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22 March 2014

My face to face with the mountain gorillas


The Silverback
What an incredible experience! 

This is, hands down, one of the most incredible moments in my travels and it was well worth the hassle of getting there, the monstrously well-fed insects ready to suck your blood and the hardship of walking through the Impenetrable Forest which does get the name for a reason. 

The forest is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its ecological value. It was included in the list in 1994, one year after gorilla tours started.

Getting to Bwindi was not easy. We broke down the trip from Kampala in the north of Uganda with a stopover in Queen Elisabeth National Park (see my other article about tree-climbing lions here). After the safari, on New Year's Day, we set off towards the Forest where these mystical creatures live. 

Family on the move
The forest is on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and along Virunga National Park in the triangle between Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC which is home to all of the remaining endangered mountain gorillas. 

At that time, Uganda was the most popular access point to see the habituated animals and therefore the infrastructure was the best. DRC is not a real option most of the times given the constant fighting and safety concerns but Rwanda may be a more accessible alternative as the park is closer to the capital and the airport. I had some friends who saw the gorillas from Rwanda and it was a much easier affair, once you are in the country. That being said, Uganda typically has better international connections and other points of interest so if you want to make the most of a long-haul trip and combine it with a safari it is a better choice. 

Batwa Pigmies
The Impenetrable Central Forest Reserve, as is officially called, has been expanded over the years and is today a wildlife sanctuary. One of the sad side stories of this conservation effort is the displacement of the Batwa Pygmy population who were evicted from the park and no longer given access to its resources. If you visit Bwindi you will also be able to visit the Pygmies who are also trying to make the most of the tourist influx into the area.

There are only around 850 mountain gorillas in the world, half in Bwindi. All efforts to make them reproduce in captivity have failed so their preservation relies on efforts done in their wild habitat. It seems that these aefforts are paying off: In the last few years population has steadily increased from the bottom 300 animals to today's over 850. 

It is easy to forget that the area on the border where the park lies is often wrapped in conflict but you are reminded of this reality quite often while trekking. Aside from seeing gorillas, we also got the occasional sight of a soldier carrying from a riffle to a bazooka walking through the forest. We were told they were coming home but it was a rather scary thought, much more than facing the gorillas, to see these perfectly camouflaged full loaded individuals.


How it works


You need a permit to visit the gorillas and this only guarantees your entry into the park and the opportunity to track the animals during the specific day. If you do not see them on the day you would have to get another 'ticket". However, your chances are typically very high. 
If you plan to go on one of the high season periods make sure to book ahead to ensure you get a ticket.

On the day, you show up at the ranger station and get assigned to a group. Each group is going to track a specific family of habituated gorillas together with a couple of guides. Not all the gorillas living in the park are habituated, meaning they are not used to seeing humans so close, and therefore only a handful can be part of the gorilla tracking tourism. 

Earlier in the day the trackers start looking for the animals in order to minimise the time tourists spent wandering around the forest. Bwindi is not particularly dangerous in the sense of large animals eating humans but it has its fair share of insects that will quickly crawl up your legs if you stand still for more than a second. 

Each group will start the trek shortly after the safety brief is done. The rangers are equipped with riffles to fend off wild life.

We walked for around 2-3h until we found them but you could be walking much longer or much less depending on where the gorillas are on that day. Every day they move around the park but tend not to walk long distances ina  given day from where they slept the previous night. 


The moment we all had been waiting for


When I saw them my heart skipped a beat. The grandiosity of the forest and the elegance of these animals made me forget that we were in the wild with no protection from the 150kg silver back. And there they stood, the entire family of habituated mountain gorillas eating their way through the forest. 

Each pack has usually one adult male silver back and several younger ones and females. In the group we were tracking there was a very playful 2 year old gorilla who insisted on tucking at my travel companion's trousers. He was looking for attention but we couldn't give him any. You are explicitly told to ignore them if they come close to you and to keep a safety distance. Like in the movies, we were told to avoid their gaze, particularly that of the silver back, and to keep a submissive posture. The safety distance is a bi-directional measure to ensure they don't attack or feel threatened but also to avoid human diseases transferring to the gorillas. We are close relatives but our harmless diseases could easily kill them without the right immunity.

They were absolutely fantastic. Their features so human, their moves so well calculated eating through kilos of foliage and fruits, climbing trees...

The details


Map Bwindi

How to get there

Getting there requires a long journey. If you were to go there straight from the airport in Entebbe it would take you almost an entire day. The last strip of roads closer to the park are very basic dirt tracks. It is best to split the trip by stopping at Queen Elisabeth National Park like we did


Best time to visit

This part of Uganda sees colder temperatures of between 8-15 degrees minimum and 23-25 degrees maximum pretty consistently all year round. It rains a lot almost every day but the rainy season sees constant rain. Best time to visit is in the drier months of Nov-Feb and Jun-Sep which are also the peak season. Book well ahead

Medicine man

Where to stay

There are a few resorts that can accommodate travellers with comfort. We stayed at Buhoma Lodge, right in front of the forest which had amazing views of the impenetrable forest. Even though the place was quite beautiful and well maintained it is in front of one of the richest wildlife forests in the world so expect to see insects anywhere. We had a gigantic spider in the room which terrified me all night but other than that the lodge was very nice. The other alternative we considered is Clouds Lodge, a beautiful place to stay over the clouds 

How to get around


The area around Bwindi, the forest, the surrounding villages etc. is relatively small and can be tackled on foot. Your resort/lodge will also be able to take you places or if you came with your own guide he would. Public transport is in the form of minivans


What to do

Seeing the gorillas is the main activity but I would strongly recommend going on a village tour to chat to the Pygmies and the local communities. We visited some schools and a medicine man and learnt about what other resources from the area around the forest can be used for medicinal purposes, subsistence, culture, etc. 


Practicalities

  1. Dress appropriately. Never in any other trip did this really make a difference. Wear waterproof clothing because the chances of rain even in the middle of the dry season are very high and once you are in the forest there is no protection. Also, the surroundings will be very wet because the bottom of the forest rarely sees the sun so wearing waterproof trekking shoes and raincoat will save you
  2. Do not leave any part of your body uncovered. Long sleeves, long pants and wear your socks over your trousers to avoid any animal or insect crawling under your trousers. There are leeches, mosquitoes and other less friendly animals
  3. Don't stand still for long. Once you do, almost all animals will try to crawl up your feet
  4. Although being fit is recommended the rangers do help you and the walk can be done slowly. The group we were in was composed of people of all ages so unless you struggle to have a walk uphill you should have no issue
  5. You will need to arrive the night before and most likely will only leave the day after the visit. This is because the departure is very early and you don't know how long it'll take you to find them so you could be trekking for hours. Driving at night in those roads is not recommendable. So plan for two nights around the park
MY TIP

Clothing is important, make sure you are properly dressed. The hike is not strenuous and the rangers will walk at the visitor's pace but it is always better to train a bit before in case the hike for the day is longer than expected. Make sure you don't have any contagious disease in which case the rangers may reserve the right to let you go. Human diseases are highly contagious to gorillas and without the proper immune system they could die of a cold