For as long as I can remember, visiting the Mountain Gorillas has been a dream for me. It has been a clear top on my bucket list ever since I learnt what bucket lists were. I'm so excited to share my experience with you all.
We flew from Nairobi to Entebbe, Uganda over the beautiful Lake Victoria. Uganda had this natural feel to it, it was a much greener, much rawer country. We arrived into the airport of chaos. Prepare yourself for anger, frustration, disappointment and finally content that you will be waiting in lines for hours. Plan plenty of time to get through the airport, and go to the bathroom before lining up!!
We met our new guide Moses, a knowledgeable man full of fun facts about Uganda including the temperature averaging between 26.7°C and 30.1°C, having the 2nd & 4th highest mountains in Africa and that they also have eucalyptus trees here!!!
But hold the fort. I need to take a moment to talk about our transport. It was the coolest thing in the world ever!!! It was big, very big… It was bold, very bold. And did I mention it was Bright FLUORO Green! Amazeballs!! We spotted the vehicle as soon as we walked out of the airport and were pointing and laughing at it saying ‘I wonder who drives that’ and ‘that is a pimping truck’. We then got closer and closer and we got our cameras out to take a photo of it as something quite unique… That was until our guide pulled some keys out of his pocket and opened the driver’s door!!! Sooo Cool!
Just next to the airport is an extensive compound of planes, helicopters, officers, trucks and transport vehicles, all belonging to the United Nations. Over the next day we made our way to a small lodge just outside Kibale forest, home to Chimpanzees.
Waking up at 0415, we made our way to Kibale Forest, a home to a troupe of over 120 Chimpanzees. Although the group often splits into smaller groups during the day, there is always a hierarchy and a dominant male. The lesser chimps make submissive calls if in the presence of greater chimps. If they do the wrong thing, they may get charged or beaten up. Chimps can also be greedy and if they find some good fruit, they won’t tell anyone else about it till they have filled their belly.
We spent the next few hours observing them eating high in the trees as well as the occasional one scurrying down one tree before bolting up the next one.
We came across a female who seemed to be lost, just wandering along in the forest. She made a few calls but no one seemed to respond, so she let out a different call which the guides informed us was the emergency call. Minutes later a large male came charging through the forest breaking trees, snapping branches, making himself well known. When he got to us, he realised the female had sounded a false alarm and there was no emergency and he was furious (according to the guides, if the male had found the female, she was going to be in serious trouble). He eventually gave up looking for her, climbed a fruit tree, made himself a hammock and dozed off eating fruit. Such fascinating animals and so human-like in their expressions and actions.
We came across an old man who although older and weaker, still claimed respect from the tribe. He was such a beautiful soul and as you can see from this photo he had a cataract in his eye…
Crossing the equator we headed past Lake Edward, Queen Elizabeth National park and on to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home of half the world’s population of Mountain Gorillas
We were due to be staying at a camp site for the next few days, but due to it currently being upgraded, our tour company changed us to a newly built Lodge and had asked for out thoughts. Just one word. WOW! The place was amazingly beautiful. Situated high up the side of a mountain the view of the valley below was breathtaking. The view was picture perfect for 'Gorillas in the Mist'…
The room itself was huge with 2 double beds, plenty of extra space, and a bathtub which also had a view of the valley below😉 The staff were wonderful and friendly and very accommodating with meal times.
Today is the Day. A Dream come true for me. Something that I have wanted to do for a long as I can remember. Today is the Day. I can’t describe the butterflies in my stomach.
After watching an introductory video (which looked like it was made in the 80s and on a TV that was probably made earlier than that), we were split up into our hiking groups. They generally try to group people of a similar fitness together. Normally from that checkpoint there are 3 Gorilla groups you can visit with a maximum of 8 people per group. Each Gorilla group is generally led by one Silverback gorilla. Male Gorillas are black-backs (referring to the colour of the fur on their back) until the age of around 10 before the hair matures into a silver colour.
We were allocated the R-Group. R standing for Rushegura. It is a group led by a new but powerful Silverback. Until last year he was a Black-back but after his father died (natural causes) he had to fight for the leadership against a more mature Silverback. He was only a Black-back when he took control of the group, something rarely seen. Since last year he has matured into a Silverback. The group also contains a Black-back as well as several adult females and several juveniles.
Although doing the gorilla trek is expensive, the money goes to good causes. In addition to paying the salaries for the trekkers, park wardens and trackers, it also goes to the park rangers and trackers who keep the gorillas safe day & night… Furthermore, it also pays to purchase land and pay the local farmers compensation money for not being able to expand their farm as well as for when the gorillas wander onto their land and eat/destroy their crops. There is a ‘buffer zone’ of land that is owned by conservation groups between the farmland and the forest. Initially the farmers use to receive money, however due to issues with alcohol, they now instead provide livestock (cows, goats, sheep). Then if that cow has a calf for example, it goes to that farmers neighbour, if it has another one it goes to another neighbour, then they can keep the rest. It creates a good sense of community and teamwork.
Getting a porter also provides an income for the local people and so we happily got one each (~USD$15). They were so proud of their porters that they said if you get hurt or too tired you can ‘call’ 991 (Uganda’s version of 911) and they will come and carry you firstly all the way in to see the gorillas and then back home again. Hahaha
We started our hike just next to a local church, passing through farmland, villages and playing children before starting up an impressively steep hill. Fortunately for us, although the Gorilla group were located up a steep mountain, in terms of distance, they were really quite close. So after 45 minutes of trekking up fairly steep terrain we reached the guards/trackers. Leaving our bags and walking sticks, we prepared our cameras and headed in search of Gorillas!
20m later, we saw a rustle of the bushes and then out came a Gorilla!!! Just Incredible!!! Frantic snapping of everyone’s cameras followed. For me, I was just blown away by the moment and stood in awe. He walked in between the group, brushing passed one of the group before heading off into the bushes. We continued on a bit further and found 3 more gorillas relaxing in the bushes grazing on some food. As the trackers cleared some of the dense grass, the group got soo excited for there was a mother breast feeding an infant, probably about 2 years old. We were surrounded by a Gorilla family. I was in love with this moment!!!
Most of our group focused on the little one as he was the most active and playful. The others happily sat around filling their bellies. We even got to see the little one beat his chest (if done by the silverback, this wound have been powerful and a little scary, but the little guy made it look so adorable). At one stage the little fella lunged at me. As I moved back out of his way the ranger informed he was trying to steal my camera. You know what, I really wouldn’t have minded, he had captured my heart, I would have let him do whatever he wanted to. His name was Kabunga (meaning someone who moves from here to there, or someone that likes moving). Perfect name for him
Sitting back monitoring everything going on was a big beautiful silverback. The size and clear raw power that they exude is just remarkable
Their hands were so much like ours!!!
The hour you get to spend with the Gorillas goes by in a flash and before I knew it we were heading back to the meeting point, passing the church which was now full for Sunday mass with children running all around the place.
What an amazing day! There is nothing in the world that I would recommend doing more than seeing these beautiful creatures in the wild
We spent the rest of the day talking all about it. It took a while to come down from the massive high.
The next day after stopping by one of the local schools to donate some pencils, pens and notebooks that we had brought from home, we headed to Lake Buyonyi. This drive was probably one of my favourites of the trip so far. Rolling hills, twisting roads, luscious green landscapes a mixture of beautiful dense jungle and farmland of banana trees, coffee and tea plants.
We passed two armed rangers on the drive. They were apparently watching a gorilla group that had come close to farmland to make sure they didn’t cross into the farmland and cause conflict. We then descended down the mountains into the thick mist - visibility became poor, it was like we had entered another world.
Lake Buyonyi reminded me of a ‘club med type place’. I would say that if this place existed in the USA or a Western country it would be packed with families, people water skiing, boating, canoeing, picnicking, etc. There would be summer camps, loud music and spring breakers. But it is Uganda. As such the place was quiet and fairly run down but still tried to maintain that tourist vibe by charging for everything (eg $30 to hike up a hill). The only other people staying there were intrepid and budget tour groups camping. While there was some beauty in the place, it wasn’t really ‘Uganda’. We initially didn’t have it on our itinerary, but it was suggested to us to break up the long drive to Rwanda. You can apparently swim in the lake and there is no Schistosomiasis, however I wasn’t game. We took the opportunity to go for a hike up the hill (via our own free route) and walk through the markets before having a relaxing afternoon and resting.