Looking back, I think the change in me happened when I first watched Gorillas in the Mist, a film about scientist Dian Fossey who came to Africa to research the vanishing mountain gorillas and in turn gave her life protecting them – stepping into the wild.
At the end of those emotional 90 minutes, I wanted to pack my bags and head to East Africa to follow in her footsteps. Yet reality had other plans for me. I never did let go of that yearning. Seeing gorillas in the wild became a lifelong quest of mine – a dream I was fortunate enough to realise recently. By the time the opportunity arose, I had fallen further in love with the world and its animals and made a commitment that my travel experiences needed to have substance, even contributing in some small way to the areas I was visiting. So there I was, en route to Uganda on an overland trip with gorilla trekking as my main focus.
The road trip from Kampala to Lake Bunyonyi took us through green landscapes, rolling hills, the occasional village bursting with consummate traders and past many impressively horned Ankole cattle. Basing ourselves at Lake Bunyonyi, my dream was finally within reach as we took the misty mountain pass towards the Bwindi National Park. At base camp, our guide briefed us to be quiet, keep a respectable distance and not touch. There are only 800 gorillas left in the wild, with 11 habituated families in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which is home to half of them.
Visits are capped at three groups of eight people per day and a permit need to be bought in advance… that’s no more than 24 people on the mountain at any given time. My group was to look for the BituKura family, headed up by an impressive silverback. Walking stick in hand, we followed our porters onto the mountain, taking an established path for the first hour before turning into dense vegetation that had to be cut back by a machete. After three hours of heavy walking, through muddied rainforest, slipping on the ferns and fungi with a canopy of tall trees overhead and a sweat to match, we came upon a tracker who pointed ahead.
There she was in all her glory, a female hugging the ridge and moving slowly forward, relaxed in her natural surroundings. Time with the gorillas is limited to an hour and we were completely transfixed. We followed her to the rest of the family, watching as they chomped on bamboo and headed slowly towards a clearing amongst the trees. A mother and her baby stole our hearts and the silverback of the show, as he walked right past the spot where we were sitting. There are no adequate ways to describe the surreal sense of privilege and emotion that overcame me, and how right it is that they aren’t easily accessible, but warrant effort to find.
This life-changing wildlife experience also empowers the local community; guides and porters come from nearby villages that were once rife with poachers and are now home to the protectors of this fragile species. The money from the permits goes entirely towards the upkeep of the park, paying rangers and preventing poaching. Actually going gorilla trekking is the best thing you can do to contribute to the survival of the world’s largest primates.
This is conscious travel, a chance to reconnect with nature and a humbling reminder of what really matters. And it’s accessible too, now that more and more properties offer the opportunity to immerse oneself in beautiful, remote areas.
1. One of them is Rocktail Beach Lodge in Northern KwaZulu-Natal. A beautiful place with secluded chalets tucked up in thick coastal forest and golden beaches lapped by the warm Indian Ocean. Rocktail is also home to the Mapulatland Sea Turtle Project each season you can watch these amazing sea giants nest and lay their eggs here. They also teach children and the broader community about conservation and have one of the best snorkeling and scuba diving spots on our shorelines.
2. Tanzania’s Lake Manyara Tree Lodge draws the safari enthusiast to its stilted tree houses and dramatic views towards the Rift. Here the alkaline lake turns pink each rainy season as it hosts millions of flamingos, a phenomenon that draws nature lovers in droves. As do its famous tree-climbing lions, who apparently developed the habit to escape a nasty biting fly that devastated the Ngorongoro Crater lion populations back in the 1960s.
3. Still in Tanzania situated off Zanzibar, is Chumbe Island. A true example of eco-tourism, this private nature reserve was developed for the conservation of its forest reserve and has a fully protected coral reef sanctuary perfect for diving, nature trails, historical ruins to explore and an education centre. There are seven rustic bungalows, each with its own rainwater collection system, solar power and a loft sleeping area that opens to the stars – all with zero environmental impact.
4. Mauritius is a popular destination for sun-seekers and it’s easy to understand why, especially when staying at the unrivalled One&Only Le Saint Geran. Specialising in luxury resort living, many of the staff have been there for decades, proudly acting as custodians of the pristine peninsula and blue waters whilst carrying out a warm service. They have planted over 4 000 palm trees since opening, drive recycling on the island and have a children’s club that will ensure parents get to relax into their holiday, while the new generation connects with healthy outdoor living.
One more thing before you book that next feel-good holiday. Have a look at Trees for Travel, an initiative that allows you to sponsor a tree to be planted in a South African food garden to offset the carbon footprint of your flight. It’s empowering and encouraging that our travel choices can make a difference.
*** This article first appears in the Edgars Club Magazine.