Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas are an endangered species that can’t survive in captivity so you will not see them in a zoo. There are only three countries where they can be seen: Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda making Gorilla Tracking something very special.
Gorillas and Humans share 98% of their genetic composition. Unfortunately due to poaching and other activities against the mountain gorillas there are only about 800 left.
The largest population of mountain gorillas can be found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, one of the reasons I decided to go trekking there.
Before the Gorilla Tracking – The planning
I did all the research possible to choose the most reasonable priced option. There were not a lot of choices to be honest but from the ones I was looking at I end up choosing Matoke Tours. They were offering the possibility of being picked up from Kigali in Rwanda, something that seemed very interesting for me at the time.
The 3 day package consisted of:
Day 1 – Drive from Kigali, Rwanda to Lake Mutanda
Day 2 – Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi National Park
Day 3 – Drive back to Kigali at any time of preference
In this package everything was included, from accommodation, meals and the permit to visit the gorillas. The package cost 1280 USD$ per person.
The single permit given by the government to visit the mountain gorillas costs 600 USD$ and contributes to their conservation.
The best time to go is all year round, this is because of Uganda’s climate and location to the equator.
Is it safe to see them?
The Gorillas that you are going to see are habituated; this means that they have been exposed to people over time, in a process that takes up to two years. This does not mean that they will not attack if they feel that they are in danger but they will be fine if you stay at a safe distance. The young ones even like to show off to people jumping really fast up the trees. Not all families of mountain gorillas have been habituated.
My Gorilla Tracking experience
We left our accommodation early and got to watch the sunrise on the way through the rain forest. The mist was intense and I finally understood why the movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ filmed in the same location where I was, had that name. The bright orange colour of the sun rising together with the dense forest gave it a mysterious look.
We had to be at the start point at eight sharp. They are very strict with the times as they have a 30 minutes briefing about how to behave in the forest and what kind of efforts they do on a daily basis to protect the gorillas.
Important rules to keep in mind during the contact with the mountain gorillas:
- Maintain a safe distance from the gorillas of approximately 7m unless they approach you.
- No eating or drinking near the gorillas.
- Try to be silent and when talking keep the voice low.
- Move in small movements and always stay down with your body.
- There is one hour of contact with the gorillas. No more. Don’t think the park rangers will stretch this by any means; they are very strict with the contact time.
- If the gorillas come to you, which is possible, put your head down and avoid eye contact. Looking into their eyes means that you want to fight them, so don’t do that.
- For obvious reasons your camera flash is not allowed.
- Make sure you are fit and healthy for the trek; if you arrive with symptoms of cold for example you will not be allowed to go. The gorillas have no immunity against these diseases.
Before we left they also warned us that there was no fixed time for the trekking because they move constantly in search for food so we just had to hope for a small trek.
The large group was then divided into two smaller groups of 8 dependant on age and fitness levels. Surprisingly I was deemed to be one of the fittest of my group, so, had the longest trek! This just made the whole thing more rewarding when we finally got to meet the gorillas.
The whole experience is something I will never forget and I get really proud of myself every time I think about it. I am not going to lie, it was hard as hell!
There is a reason why they call it the Impenetrable Forest because literally it is so dense that some parts of the way the rangers had to cut through the bush with their machetes to make a path. Also, most of the time, I was crawling and grabbing slippery brunches because that was the only way to go. Nothing could prepare me for that I can tell you but it was worth it!
I was really glad we had the porters with us; they sure helped me a lot of times!
The porters have the solo job of carrying our bags. We only had small bags but we had researched how important it was to hire them because they have no other source of income up in the mountains.
A minimum of 15 USD$ each but then we end up giving much more than that.
During the trekking we found out that most of them walk kilometers to be there at eight in the morning, leaving their houses in the middle of the night. Sometimes they are not picked and they just come back empty handed. I found this quite sad but at the same time I was happy I had them with us.
They also helped us throughout the way, pushing and pulling me up which I don’t think I could have done without their help. Also over the course of the trekking I got to know my porter and found it fascinating to hear about their lives and what it is like to live in Uganda.
The trekking is done with park rangers that will guide you to the designated gorilla’s family. These animals are always monitored to protect them from poachers and to make sure they are healthy. It was an exhausting four hours of trekking before we found them! A lot of ups and down, climbing, crawling, sweat and almost despair at some point, but we made it and it was so worth it!
At first we spotted two young males which were sat up in a couple of tall trees. It was very green and cosy in there. Suddenly all the effort was worth it! I did not felt tired anymore; I just felt peace watching them.
Then we saw the other gorillas – it was such a special moment, they were all sat gracefully in a group of about five to seven gorillas including a female and one baby! Their actions were somehow familiar to us, protecting the baby amongst them, playing and cuddling one another.
The males are bigger than the females and referred to as the silverbacks because when they mature the hair on their back turns to a silver colour. They communicate with roars, grunts and shouts and the park rangers will know how to interpret this. The silverback is in charge of the group and the one that leads their movements to appropriate places to eat and sleep.
The silverback we met was gorgeous and is name appropriate, the ‘Handsome’ that weighed 220 Kg. He was the oldest one of the group and very responsible, even separating fights or at least small disagreements amongst the young males.
Most of the time they were either sleeping or feeding. Occasionally they even threw the skin of the fruits from above trying to hit us!
There was one part were they started making some loud sounds at us but the park rangers communicated with them doing the same sounds and they calmed down. It was not scary at all but for the all hour of contact my adrenaline levels were very high.
The hour went so quickly and once we left the gorillas we trekked for about 15 minutes where we had the packed lunch that we brought with us from our accommodation. We were still full of adrenaline and talking about it in the group. But then it started to rain and doing the return trekking was even harder I must say!
At about the halfway point on the way back I was truly soaked but we had to keep going. When was it ever going to end I kept thinking but when we finally made it back I don’t think that I have ever felt so proud in my life, almost feeling invincible.
We got our certificates of conclusion of the trek and then back to our lodge. A night of sleep never felt so good!