When visiting Eastern Africa for an unforgettable wildlife encounter, most would head over to the Serengeti in search of the Big Five and the Wildebeest Migration. As the better well known, the more accessible and a cheaper overall experience it is understandable as to why it is the more popular, however having been fortunate enough to now have experienced them both … there are few experiences quite like Gorilla Trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park!
Mountain Gorillas are one of two sub-species of the Eastern Gorilla (the other being Eastern Lowland Gorilla) which can only be found across the mountainous forests of equatorial Africa up in the Virungas mountains, which straddles the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park also in Uganda. Due to their general nature and habitat you will not be able to find this species of Gorilla in any zoo across the globe!
Where to visit the Mountain Gorillas?
Although each of the three countries do offer unbelievable experiences to visit our closest relatives, the instability and security concerns surrounding the DRC and with the prices recently (May 2017) doubled in Rwanda, it means Uganda is today the more popular destination when after what is potentially one of the planet’s ultimate wildlife experiences.
Along with cheaper prices and currently a stable country, Uganda does also have the larger population in comparison to its neighbours with the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park home to half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.
Unfortunately the numbers of these gentle and highly endangered primates have dwindled for many years as they have sadly been surrounded by continual poaching and the loss of habitats due to human encroachment for settlements. As these Gorillas share 98% DNA with us, it does also mean that they are highly susceptible to illnesses, infections and diseases carried by a human. The lack of education with regards to these animals has been a considerable factor in their depletion.
With this being said, thanks to the improved and continual conservation and protection of these majestic animals, it is believed that the registered mountain gorilla population of 880, following a census in 2011, is currently on a gradual rise.
Although there is that ongoing ethical question as to whether it is right for these mountain gorillas to be constantly exposed to humans, it is however thanks to the influx of visitors and the relevant permit costs that has supported conservation efforts through educational programmes and cash motivations to the surrounding local communities who now help to protect them. The standard cost of a permit in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is approximately US$620 (May – September) although there is also a discounted permit during the off season months which is reduced to US$450.
As strong and powerful wild animals in their natural habitat with nothing to separate you from them apart from the luscious fresh shoots which they are enjoying, each and every group going out on a Trek is no larger than eight and is guided by experienced park rangers. Following a briefing and a little background information each small group heads out to a specifically assigned habituated troop of gorillas where they each get an hour to admire these allusive animals and capture every movement. Despite being out in the wild across 327km² of mountainous terrain, these habituated troops are monitored and visited daily for an hour and so when setting out each morning it is not just a stab in the dark as to the direction but rather a very good approximation as to their whereabouts.
Bwindi, derived from the word “Omubwindi”, means Impenetrable and is by no means just an insignificant name for the national park, but rather the perfect description for this almost impassable ancient rain forest which is home to these mountain gorillas. Thick, dense intertwined undergrowth covers the steep slippery mountains which consistently rises and falls into the overgrown undulated valleys which carry the fresh water streams creating this fascinatingly unimaginable habitat.
We all know visiting some family members is sometimes no easy task, however getting to these long distant relatives meant fighting through bramble, slipping and sliding on mud and the occasional bite from a fire ant whilst trying to catch your breath. Despite the tough climbs, the first sightings of steamy droppings and half eaten bamboo shoots followed by the sounds of grunts and chuckles soon gets your adrenaline pumping and you instantaneously forget how exhausted you felt a few seconds earlier.
Moments before you get your first glimpse, the guides will give you a briefing explaining the do’s and don’ts for the next hour. Despite the tough hike, plenty of chat about gorillas on the way and having read so much about these experiences during the build up to the encounter, nothing still quite prepares you for such a surreal experience as you catch that first glimpse.
As the rangers cut away the dense undergrowth and you amble up close, it does all begin to get a little surreal; a little fairytale like. Unlike most other wildlife safaris where you are zipping around in vehicles on dusty, uneven tracks, deep in the rain forest there is no noise or vehicles and just the sights and sounds of the gorillas enjoying their late morning feed.
With more gorillas than humans within the area, once we had captured our photos and crouched to watch these creatures you really do get to enjoy what is in our opinion one of the planet’s ultimate wildlife encounters. Although there is little going on as they all laze around stripping the leaves from the low lying bushes, everything just feels so alive as you admire how human like they really are with so many physical features simply a reflection of our own.
Seemingly so gentle as the adults lay up against the tough vines whilst the boisterous youngsters tumble around, you may still however be able to get a small glimpse of their potential power from the dominant silverback. If they feel slightly surrounded by visitors they do occasionally make a short charge with a shake of some branches creating a little commotion in order to simply demonstrate and reaffirm their dominance within the troop which is apparently nothing to be overly worried about.
As you watch each and every movement that these fascinating animals make, your one hour will be over before you know it and it will be time to head back. The limit of one hour each day for each troop of gorillas enables visitors to revel in the experience without stressing them out but at the same time ensuring and reminding them that the human presence means no harm.
Rushaga Gorilla Camp
The mountainous, impenetrable nature of the Bwindi National Park provides not only for the once in a life time gorilla encounter but is also a stunning part of the world. Having made the 8hour journey down from Entebbe we were also after an authentic place to stay for a couple of days. Due to the size and nature of the national park, Gorilla Trekking starts from four different points with substantial distances between them. With this in mind, when looking for accommodation you should consider staying close to the region from which your trekking permit is issued.
On the border of Bwindi National park, within the Rushaga region we came across Rushaga Gorilla Camp which provided us with the ultimate all round Gorilla Trekking experience we were after. From its warm and attractive accommodation and close proximity of our trekking starting point (approx. 600m) to the fact that they were able to organise our permits for us with no hassle, we needed to look no further.
Perched high up on one of the very many mountains was this beautiful camp which was scattered with wooden lodges looking across the valley towards the dense rain forest which ascended up into the mist. With the side of this small mountain tiered, each of their cabins were all spaced out and perfectly positioned in order to be able to appreciate these views looking across the valley. Away from the communal areas, we were also able to enjoy and admire the relaxing sounds of nature which if you are lucky enough, may even include the groans of gorillas and trumpeting of elephants in the distance.
Keeping in within the surroundings, the entire camp has a very natural feel to it with the interiors of the lodges reflecting that of the natural environment. The large glass fronts of all the rooms and communal areas do also provide some magical moments where you are able to enjoy and connect with the surroundings over a meal or from the comforts of your own bed.
Along with the beautiful lodges and spectacular location, the friendly and accommodating nature of all the staff made our stay that little bit extra special and enjoyable. Along with the overwhelming gorilla encounter, we were able to enjoy the surroundings and learn a little more about the area and gorillas, as well as Uganda in general.