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It was during my first trip to Africa in 2016 that I learned about mountain gorilla trekking. I couldn’t afford a gorilla trek at the time, nor could I take any more time off work, but I was determined to see these incredible animals when I returned in 2019.
I was fortunate to make this trip with two friends, Jeanie and Cheryl. I was so determined to see the mountain gorillas that I had decided I would see them by myself if I had to, but I am really grateful that instead I was able to share the experience with friends. For days after we recounted the memories of intense physical exertion as well as the joys of being within arms length of a silverback.
I’ve organized this piece into two sections; my personal experience and tips for preparing for your own trek. Keep in mind that every individual trek will be different, but the preparation is pretty standard.
Our Gorilla Trekking Experience
Our trek began at 7:30 a.m. at the gathering spot in the Rashaga Sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Here we were given a briefing about the gorillas from a member of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and what we could expect for the day. Then we were organized into smaller groups, no larger than eight trekkers each, and assigned to a gorilla family, which in our case was Mucunguzi.
After arriving at the trailhead we were given a hiking stick, introduced to our guide, Ryad, from the UWA and given the option to hire a porter. Here’s my best gorilla trek advice--HIRE A PORTER! Okay, let me repeat this, hire a porter. This might be the best money I ever spent. Porters know the forest really well and are prepared to help you every step of the way. All of this for about 15 USD.
Our trek began in the rain, walking along a trail that took us through scenic farmland for about one and a half hours. In addition to our guide, we were accompanied by trackers and two UWA guards with semi-automatic rifles.
Then we finally entered Bwindi. Almost immediately the trail became steep and slick. After another half hour we finally got our first glimpse of a silverback gorilla. Nearby two juvenile gorillas were playing, just out of our sight. While I was in awe of the massive gorilla napping, yawning and stretching in front of us, I was also struggling to balance on the muddy slope where we were directed to remain.
Unfortunately, after fifteen minutes, the gorillas decided to move, and at a very quick pace. Our trackers responded by following and clearing a path for us using their machetes. At the top of a steep slope I assumed our trackers would stop and seek another route, but I was wrong. We lined up and one by one plunged down a steep, vine covered slope for the next thirty minutes while desperately gripping the arms of our porters. Sometimes we stayed on our feet, but at other times we slid on our butts.
When we finally intersected a flat trail we were rewarded with the view of a mama gorilla and juvenile swinging in a tree high above us. As I caught my breath--and prayed my legs would stop shaking soon--I quickly grabbed my camera and tried to grab a few photos.
When the mama gorilla moved on, the trackers directed us to climb down one more short slope where we once again encountered the silverback gorilla, this time sitting at the base of a tree munching on leaves. Above him, high in the treetop was a baby gorilla eating and playing. Here we were finally allowed to sit for twenty minutes and enjoy the majesty of this large, male gorilla. He appeared completely relaxed and unfazed by our presence. We were so close that we could see his thick fur full of small bits of leaves and twigs tossed down by the baby above.
Reluctantly we left the gorillas behind, and began our trek back to our starting point. By this time I was starving, so fortunately our guides and porters found us a picnic spot just outside of the national park and we all enjoyed our sack lunches. Shortly before reaching the end of the trail our guide gathered us all to say a few words and disperse completion certificates with our names. I was feeling a strange combination of total exhaustion and a great sense of accomplishment. Add to that an intense desire to get out of my damp and dirty clothes.
I’ll admit that Jeanie, Cheryl and I had hoped for an easier trek. During our strenuous hike down that very steep slope I questioned my judgement and wondered what on earth I was doing in the middle of Uganda, sweaty and shaking, covered in mud, and risking serious injury.
Was the chance to see mountain gorillas in the wild worth all of this? The answer is yes.
I had waited three years for this opportunity, and while it didn’t go as planned, I’m deeply grateful to have seen mountain gorillas in the wild. I joked with Jeanie and Cheryl that our mountain gorilla family didn’t get the memo about staying in one place and posing for our Instagram photos. In our current, well-curated, social media world, it’s easy to forget that travel rarely goes as planned, and our trekking experience is just one such example.
About The Mountain Gorillas
Between 2016 and 2019, I read all I could about mountain gorillas. These endangered primates have never been captured and therefore do not reside in a zoo anywhere in the world. The gorillas that many of us have viewed in zoos are the closely related species of lowland gorillas. So the only opportunity to view mountain gorillas is to travel to Rwanda, Uganda or the Congo and trek into their home turf, the rainforest.
Recent years have seen tremendous success in the protection of mountain gorillas. According to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, there are currently 1,000 gorillas in the rainforests of Eastern Africa. Considering that this region has witnessed horrific violence and war over the past three decades, this success story is especially sweet. The threat is not over however, since mountain gorillas remain an endangered species.
Traveling to other countries in East Africa? Here's What To Expect When You Visit Rwanda.
The gorillas that tourists are permitted to see are habituated. This is a process of introducing human contact into the gorilla’s daily lives until they no longer see us as a threat. Habituation can take weeks or even months. Once a group is habituated, they are then made accessible to tourists that have purchased permits through the appropriate national park. Viewing time with each gorilla family is limited to one hour in order not to expose them to undue stress.
Though there are three countries where mountain gorillas can be viewed, doing so in Congo is currently ill advised. As of 2019, the cost of a gorilla permit in Rwanda is $1,500 a person and in Uganda is $600. Like many people, the lower price was attractive to us, so we headed to Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest in Uganda.
Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Bwindi is one of ten national parks in Uganda, and is located in the southwest of the country. There are four sectors of Bwindi designated for mountain gorilla trekking; Buhoma, Rashaga, Nkuringo, and Ruhija. We trekked in Rashanga which is located in the south of the national park.
It’s important to know that trekking permits are issued by sector and correlate to a visitor’s accommodations. It’s wise to organize your trek through a reputable tour company to be sure you are in the right part of the park at the right time.
At the end of our trek our guide shared that 20% of every permit fee is given to a fund to benefit the local village. Over time local villages have experienced the direct benefits of gorilla trekking and the result has been the near elimination of poaching.
What to wear for gorilla trekking
Proper clothing is a must for a gorilla trek. I wore long pants, a short sleeve shirt, and long sleeve shirt, all of which were moisture wicking. In addition I wore a rain jacket, hat and hiking boots. In a small backpack I carried sunscreen, bug spray, two water bottles, a sack lunch (provided by our hotel), trail mix, tissue, cell phone, small first aid kit, and camera with telephoto lense (I'm currently using a Sony a6000 Mirrorless Digital Camera and Sony telephoto lens).
Black ants are common in Rwanda and Uganda, so any trek should account for these unpleasant biting creatures. To prevent a black ant attack either tuck pants into socks (preferably long socks) or use gaiters to cover the lower leg.
Finally, be sure to wear plenty of mosquito repellent! I applied it to both my skin and clothing prior to getting dressed in the, morning. While most people traveling to Uganda will be taking anti-malarial pills, there are plenty of other mosquito-borne illnesses, and the best way to avoid them is to not get bitten.
Selecting a Tour Company
There are hundreds of tour companies to consider when planning a mountain gorilla trek. We opted for Gorilla Trek Africa and were delighted with their services. I had been given a recommendation for this company from a friend, but was also pleased to see their excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.
Here are some things to consider when selecting a tour company for this type of trek, or any safaris in Africa:
- Do you know someone that has used this company before and can vouch for them?
- How responsive are they to your emails and phone calls?
- Can they provide an easy to understand itinerary and its corresponding pricing?
- How long have they been in business?
- How are they rated on TripAdvisor?
- Do they provide options for different levels of accommodations?
A Word About Safety
I’m writing this a week after a kidnapping event in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, which is about 100 miles north of Bwindi. Fortunately, the kidnapped American woman and her guide were returned unharmed.
Understandably, some people may be questioning the wisdom of visiting Uganda. Every traveler needs to make their own decisions based on their circumstances. I’ll just provide some thoughts on traveling to Uganda for gorilla trekking. As I mentioned earlier, trekkers are accompanied by two armed guards from the UWA. We were told that this is protection from wild animals like elephants, but it would certainly be a deterrent to any humans intending harm as well.
Anytime a violent act takes place in a city or country reliant on tourism, it’s the local businesses and residents that are harmed. First, I hope the government of Uganda will evaluate their security protocols and improve them as necessary. Second, I hope the negative impact of this situation will not last long so that the families--and the animals--benefiting from tourism can continue to do so.