Gorilla trekking in the impenetrable forest

If you are thinking of coming to see the gorillas in Uganda I have two pieces of advice.

The first is to DO IT. Gorillas in the wild are special.

The second is to hire a porter.

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest lies in Southwestern Uganda, close to the the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the Western arm of the Great Rift Valley. Half the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas live there. The forest has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its biological significance. There are only around 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild so going to see them is a pretty unique opportunity.

Gorilla trekking is pretty pricey, partly because of the permit which alone costs $500. However, if you don’t mind getting wet then a permit in one of the two rainy seasons only costs $350. This is what we decided to do with an added bonus being that our trek in November would be close to my birthday.

We booked the gorilla permits and the 4-day trip to Bwindi through Sabili Tours, who are fast becoming my favourite Ugandan tour company. When you get a permit you’re assigned to one of the three habituated gorilla families in the forest. We were given the Habinyanja family group. There are 19 members in this group so it’s a big family!

We started at the Ugandan Wildlife Authority centre in Bwindi where the head guide gave us all a pep talk and instructions. Then we were divided into our groups and introduced to our guides. We had a guide and two men with guns to guard us from the forest elephants. As our group was the furthest away we had to be driven about 15 minutes to where we’d start the trek. There we found a large group of porters hoping to be hired. And here comes my main piece of advice. Hire a porter! It’s only $15. I have never been so pleased with a decision. They carry your bags and even help to push you up the difficult bits. It feels a bit decadent having someone carry your things for you but it’s important to the survival of the gorillas. The porters come from the local community, many of them used to be poachers. By hiring them as porters they have an interest in the survival of the gorillas. My porter was called Pascal.

Our hike started with a long climb up a steep, wide and rocky track. This was actually the most difficult part. Half-way up it started raining and I watched as everyone in my group outdistanced me. As I scattered over the rocks I felt a hand in the small of my back. “We call this push and pull” a porter happily told me as he grabbed my hand whilst Pascal pushed me. I was too out of breath to protest. The pushing actually helped.

After the slope we started edging our way along narrow tracks by fields filled with crops. Always we headed up. Trackers had started out an hour before us to find the gorillas. Every now and then the guide’s radio would crackle with an update. Finally, we found ourselves standing on the edge of the forest. The trackers had found where the gorillas had slept, but no gorillas. We’d all been given sticks at the start and they’d been a blessing during the hike up the hill but now as we entered the forest they became a hindrance, catching in bushes and vines.

 

Bewilderingly, after only 30 minutes or so of tromping around the forest our guide indicated it was time to have a last drink, leave our sticks with the porters and approach the found gorillas. We were hushed and excited as we edged our way after the guide. My first glimpse of a gorilla was a patch of black almost entirely concealed by bush. As I edged closer to the guide we could hear something moving to our left. It sounded big. Suddenly, the silverback of the group rushed towards us, shook the bush we were behind and roared out a warning. It was terrifying.

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We hastily got out of his way and I took a picture of him pushing his way through the bush. Then, they were just all around us. The guide and trackers hacked away at the vegetation with machetes so that we could get a better look. You’re supposed to stay 7 metres away from the gorillas at all times but they regularly crossed closer to us on their way about their business.

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They were all quite damp from the earlier rain. They were not disturbed by us at all. Every day people arrive, take photos for an hour and then leave. They’re used to it. Some did watch us though, as they were eating. And their intelligence showed in their eyes. It was awesome in the true sense of the word.

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We got to stay for the family for just over an hour. At the end they all went and climbed a huge fig tree. Including the silverback. I had no idea such massive gorillas could climb trees. But they can.

The journey back down the hill away from the gorillas was a little painful. Two porters actually dragged me down one slope despite my protests. I guess they were keen to get home. We stopped to eat our packed lunches on the way.

All in all the hike took us about 5 hours, including the hour spent with the gorillas.

I’d definitely do this again. I love trekking through forest. And the gorillas were amazing.

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