We’re in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, where I’ve chosen to live out my life-long dream of seeing mountain gorillas in the wild.
I’ve made it part of a Ugandan overland safari, one in which I have so far explored the capital, Kampala, on the back of a Boda Boda motorbike, camped on the shores of the pristine Lake Bunyonyi, and had long days driving through emerald green landscapes, rolling hills, tea plantations and the occasional hub of consummate traders and the scattering of goats and Ankole cattle that make up the magic of this beautiful land.
The mountain gorillas, however, are an unparalleled highlight. Around 900 are left in the world, with 11 habituated families in Bwindi, home to half of them. Visits are capped at three groups of eight people per day and permits must be bought well in advance. In this controlled and protected environment there are never more than 24 people on the mountain at any given time and there is always a chance that you won’t see the gorillas, although trackers go up to find them daily – as much for their protection as for our convenience.
We’ve been walking through dense vegetation for about three hours, our guide cutting away the creepers and vines ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼with his machete to clear the way. A dappled light filters through the thick canopy of trees overhead, underfoot a muddied undergrowth, ferns and fungi.
I reach for Valdi’s hand – my porter and support on the climb who knows these hills as well as he knows himself – as I start to slip down the bank. A reformed poacher, he now works to protect the precious mountain gorillas that we are here to see. Sweat drips down my back and I try to hide the breathlessness I feel when we come across the tracker, who gestures quietly towards a large female sitting in a clearing just ahead. In an instant all but the joy of the moment is forgotten.
A reformed poacher, he now works to protect the precious mountain gorillas we are here to see.
The family that we are tracking is known as Bitukura, a large group of 14 with an impressive silverback at its head. Once we are with them we follow the relaxed female as she moves to tastier bamboo shoots, oblivious to our presence.
The rest of the family comes into sight – numerous young gorillas and a baby of only a few months that plays and bounces between them, with a few females holding rank.
The Silverback approaches his shoulders at least a metre in diameter. He walks by, barely adhering to the seven-metre distance rule so strictly set for visitors, confident in his position as leader of this precious, protected group. He is known as Karamuzi. There is wisdom in his expression.
Our time with the gorillas is limited to an hour. We stay with them as they move towards a clearing in the trees; I get my photographs in the first 15 minutes and then put my camera away, allowing my remaining time with them to be the entire focus. Then, just like that our time is up. We regroup for the walk down, silent in our appreciation of what we have just seen and experienced.
Our time with the gorillas is limited to an hour; I get my photographs and then put my camera away.
While gorilla trekking draws most travellers to Uganda, these incredible animals are not the only wildlife on offer. Gorillas aside, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to everything from forest elephants to chimpanzees to African golden cats, while the lesser-known Murchison Falls National Park offers sightings of rare Rothschild giraffes, lions and Ugandan kobs. Home to more than 600 bird species, Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of the top bird-watching spots in the country. There are wonderful hiking and trekking in the Rwenzori Mountains, or for some aquatic adrenalin, head straight for Jinja. Famed as the source of the Nile, it also dishes up the best white water rafting and kayaking in East Africa.
Best Time to Visit
June-Sept is ideal, with mild weather and less chance of rain, which is heaviest from March-May. It also rains in October and November, but the upshot is that fewer visitors means it’s easier to get that coveted gorilla permit. The dry months of January-February are ideal for trekking in the Rwenzori Mountains.
Uganda’s two main cities – Kampala and Entebbe – are both worth a visit. Ease into the country with a few days in Entebbe, on the shores of Lake Victoria. Once the colonial capital of Uganda, the relaxed pace of life here is a far cry from the busy streets of Kampala, the commercial capital of the country. The frenetic energy on Kampala’s streets is neatly offset by the clutch of atmospheric relics from the ancient Buganda kingdom: tick off the likes of Mengo Palace, Bulange Royal Building and the Unesco-listed Kasubi Tombs.
The trek, heading up into the forest with out trackers and guides.
The anti-poaching unit that we encountered on our 4-5 hour hike.
Silverback gorilla confident and relaxed in his home environement.
A much deserved celebratory picnic break once back down the mountain.
This article first appeared in Sure Travel Journey’s feature ‘18 travel experiences. Make Memories for Life’, a compilation of 18 epic travel stories and experiences from a range of writers, columnists, comedians and other personalities. I was asked to share my account of Gorilla Trekking in Uganda and am proud to see my adventure in print.
How to Book it
Sure Travel’s partner Inspirations Travel & Tours can take you into Uganda and help you tick a gorilla trek off your bucket list. Ask your Sure Travel consultant for details, or visit www.suretravel.co.za / call 0861 47 48 49.
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