Where to hang out with Uganda’s mountain gorillas
When you go deeper into the country’s southwestern corner, you will find a different type of creature. Here, in the depths of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, half of the world’s remaining wild mountain gorillas roam free, and you can trek through their disappearing habitat to see them at work, rest and play. Only 80 trekking permits are issued each day by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, and each must be applied for through a registered safari operator. The permit cost 600 USD per person per trek.
The Ugandan forest is lush, humid and damp and there are no trekking paths as we have come to know them. It is also full of hills and steep slopes where you will be required to pull yourself up steep jungle grades by grasping onto branches, plant roots, bushes and more.
Having similar DNA to humans, gorillas are highly susceptible to illness, and even catching a common cold could wipe out an entire group. Park visitors must keep a minimum distance of seven metres from the animals at all times, and visits are limited to one hour in the company of one of three habituated families.
Because of these restrictions, the future of this critically-endangered creature looks bright. Following decades of illegal deforestation and poaching, the number of gorillas at Bwindi has steadied at around 340, and for the first time in years, it is very slowly on the rise.
Gorilla trekking is no stroll in the park. It can take anywhere up to 10 hours to find the elusive creatures in the dense undergrowth. Guides lead trekkers up precipitous verges and across rivers and rusty machetes are used to hack paths through the thick, thorny rainforest. It is the perfect place to live out a childhood fantasy, with vast swathes of trees, vines, branches and bushes surrounding trekkers as they penetrate deep into the rainforest.
Obtaining a Gorilla Trekking Permit
The first thing to overcome is obtaining a gorilla trekking permit ($600, except in the season months of April and May when permits are $450). A gorilla trekking permit is included. If you travel independently, you should apply to the park or through a local operator several months in advance, especially if you expect to go during the high season (June-August).
You Gorilla trekking Experience Begins
You’ll need your passport with you when you arrive at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park since officials will need to verify your trekking permit. After a quick briefing on the activities of the park, safety measures and how to prepare yourself for the day, you will be assigned to a group of a maximum of eight people for your gorilla family search and visit.
Treks begin with an early morning safety briefing. Depending on gorilla movements, you can spend a morning anywhere within the park’s 331sqkm forest with the Mubare gorilla family, the Habinyanja or the Rushegura group. The biggest is the Rushegura, a 12-strong group of habituated gorillas, including what is believed to be the world’s largest silverback, named Mwirima and weighing nearly 200kg.
Each group will be led by a guide and two scouts who carry AK-47 guns and walk before and after the group. The reason for armed scouts is to protect the group in the forest in case it comes across wild elephants and buffaloes or angry, unhabituated gorillas. In case of such encounters, scouts are trained to fire shots into the air first in order to scare away the animals.
Each gorilla family also has assigned to it a pair of trackers who have been sent out in the early morning to find the location of your specific gorilla family and to assess where they may be headed. Trackers communicate the gorillas’ movements to the guide so he can decide on the best approach to meet the gorilla family.
Once your group finds the gorilla family this is when the clock starts: you have approximately one hour to spend with them. Stay quiet and avoid sudden movements. It’s not a problem to look a gorilla in the eye, but if he begins charging you, hold your ground but lower your eyes to indicate that you do not have any problem with it.
Photos and videos are fine, but without a flash. This provides you the most visibility and you can just sit on the ground and observe. In other situations the gorillas are up in the trees, behind bushes, or walking around through dense brush. Follow the lead of the trackers and guides and stay close behind them as they move around to find other gorillas. If the gorilla is behind a series of trees or bushes, the trackers will often clear the brush with their machete so you can get a clearer and closer look. It is incredible how large, graceful and peaceful these animals are. You’ll be especially amazed when you see the silverbacks.
Stare into the eyes of mountain gorilla and you’ll likely feel a connection, one unlike you’ve never experienced before. It’s the connection of peering into the mind of an exotic creature that looks and acts quite a bit like we humans do. It’s a difficult feeling to articulate. Hopefully, you’ll be able to experience it for yourself.