As cheesy as it sounds, I think after watching ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ when I was little I had always had in mind that one day I would try to see gorillas for myself. When I found out that I was moving to tour lead for Tucan in Africa I really started looking into what trekking the gorillas in Uganda involved and it then became top of my list of things to do. (Closely followed by sky diving in Swakopmund in Namibia and hot air ballooning over the Masai Mara in Kenya which are also incredible!)
It’s true that it’s not cheap to see the gorillas but if anyone has even just a vague interest in seeing them I would say do it! Save up your money and get on tour- aside from the gorillas, Uganda is a stunning country- the scenery is beautiful- mountains, rivers, lakes, banana farms and lovely people. Joash, my driver, and I used to joke that Uganda was the land of bananas because as you drive through it all you see are people walking, on bicycles or with carts full of bananas that they’re taking to the massive markets.
For me the gorilla trek was a once in a life experience, up there with seeing the pyramids and Machu Picchu, and I feel honoured that I got the chance to do it. It’s hard to even find the words to describe how it feels to look into the eyes of a gorilla that is maybe only 2 metres away from you! Especially when you remember that there are so few left in the world- Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo are the only places with gorilla populations and it is vital that they are protected. Paying to trek to them is a vital source of income for the parks where they live, and is a way to make that the governments of those countries recognise their value to tourism and the economy, as well as ensuring that there is money available for their continued protection. For some people there are ethical concerns about humans coming into the gorilla habitats, however there are very stringent controls in place- only 1 group of a maximum of 8 people can visit 1 family for 1 hour per day, the guides ensure that there is no interaction between the people trekking and the gorillas and that the visit causes the animals no stress. These are not animals in a zoo, limited to where they can go and what they can do, they are free to roam and it is up to the humans to make the effort to find them. Due to this, initially I was a little concerned as there is no way of telling how long the trek will be and you’re walking through very dense forest, up and down serious hills, with no proper paths. It was fine though- if I survived after living on a truck for 9 months and being very unfit anyone can!
The drive from the campsite- which is the stunning Lake Bunyoni Overland Resort , located as the name suggests on the beautiful shores of Lake Bunyoni-is 2 to 3 hours depending on which family you are trekking. There are, if memory serves me correctly, 8 different families that you can visit in Uganda. The road is a little windy and bumpy once you start climbing through the forest but it is worth it for the views! Spectacular is an understatement. Watching the sun come up over the forest from the road above, knowing that you’re looking into gorilla territory and that in a of matter hours you’ll be in that forest searching for the gorillas yourself is just mind blowing! (and a little nerve wracking – I had some serious butterflies!!!)
On arrival at the park you register, so don’t forget your passports, and then you wait for your guides to arrive and the rest of your trekking group. Trekking is done in maximum groups of 8 people which means that you get a chance to really see the gorillas and also don’t overwhelm them with your presence. The head guide will tell explain how the day will work, he gives some safety advice and most importantly goes through the rules they expect you to adhere to when visiting the gorillas. It’s very easy to forget that they are wild animals when you are actually with them so remember to listen to your guides! There are walking sticks on offer as well- free basic ones or if you want something fancier you can rent one. If you do nothing else- take a stick!! The forest floor is full of vegetation and if it has been raining- which is very likely as it is a rain forest- it can be very slippery so the stick gives a little extra support and is also something to lean on and test the ground with when you are going downhill. The guides explain that they do not know exactly where the gorillas are however they have trackers out in the forest looking for them and using radios are able to communicate about the best route for the trek to take to find them.
We drove back down through the forest a little and then began our trek after the trackers had found our family and let the guides know. It is steep, there is no doubt about that, but thankfully the pace was very slow- you can’t actually go very quickly as you are climbing and in places it can be a little slippery. The guides were absolutely excellent, they kept checking everyone was coping ok and offering to stop for rest breaks. In all honesty going downhill was actually harder as you had to really concentrate on where you placed your feet because of the dense vegetation on the forest floor. The guides and trackers are in constant contact and after about 40 minutes we reached the area where our family- the Bwindi family- were enjoying their morning. Before approaching the gorillas you have to leave your sticks and any food or drink behind and then climb slowly and quietly towards them.
We didn’t know how many would be around or what they were doing, and were all so focused on not slipping down the hill, that when we came around a small bend and saw our first gorilla we were absolutely blown away! He was just sitting there beside a bush eating his breakfast slowly looking at this bunch of sweaty people who’d just arrived in front of him! When the cameras came out he just carried on munching away, as if to say, you just carry on with what you need to do and I’ll just sit here until you’re out of the way! If anyone can look into a gorilla’s eyes and say there is no intelligence there they’re lying! Their eyes are so human it was a little unsettling! You really feel like they are looking at you with understanding.
We carried on down the hill to the rest of family- there were 11 in total- including a gorgeous baby! One of them was having a doze under a bush in a really human pose- his head resting on his arms and all curled up- just lovely! The rest were up in the trees also finding their breakfast- including the baby and silverback! It’s incredible that such big animals can be mostly invisible up in the trees and you only see them when they start bouncing through the branches (and also very loudly farting- which was a pretty much constant background sound for our hour visit!!) standing watching the family move through the trees was just wonderful, they move with such certainty and climb amazingly high, but it got even better as after they’ had their fill, they started coming out of the trees. I never thought I would see a huge silverback climb gracefully down a tree, amble to the path where we were standing and then wander past us to find somewhere comfy to sit and munch a few more leaves! He was magnificent and really wasn’t at all fazed by us being there. As your guide will tell you, these gorillas have been habituated over a few years to human presence and do not see us a threat. The guides also make noises similar to those that the gorillas themselves make which calms them and lets them know we are only there to look and not interfere with them. The guides will also make sure you’re not standing in the path of a gorilla on the move- they’re stronger than we are so you don’t want to inconvenience one!
Although the time we had with our family went quickly, if I’m honest I could have just sat there all day watching them! It was still enough time, I really felt that we got to see a true reflection of how the gorillas interact with each other, how they spend their days and what amazing animals they truly are! They gave us a small glimpse into their lives and for that I will have memories I treasure for life.
About the Author: Sarah is Africa Destination Manager for Tucan Travel. She has travelled independently and on group tours through Central America, Africa, North America, Asia and Europe. You can find her on Google+ or read her other contributions here.