Sometimes dreams do come true. You would think for someone like me that happens on a daily basis but while I make my own ‘office hours’ and usually work from bed, I still spend most of my time behind a laptop or with a phone screen in front of my nose or crammed into a tiny airplane seat. I am not complaining but my life definitely doesn’t feel very glamorous or dreamy most of the time.
My job’s definite upside is that once in a while I get to do something really exciting at a place most people only dream of. Like scuba dive in Raja Ampat or see the Northern Lights in the Arctic or spend the night on a luxury train in India – cool things I will never ever forget. You could call them bucket list worthy if I had a bucket list that is.
After having also been lucky enough to see orangutans in Borneo not once but twice I knew that seeing gorillas in the wild was something I had to cross off my non-existent bucket list too. And where to see gorillas in the wild? There are only about 1000 mountain gorillas left and they all live in Rwanda, Congo, and about half of them in Uganda. Their limited numbers may explain steep permit fees you will need to fork out if you want to go and hang out with them on top of regular travel expenses. A gorilla permit in Uganda is basically the price for a long distance flight or a nice piece of camera equipment, not something you just buy on a whim. So you can imagine my excitement when I was invited by Tourismus Uganda and Turkish Airlines to do some gorilla trekking in Uganda this October.
Keen for gorilla safaris too? I think regardless of how much you read up before a trip and how well you pack nothing can truly prepare you for seeing these wonderful creatures up close and live. But still, here are a few tips and facts I wish I would have known before:
Gorilla Trekking, Uganda
Where do gorillas live?
Are gorillas endangered you may ask and the answer is – unfortunately, they are. There are only 1000 remaining and getting a costly permit for a gorilla trek helps with their conservation and supports the local communities in order for them to look after their gorillas and the forest.
The Uganda gorilla lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. At Bwindi, you will find 13 habituated gorilla families that tourists can visit. Over the course of up to ten years gorillas are slowly habituated and get used to people, both for tourism and research purposes. The remaining 22 gorilla families in Uganda are un-habituated which makes them aggressive towards humans or quite skittish. They also roam freely through the park and can be very hard to find.
The Rushegura gorilla family was formed in 2000 when they divided from the Habinyanja family. The group members are currently 15 and their name was got from the place from where the two leaders( brothers) separated to form their independent families. This family is one of the most friendly group in Bwindi and they highly welcome visitors.
On the day of your trek, you will be assigned to one of the habituated gorilla families. At any given day no more than 8 people are allowed with one gorilla group and for no longer than an hour. Depending on where the family lives you will need to trek through the jungle a little or a lot. Before leaving to find the gorillas in the mist a team of trackers is already on the go looking for them. Picking up from where the gorilla group was seen the previous day they are now tracking them to communicate their location to your guide. Because guess what?! Gorillas don’t stay put just because a map says so! We were told that our group, the Rushegura family, was the one closest living to the wildlife centre the treks starts from, about a 30-minute hike. However, by the time we got to their usual gorilla habitat they had moved on and it took us another two hours to reach them.
It’s not called rainforest for nothing…
Gorilla trekking & Gorilla tracking
Gorilla trekking, Bwindi is usually done in the morning before it rains but you may still get wet. The rule is: when it rains, it pours. Make sure you dress and pack accordingly.
We got somewhat lucky as it only started raining when our time with gorillas was almost over. Unfortunately, I had enough time to witness how most of them huddled together to keep warm and dry under a tree while one – I guess she had misbehaved and was put in the dog box – had to stay out in the rain alone.
(No picture of that as I was trying my best to keep my cameras dry but let’s just say she was hugging herself looking really sad and I don’t think I was ever that tempted to hug a gorilla – I just felt so bad for her!)
If you don’t mind some mud and rain come in March, April, May or November – now permit prices are reduced to $450 due to the weather conditions.
It’s a jungle out there!
The Bwindi impenetrable forest is called impenetrable for good reason. Guides come armed with a rifle and machetes because newsflash – there are no roads in the jungle. It also means, there are no toilets and you should be reasonably fit and sure-footed. Gorilla tours can last from one to five hours, depending on the gorilla family you are assigned to and you will have to make your way through streams, up and down hills, over roots and through the shrubbery.
– Don’t read on if you don’t like snakes –
And obviously, gorillas are not the only animals living in the forest. In fact, the first animal we saw ten minutes into our trek was a black mamba and her baby. Only slightly terrifying for both reasonable people who are scared of poisonous snakes and me, who is terrified of any snake. And before you ask – no I didn’t pee in the jungle after seeing them.
Still, the hike is absolutely stunning. You will hear me say that a lot but I believe Uganda to be one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to and Bwindi is no exception. Our trek was strenuous but not impossible as our guide Goreth set a moderate pace and gave us enough breaks to enjoy the scenery and catch our breath. It ain’t a walk in the park but you will truly feel like Jane in the Jungle (only Tarzan was sadly missing…) and be comfortably out of your comfort zone.
Helpful tips for gorilla trekking, Uganda
- Need some help to get through the forest? Take a walking stick! While I thought walking sticks are for old people (sorry, Dad!) I was so glad I borrowed one from our lodge. They are incredibly helpful to get you up and down slippery hills and I dare say they look cool in pictures.
- In addition to your guides and trackers, you can and should also hire a porter. It is recommended that you take two liters of water as well as lunch and you will want your photography equipment, gloves, and a rain jacket. Adding all of this up, your oh so small backpack might be a lot heavier after the first hill than you initially thought especially if you take the big guns aka zoom lenses and professional camera equipment.
Porters not only carry your backpack, hold your walking stick if you need to take a picture but also help you through the jungle. Whether you need a hand so you don’t slide down a muddy hill or a literal push to get up, these guys and girls were true lifesavers during our gorilla safari.
In addition, hiring a porter will directly benefit the local communities – after all, it is their forest you are trekking through!
- In worst case scenario you can take the “bush helicopter” to get out. This didn’t happen to anyone in our group but I was told by some other tourists that they had a 70-year-old couple who needed a lift once they had seen the gorillas. A bush helicopter is, of course, a nice nickname for a sedan carried by many porters at the whopping price of $300!
Know thy camera equipment!
While there is a time to put your camera down and cherish the moment, a gorilla selfie (albeit sweaty) is something you will want to have. If you have a camera with a decent zoom lens take it because gorillas can sit quite high above your head in the trees. Mind you, ultimately the best camera is the one you have on you and that you can use. Make sure you know how to work your camera in low light, with moving objects and on different settings before you start your gorilla safari – once you are with your gorilla family you will only have an hour and now is not the time to learn how to adjust your camera’s ISO or search for the autofocus.
FUN FACTS ABOUT GORILLAS:
Gorillas fart. A lot. So much so that you may wonder: what do gorillas eat? According to my vegan friend Jub they only eat leaves and wouldn’t I join them while there?! After hearing the result (thankfully the area was too big to be smelly) I don’t think I shall be eating leaves any time soon.
Also, young gorillas like picking their nose and eating buggers. They are our cousins after all.
With or without buggers, gorilla babies are the cutest things ever. Okay, never mind, this was not something I didn’t know before but still, nothing prepared me for how cute they really are. Our group had three babies named Munyana, Kibande and Ruterana and while the oldest one was already three years old they were all still incredibly tiny and cute – I dare say better than a kitten (and you know what that means in my world!).
Here you can find more information about gorilla trekking, Uganda and how to secure permits.
Thank you to Tourismus Uganda and Turkish Airlines for sponsoring this trip of a lifetime!