stabilize in tricky parts of the trail.

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