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Tracking Gentle Giants: Gorillas in the Highlands of Uganda

June 17, 2016
Gorillas in Uganda

Having hiked through 20 minutes of the most challenging terrain we’d ever experienced, we stopped dead in our tracks.  The hushed whispers of the trackers left us puzzled… these walks can take upwards of 4 hours, what had caused us to stop so soon?  Before long, the answer became abundantly clear.

A scruff of dark fur came into view just around the bend – after months of planning, preparation and training, we laid eyes upon our first silverback mountain gorilla in what appeared to be record time.

Gorilla tracking Uganda bucket list

Coming from New Zealand, Africa really did feel like a world away – exotic but a long way from us, we never really considered it a likely destination.  That all changed when we relocated to Abu Dhabi and the continent suddenly become accessible in only a five hour flight.

After tossing some ideas around and talking with a couple of teachers that had also tracked the gorillas, visiting them shot to the top of our travel wish list and our trip to Eastern/Central Africa was born.

When we found out just how much this experience would set us back, we did briefly reconsider but we soon decided that it really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences and one we couldn’t just walk away from.

Gorilla tracking Uganda

Sadly, the mountain gorilla population has been decimated over the years, with less than 900 gorillas left in the wild.  These gentle giants are only found in the triangle of forests between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; due to the physical restrictions of their habitat, it is likely that these amazing animals will remain endangered, even with a concerted effort to stop poaching and deforestation.  In the 60s and 70s conservationists attempted to raise juvenile mountain gorillas in captivity but none of them made it – they’re still unsure as to the reason for this, but it does mean that they can only be found in the forests of this area, making their plight all the more important.

We had initially planned on visiting both Rwanda and Uganda but due to time constraints and cheaper permits, we decided to leave Rwanda on this trip.  A permit to track gorillas will set you back USD700 per person in Rwanda, but is USD600 in Uganda (and only USD450 in the off season of April, May and November).  We managed to reverse the order of our journey to finish in Uganda and track gorillas at the beginning of April and by doing so, saved USD500 between the two of us.

Within Uganda there are a number of entry points to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; Buhoma in the Northern part of the park, Ruhija in the East, and Rushaga and Nkuringo to the South.  When purchasing a permit to track the gorillas, you will choose your location (or in our case, our guide did) and will then be allocated a particular family on the day of your visit.  If you plan to travel independently, pay particular attention to where your briefing centre is, as you’ll need to ensure you organise accommodation nearby your departure point.

If you decide to track these mountain gorillas, you’ll come across the term ‘habituated.  There are a number of these habituated families living in Bwindi (and many more that are not accustomed to people).  According to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority

Habituation of mountain gorillas for tourism is a lengthy and difficult process. The exercise to habituate wild gorillas essentially requires that the gorillas lose their natural fear of humans and develop a trustful relationship with observers. In order to fully habituate a group, it must be tracked and monitored on a daily basis, and slowly over time the gorillas stop fleeing from observers and eventually they become accustomed to the presence of people.

Poaching used to be a serious problem in the area but thankfully is not and longer, thanks to the positive effect of eco-tourism.  A significant percentage of your permit goes back into the local communities, alleviating the need for illegal poaching.  Whilst many of the people that once would have turned to poaching now work as porters, helping travellers traverse the challenging terrain of the area.  For a suggested fee of USH50,000 (USD15), you’ll be given the opportunity to have a porter join you on the hike and it’s something we’d both strongly recommend doing.  They’ll carry your bag, help you find your footing, occasionally give you a little pull up a steep bank and, most importantly, you will be supporting the locals at a grass-roots level in their bid to get ahead without poaching these amazing creatures.

Gorilla tracking UgandaWe met our tracking guide, Albert, and support team at the Ruhija Centre (which in truth, was a hut providing much needed shelter from the rain) and were briefed on what was to come.  We’d been assigned the Oruzogo family, one of the newest habituated groups, favoured because of their playful natures and the adventurous terrain in which they live.

After we were briefed, we excitedly climbed back into our respective vans (along with some of our friendly guards, carrying alarmingly big guns!) and drove for 20 or so minutes to a spot on the road where our porters were waiting.

Exiting the van, we peered over the edge of the road into the forest thinking we were off to find an easier access point into the foliage… how wrong we were.  With the help of our porters we ventured down the steep slope, directly into the belly of the forest, learning firsthand where the name Impenetrable came from.

After walking downhill for approximately 15 minutes on a makeshift trail, we turned to the right and followed the lay of the land, moving slightly higher back up the hill.  To our absolute disbelief he were suddenly stopped and after hushed whispers were told the gorillas were just around the bend.

Climbing a little further up and across we were met by the gaze of our first wild mountain gorilla.  Munching quietly, the large silverback sat quietly, undeterred by our arrival.  As per regulations, we remained at a distance of 8m and started the clock on the hour that we had with these beauties (understandably, human interaction is closely limited and monitored to prevent the families becoming desensitised to people).

After 10 minutes or so, the silverback turned and moved away – quietly we continued on in the direction it was headed where we were delighted to find many of the other family members.

The gorillas went about their business without any recognition of our presence and although it would have been amazing to have one wander over to check us out (seriously, take a look at the close encounters on youtube, they’re incredible!) it was mind-blowing to just be in their habitat with them.

Standing amongst these gentle giants was an incredibly humbling experience.  They had beautifully expressive eyes and recognisable body language; we were struck by just how human they seemed.  The babies swung and played amongst the vines and trees whilst the adults watched on carefully.  For that hour we were guests in their home and it was not lost on us just how fortunate we were to be welcomed in.

Nathan and I were joined by only one other traveller which made the experience all the more special (travelling in the off season can have its benefits).  The three of us were all able to get incredible views of the family and though they limit each group to a maximum of eight, I can’t help but feel like we had a much more personal experience being in such a small group.

It turns out gorillas are really farty!! 😮❤️🐒 @thisisuganda

A video posted by Sarah & Nathan Chant ✈️🌏 (@exploringkiwis) on

Was the hike hard?  It sure was – I can’t imagine how I would have managed at that incline over a period of three or four hours each way, which is what some people experience.  There’s no doubt, we were lucky!

Was it expensive?  Absolutely – this was, without doubt, the most money we’ve ever spent on a stand-alone travel experience.

Was it worth it?  Without doubt!

If you have the opportunity to visit the Ugandan mountain gorillas, we would recommend you grab it.  This experience connected us to these beautiful animals, gave us a first-hand view of their conservation efforts and in the process, left us with memories to last a lifetime.

If you’re interested in seeing the gorillas for yourself, we highly recommend Wild Whispers Africa.  Nasser was the most attentive guide we could have asked for and their pricing was competitive.  They took care of all of the details for us and helped make the experience what it was.

Stay tuned for information regarding what gear you’ll want to have with you on your gorilla trek,  for our take on the differences between tracking gorillas and chimpanzees in Uganda and for more information on what our tour included.

PS:  If you’re looking for another travel blogger to follow, check out Clint from TripHackr – he goes on the most amazing adventures.  It was fantastic meeting him whilst on our trek and exchanging travel stories!

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