Do you remember the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist based on the life of Dian Fossey? The film takes us to Congo, Uganda and Rwanda where Fossey studied and tried to protect the magnificent mountain gorilla. She gave her life doing so. But to her credit there is no disputing that her work saved the mountain gorilla from extinction and opened the doors for gorilla tourism. Thanks to Fossey, I marked my 60th birthday on a exhilarating Uganda Gorilla Trek.
Most of us have seen lowland gorillas in zoos. But the mountain gorilla has not been able to survive in captivity. Biologists are not sure why they don’t survive. So the only way to see these animals is to go to them.
And so, for one blessed hour, I sat in the jungle of Uganda and observed up close and personal one of earth’s most noble, splendid and humanlike creatures.
Unfortunately doing a Uganda gorilla trek is expensive. The cost is mostly due to the permit fees required by the government. The money of course is helping continue to save these magnificent beasts, but at $600 per person for the permit alone, it’s beyond reach for many people. Rwanda’s permit is more than twice as much. You can trek in Congo for less, but you would also be putting you life in danger going to Congo. And so, for us, as a celebratory birthday event, we chose to do our Uganda Gorilla Trek with Achieve Global Safari of Uganda.
How it Works
Through Achieve you can sign up for three day, five day, ten day or however long you want. Achieve can take you beyond the Uganda Gorilla Trek and also show you many of the other wonderful animals and sights of Uganda. But having already done a couple of safaris, our focus was just the gorillas.
We arrived at Entebbe Uganda in the afternoon and were met by our guide John. We were so glad to have been assigned John, he turned out to be an amazing guide. John took us from Entebbe about an hour to our Marriott hotel in Kampala for a first night. Very nice hotel. Bright and early the next morning John picked us up for the ten hour drive from Kampala to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
It was a very long drive, but we saw some interesting sights along the way, including a stop to have our photo taken as we crossed the equator. This was our first time crossing the equator on land.
We also enjoyed seeing many beautiful birds, zebras grazing alongside cows, and the famous Ankole longhorn cows praised for the beef and milk. We enjoyed seeing mile and miles of agriculture. Uganda’s mild climate and long days provide a stable growing environment year around for everything from sweet potatoes to bananas, onions to avocado, rice to pineapple. We passed dozens and dozens of villages large and small and slowly ascended into the mountains. At the highest point we were at 7800 feet (2400 meters) but came down to about 6500 feet on arrival at our lodge.
Ichumbi Gorilla Lodge
If you decide to make this trek we highly recommend using Achieve, asking for John to be your guide, and requesting to stay at the beautiful Ichumbi Gorilla Lodge. Small, lovely, comfortable and possibly the best service of anywhere we have stayed in all of Africa. I wished we had the time to stay longer and linger…enjoying the misty mountain views and relaxing on the verandah. The food was also exceptional. A very nice touch was a hot water bottle placed in our bed every evening to keep us warm as the mountain temps dropped.
Uganda Gorilla Trek Day
Overnight I woke up with a frightful headache, and I knew I was suffering from altitude sickness. At breakfast I began to feel very queasy and I was unable to eat anything. Damn. I was not going to miss this! I put on my happy face and we headed to the trek site.
In 1981 it’s estimated there were only 250 mountain gorillas left in the world. Thanks to conservation efforts the population is healthy and growing in all three countries where they live. There are 36 gorilla families in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park, with a total of about 650 gorillas, half the world’s population. Of these about 13 families are currently habituated for the tourist trekkers. Habituation began in 1991 and the first trekkers came in 1993.
After a briefing by the ranger and some local entertainment, we were split into groups of eight and assigned to trek to one of the families. The families stay within a general area that is their home, so using advance tracking ranger teams, the guides know approximately where the gorillas are hanging out today.
Our trek group consisted of a German/Dutch family of four, two women from Estonia and me and my husband. Our lead ranger was Phillip and we were accompanied by two armed guards, one forward and one aft. In addition local porters could be hired ($15 US minimum) to assist trekkers with their packs or to help them through the mud. We were the only ones who hadn’t hired a porter and we probably should have, if only to provide a good day’s employment to a local person.
Despite my upset stomach I was feeling pretty lucky when we were assigned to the Nshongi Family. This currently is the biggest habituated gorilla family in Uganda with 25 members but more than 10 have left to form another family called the Mishaya Group. The Nshongi group also was in a area we could hike to from the orientation site, instead of driving a distance to start the hike. I started to feel better once we started moving and after the first few kilometers I was no longer suffering the upset stomach. Instead I was focused on what was turning out to be a very difficult Uganda gorilla trek. (read more about all the habituated families here.)
Our name was mud. Wow. So much mud. It sucked at your shoes and oozed into your socks. It had rained a lot the day before, and we were counting our blessings for a clear morning, but the weather the previous day left its calling card and it was named mud. There was no chance of staying out of the mud and so we didn’t try. I was very glad to have my hiking poles with me as we trekked along, slurping through the muck.
It took us about two and half hours before our guide was on the radio conversing with the advance trackers. We were feeling lucky since we had heard that sometimes it takes 7-8 hours to find them. The trackers had the gorillas in sight. But the gorillas wait for no tourists and they were on the move. At this point we left what was somewhat of a trail and went headlong into the dense bush. Our guide Phillip had a machete and he hacked as much of a trail as possible for us as we stumbled through the vines and bushes and up the mountain side. The sweat was pouring off of me.
And Then There They Were
My heart stopped as the first gorilla, a small juvenile, came bounding across the path right in front of me. But he was gone in a flash. We continued, hacking with the machete through the bush. Suddenly there were four gorillas, two females and two two-year olds. The kids were playing and the mamas were resting after their lunch. I was taking photos and switched to video just in time to have this little fella get up on a branch and pound his chest. Chest pounding in a large gorilla can mean an attack, but this little guy was just acting tough and I was smitten.
Our guide led us down a little incline into a clearing where two more juveniles (a three year old and a two year old) were wrestling. This is both a form of exercise and play, but also a way for the older gorilla to teach the baby. We were watching this playtime and our guide had me step a little to the right and pointed ahead about twenty yards. And there I saw him. A resplendent silverback gorilla.
King Kong comes to mind. This beautiful creature is twenty-four years old (they live as much as forty) and weighs nearly 500 lbs. We never saw this beast stand up but mountain gorillas can grow as tall as 2.25 metres (7.5 feet). The mature male sports a crest of fur on his head and the magnificent silver fur on his back.
Our new friend seemed quit content as he laid there snoozing, then grazing, then watching the littles play. Unlike many in the animal kingdom, the patriarch of the family is intricately involved in the lives of the young. The little gorillas crawled all over him, banged on him and cuddled up to him as he lay. He rolled over into a half sitting position (he seemed to be posing for a centerfold) and watched us watch him. He addressed the kids with a gorilla grunt, which sounds more like a pig grunting than what you think a gorilla would sound like.
Slowly, slowly, my heart returned to it’s normal rhythm as our hour with the Uganda Mountain Gorillas came to an end. Phillip said it was time for us to take our final photos, as our hour was nearly up. As if he understood, the Silverback sat up, looked us in the eye and we snapped our final shots.
On our trek back we had to ford a couple of high running streams. We were soaked, muddy and exhilarated. I don’t think anybody was thinking about how hard the trek had been…only thinking about how rewarding.
Once in a lifetime. I feel so grateful.
I should point out again that the hike was very difficult. Occasionally there are trekkers who just can’t go on. The porters provide another service, but for a price. An additional $300 USD and they will literally carry you in a kind of rickshaw up the mountain. They call this the gorilla helicopter.
On our return ten-hour drive back to Entebbe for one final night before our flight out of Uganda, John took the time to really share his gratitude to us for choosing to visit Uganda. He elaborated on how many jobs are created through gorilla tourism – not just the guides, the rangers and the porters, but all the staff at hotels, restaurants, shops and gas stations. This on top of the money we invested into the conservation of the gorilla through the work done by the African Wildlife Foundation.
Our five day tour included four nights lodging, all our meals, a personal vehicle and our guide John, park entrance permits and all the staff it took to get us up the mountain to the gorillas. We tipped everyone generously. Total for all of this was $3100.
We were sorry our visit to Uganda was so short. It’s such a green, friendly country with UNESCO recognizing it’s biodiversity. Certainly Uganda still has political challenges, and the Entebbe airport is in need of signifcant upgrades. But as a visitor, there are so many exciting options for wildlife viewing, Uganda is poised to be the next big safari destination, although currently still flying under the radar. Your dollars help both the people and the animals, and help save the habitat of these incredible creatures. Just like in Borneo when we visited the Orangutans, loss of habitat is the greatest threat.
If you can afford it I highly recommend a Uganda Gorilla Trek. Come now…before the secret gets out. Come for the gorillas. Come for the beauty. Come for the people of Uganda. Uganda, the Pearl of Africa.
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