Updated: Sep 3
Summary: In the heart of Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest lives the endangered mountain gorilla. We were told before we booked our trip to Uganda that Gorilla Trekking is one of those “once in a lifetime,” experiences. Still, we were initially somewhat hesitant to book it because, frankly, it’s quite expensive. The permits are issued by the Uganda government and cost $800 per person. The high cost goes towards conservation efforts, including restoration of the native land for the Gorillas. In the end, a friend of ours convinced us to spend the money and we are SO glad we did. In fact, our sanity is questionable – why did we ever consider NOT doing it? This unforgettable, unparalleled experience should made everyone's lifetime bucket list.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Our safari company, Nkuringo Safari, owns a lodge next to one of four entrance gates to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Nkuringo gate). This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in southern Uganda. The 124 square mile Park is the home of 160 species of trees and 347 species of birds, in addition to the famous mountain Gorillas.
About Gorillas in Uganda. Bwindi is the home of half of the remaining mountain Gorillas in the World. At the Nkuringo Gate, there are four family groups of Gorillas. Families of a mix of adults, juveniles, and their up to 500 lb dominant silverback are tracked daily by the Park's Gorilla trackers. The Gorillas spend much of their day eating on 142 of the Park's plant species with the average adult male eating 41 lbs per day.
Gorilla Trekking. The day started with a short 3 minute drive to the Park entrance where we were greeted with Batwa dancers.
After our driver completed our registration and confirmation of Gorilla Trekking permits, we were led inside for a briefing. Here, we learned about the Gorillas that live in Bwindi, as well as learned how to handle ourselves when we enjoyed our 1-hour with the Gorillas. Oh about that. Your $800 permit allows for just 1-hour with the Mountain Gorillas in a group of no more than 8 visitors at a time. We understand it is to minimize exposure or upset with the Gorillas. The time whipped by so fast but even so, we were still glad for it.
The rules for Gorilla Trekking are simple: stay 10 meters away when possible (they do come near you on their own) and wear a mask to protect the Gorillas. Other obvious unspoken rules are to keep movements slow and the volume in your voice low.
The Hike. After our briefing we headed out with our family of four and three others, together with our guide and two armed guards. The armed guards are primarily to protect you from large game like elephants, where shooting their AK-47’s in the air may become necessary to scare them off. Armed guards are also advised, even in Bwindi, as Uganda borders the Democratic Republic of Congo where a civil war continues to rage.
As these high altitude animals live between 8,000 and 13,000 feet, the amount of hiking involved depends entirely on where the Gorillas are on any given day. It can take a couple hours, or all day. For our group, the “Xmas family,” we hiked roughly 3.5 miles in total. While modest in length, the hike itself is not for the faint of heart. Our Gorilla group was located at the bottom of a steep mountain. Getting down the mountain in difficult terrain required not only the help of our Porter but a good amount of fitness. Hiking back was easier in terms of slipping, but of course, the climb up was steep and difficult because of the elevation gain. We would say that the physical exertion involved in hiking through this thick, “Impenetrable Forest,” added to the experience. It was tough!
The video clip below shows how the National Park works with the locals to provide a habitat buffer by allowing agriculture in the space between the communities and the primary forest.
Mountain Gorillas. We share 98.4% of our DNA with Mountain Gorillas. The similarities are immediate and the first thing we noticed when we came upon the Xmas group. After reaching the bottom of the mountainside, deep into Bwindi National Forest, the trackers led us to where this several-member family were hanging out as a clan. Some were up high in the trees, while others were low, just barely a few feet away. They moved often, related with one another, were almost always eating, and most noticeably, were aware of our presence.
One of the mothers in the Xmas group and an adorable 3-week old infant.
For the hour that we were with the group, we quietly walked in and about the group. Sometimes they moved along, and we moved with them. Other times we stopped and had a chance to sit for several minutes and just observe.
One particularly memorable member of the group was their Silverback. This impressive dominant male both kept an eye on us at times and then also ate his leaves seemingly disinterested. The trackers always stayed connect with him though. At nearly 500 lbs, there is no doubt that he is the one to watch out for.
After our quick hour with the Gorillas, we let them be and made our way back up the mountainside. You will note from the videos, the forest is noisy with birds. We are not bird watchers but we could imagine this would be an excellent spot for bird enthusiasts.
Hiking tip: Watch out for red ants! These stinging ants will go up your pant legs and make your hike miserable. We had a few run-ins and even with our gators (which we recommend), they still managed to sneak up the leg. Now we know why our Porter and Guards hiked with plain rubber boots!
The Crew. After the hike, we posted with our Guide, Guards, and Porter. As this was our third day hiking in Uganda's National Forests, we were starting to get used to having our little entourage. Everyone is so friendly and helpful. They really did make the experience especially great.
Using a Porter. A word about porters and our porter, Nathan. Hiring a porter helps the local economy. The modest fee of $15 (plus tip) for their services goes directly to the porter and helps bring tourist dollars into the community. Even if you do not need someone to carry your packed lunch, water, and other goods, you should hire one anyway. In our case, Nathan ended up helping me tremendously during our Gorilla trekking experience. For starters, he saved my butt several times from falling with his ability to instinctually determine when I was able to take a stumble. He also helped remove biting ants from my pant legs and consistently asked how I was doing, whether I needed a break, as well as reminded me to drink water.
About Nkuringo Safaris. Our stay in Uganda was booked, door to door, with Nkuringo Safaris. We chose a "walking safari," which focused on seeing Uganda on foot, though we were also given the traditional driver and safari Land Rover vehicle throughout our stay. We absolutely loved this company and HIGHLY recommend using it for your stay in Uganda. Everything was top notch, from booking through post-travel communications (even shipping our souvenirs for us!). Our driver, Emma, was the best and our guide, Richard, was great with us well. Our accommodations were incredible (especially in Bwindi), and at every step of the way, we felt safe. This is not an inexpensive experience but we really felt we got our money's worth. Nkuringo also has a responsible travel policy which is clearly followed, i.e. they're not just words on a website. We would not hesitate to recommend this company to anyone traveling to Uganda.
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