Long sleeves and long trousers: check. Sturdy walking boots: check. Rain jacket: check. Trousers tucked into socks: check. Walking sticks: check. And so we dived into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on an expedition like none we had experienced before. We were looking for the Nkuringo family of mountain gorillas and I was bursting with excitement of seeing real live gorillas in the wild.
The night before the trek, we had travelled to a nearby village where local children had entertained us in the evening with traditional song and dance and we had walked around the village marvelling at the landscape as we were right on the edge of Bwindi Forest. It was mountainous terrain covered in dense forest, so many shades of green that I never imagined.
Early in the morning we headed to the ranger station. We wove around the mountain roads as breathtaking vistas presented themselves at every turn. One of our group commented “It’s like heaven on earth” and that was it for me: Belinda Carlisle’s song plagued me for the rest of the day!
When I wasn’t being Belinda Carlisle, I had moments where I thought that this must be how David Livingstone, Henry Stanley, John Speke and all the other explorers who wandered this continent throughout the 1800s must have experienced Africa. Of course gorillas don’t care for marked trails in the forest and so after about an hour of comfortable walking we diverted off the trail and into the forest proper. As we beat our way through the bush, fording streams, dodging safari ants, trying not to get caught by prickly trees, and slipping through mud I was glad of the walking stick, which I have to admit I thought at first was a bit of a contrivance.
After a couple of hours the pace slowed and we realised that we were close to the gorilla family. Our moods quietened immediately and we were led into a …. I can’t call it a clearing, but it was as much of a clearing as Bwindi would offer. There were gorillas all around us in the trees. We were entertained by a baby gorilla swinging from vines and generally being a pest to mum. Then a massive silverback ambled into the view and sat under a tree approximately 15 metres away. A younger silverback also decided to come closer to check us out. He sat very close and looked wistfully at the sky, as if wondering if it would rain later. And indeed it did – a brief shower just on top of us. It was a gorilla in the tree overhead relieving itself. A little bit gross, but how many of my friends back home could say they’ve been pee-ed on by a mountain gorilla?!
There was one moment that made us all hold our breath, when the larger silverback rose from his place under the tree and walked towards the younger silverback. We wondered if we were going to witness a fight for alpha status or if he was going to come and swat at us. He passed by us not two metres away and the rangers told us to hold our ground; you should never run away from a gorilla. But he paid us no mind and nor his younger counterpart, he just kept walking and disappeared into the forest. An anti-climax sure, but these animals are big and I wasn’t keen to see them fight each other or us.
After an hour with the gorillas our time was up and we began the trek back to the ranger station full of stories about how a massive King Kong-sized gorilla had eyed us off and we were seconds away from fighting for supremacy in the tribe. Or that the baby gorilla had almost touched us. And so it goes when you have an incredible experience but still feel the need to talk it up.
Gorilla permits in Uganda cost US$600 per person and in Rwanda US$750. Only six permits per gorilla family are issued each day and in Uganda there are only eight habituated families, so it is wise to book early to avoid disappointment. The trekking times vary according to where the gorillas are on any day. The trek I did was about four hours (two hours to the gorillas and two back) while our friends went to another family the same day and took six hours. On the other hand, we had a group who drove back down the road a bit after the briefing at the ranger station, then walked for twenty minutes before coming across the gorillas. It is very random and you cannot really request a short trek or a long trek – it’s up to the gorillas. But it is such a magical experience that the hardship of the trek is over-run in your memories by being so close to these incredible animals. If you find yourself in East Africa, it is well-worth making the journey to western Uganda and seeing the mountain gorillas.