Friday, July 5, 2013

Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impentrable Forest

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site that  lies in Southwestern Uganda.  It is 331 square kilometers (128 sq mi) of jungle that is accessible only by foot and is home to the critically endangered mountain gorillas.  A very good friend of mine was planning a visit to Uganda with her husband, so what better time to plan a trek through the jungle in search of these rare primates with her. This would be the ultimate girls day out!!

Our journey to the gorillas began from the Mweya peninsula in Queen Elizabeth National Park where we were bush camping with our husbands.  Full of excitement  we scurried around our camp packing up, organizing our things and getting a few last minute photography tips from Kevin, my husband and avid wildlife photographer who we would soon part ways with. The guys were spending the next couple of nights in Ishasha (the southern sector of Queen Elizabeth NP) while the girls would carry on to Bwindi.  Once our camp was packed up, we jumped into the 4x4’s and headed south.  When we arrived at the park gate to Ishasha, we pulled off the road, said goodbye and climbed back into our vehicle and were off like a shot.  We couldn’t wait to be sitting at our lodge in Bwindi Forest but this would take a little longer than we anticipated.  As we drove through small villages we passed dozens of people immaculately dressed walking home after Easter Sunday church services.  We rounded a bend in the road and came across a truck that had tipped over and completely blocked the road.  PANIC!!!  Was this going to prevent us from getting to Bwindi?  Was there another route?  After some discussion we decided to return to the nearest village and attempt to find someone who could give us directions and advice on another route.  Just as we arrived in the village, we spotted a tourist vehicle approaching, so out the window my arm went to flag him down.  We explained the blocked road ahead and asked if he knew of an alternative route.  With a confident “yes” he ordered us to “follow him”.  A huge sense of relief washed over us.  Yes!!  We WOULD get there.  Now as the driver of our vehicle, all I could focus on was keeping the green safari vehicle we were following in my eye sight.  The driver knew the road well and therefore kept a swift pace,  much faster than I normally drive, but I had to be sure not to lose him.  As we followed we enjoyed what we considered to be a much more scenic route on a better road.  By late afternoon we were driving through the entrance to Bwindi Impenetrable Park.

A truck blocking the road en route to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

We checked into Buhoma Lodge, ordered a well deserved cold beer and sat on the verandah of our tree house room.  We stared at the forest and watched the mist constantly changing shape, floating over the peaks of the mountain and hanging in the valleys.  Somewhere inside of that forest were the mountain gorillas that we came to see.  It all seemed so real now.  Tomorrow we would trek deep into the African jungle and come face to face with mountain gorillas.

Moments before my alarm went off, I woke up.  It was still dark.  I switched on a light and soon we were both buzzing around the room getting ready for the day.  It seemed that even the birds were excited for us their cheery songs getting louder and louder as daylight emerged.  Once we were layered with clothes and ready for any kind of weather, we sat down for breakfast and a hot cup of coffee.  We ate because we knew we needed the energy but our stomachs were more occupied doing flips of excitement rather than thinking about food.  Nevertheless, we ate.  After breakfast we chose a walking stick for the trek provided by our lodge and made our way over to the briefing.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority gave us a warm welcome and shared information about the gorillas and the guidelines for trekking.  We broke into smaller groups based on the group that we were trekking and met our fellow trekkers as well as our guide, Ruth.  We would be trekking the Habinyanja group.  We both chose to take a porter and got acquainted.  There are many advantages to a porter besides the obvious of carrying your backpack.  Foremostly it provides employment for people from the surrounding villages but beyond that they make great trekking companions.  My porter Caleb was a wealth of knowledge and he constantly reminded me to drink water.  When the going got tough he provided a helping hand and the occasional push up hills and when I seemed to need it the most, he made me laugh with his witty sense of humour and his jokes.

Our starting point was a 20 minute drive away from the briefing centre.  Once we arrived at the base of the trail, I parked the car and we got ourselves ready.  Backpack, check.  Water, check.  Camera, check.  Walking stick, check.  Rain jacket, check.  Sense of adventure, check.  We began our ascent through farmland.

Starting our ascent

Villagers were tilling their fields, young children came from every direction to wave and say hello and older children had artwork spread out along the path in hopes of making a sale.  Bananas, matooke, cassava, beans, children, men, women, goats, chickens, pigs, we passed them all.  After an hour or so of nothing but uphill trekking, we entered the jungle.

Children from one of the villages we passed

Surrounded by dense forest we followed a trail that led us through a never ending series of hills.  The going was somewhat tough and we could feel slight effects of elevation but this didn’t stop us.  We made short stops as we needed them, drank lots of water, and kept moving at a steady pace.  By midday, our guide informed us that we could be in for a long day as the trackers who had been out since the morning, still had not yet found the exact location of the Habinyanja group.  Just as we were bracing ourselves for the long day, we were told that the group had changed direction and were now heading towards us, we were very close.  We fueled up with a quick dried fruit snack, some more water and left our packs on the trail to traverse the thick vegetation of the forest floor to get close to the gorillas.

Our guides

Off the trail the vegetation was thick, the ground uneven and much more difficult to maneuver through.  The guides were clearing a way for us to get closer to the gorillas.  We could hear them making noise in the valley floor but we couldn’t see them.  The first gorillas we saw were a mother and a juvenile.  They looked at us casually as everyone in our group stood and watched them in amazement.  Beautiful.  Big.  Hairy.  Then we noticed two young gorillas swinging, playing and chasing each other in a nearby tree.  We watched them for several minutes as they entertained us with their antics.  Their ability to move up, down and around the tree with speed and accuracy was fascinating.  They carried on with their fun and games like we weren’t even there.  The guides continued to clear away a makeshift path for us to get closer to more members of the Habinyanja group.  Eventually we all gathered in a small opening in the forest that the guides had cleared for us, sat on the ground and immersed ourselves in the company of the gorillas.  The Silverback was laying down in the forest not far away however the most we could see of him was his silver hair shimmering in the sunlight between the branches.  We could hear him making noises and could clearly smell his flatulence.  Juveniles played in the trees around us, females sat munching on leaves and one of the new mothers was letting her young baby move around on the ground close to her after it was finished suckling from her breast.  The baby was so small and so very cute!  Their feet and hands were amazing to see, their digits and fingerprints seemed almost human.  The gorillas drew me in, their large chestnut colored eyes, relaxed personalities and gentle movements made me want to sit there and watch them forever.  At the end of the hour, it was extremely hard to leave the gorillas.  With great reluctance we followed our guide back to the main trail where we had left our backpacks.

The foot of an adult gorilla

The foot of a baby gorilla

Back on the main trail we sat down on the ground, ate a sandwich and discussed how wonderful it was to spend time with the Habinyanya.  After some food and a brief rest, we began to walk back to where we left our car.  This took several hours of traversing through the forest in the opposite direction from our way in.  When we reached the car we were tired.  It had been a long day but a good one.  We drove back to the UWA headquarters and were presented with certificates for trekking and then back to our lodge.  We were looking forward to a hot shower.

The view from the edge of the forest

That evening over dinner we shared a bottle of wine and talked about what an awesome day we had.  On one hand we were tired and on the other so full of adrenaline and excitement that we knew it would be hard to fall asleep.  Trekking the gorillas is such an incredible experience, one that can be shared but never replicated as every encounter is different.  As I lay in my bed that night  I thought about the Habinyanja and wondered what they were doing.  Where were they sleeping? What had they done for the rest of the day?  It was an experience that will stay with me forever.  When I think back to that day, I remember every detail and cherish it not only for myself but that I was able to share it with such a good friend.  It is a bond that we will share for the rest of our lives.  Simply incredible!

Gorillas from the Habinyanja group


  1. dear friend!! THANK YOU for allowing me to remember that incredible day like it was yesterday (thanks for downplaying the "pushes" I required!) I will cherish that day in my heart forever - I LOVE you and cannot wait for our next adventure!!!

  2. Wow what an adventure even to get there, I also have seen the Mountain Gorillas but in Rwanda and I agree that it is the most amazing life experience

  3. This is a beautiful and a true account of what happens on a typical gorilla tracking safari. The experience and thrill is pretty much the same in the 2 countries Uganda, Bwindi. Honestly, i dare everyone to try gorilla tracking in any country of your choose above.