“Does everyone have waterproofs?” asks the ranger, looking around him. The thirty-two of us, crammed into the tiny room, nod grimly. Yes, yes we do. And we know we’re going to need them.
The gorilla tracking briefing is normally held outside, but today we’ve been shoehorned into the ranger’s office (a space big enough for about ten) because it’s absolutely chucking it down. Rain is hammering on the corrugated steel roof and spilling out of the gutters. A few late arrivals are peering in through the window – there’s no more room inside – but they can’t hear what’s being said because the noise of the deluge is too loud. When it rains in Uganda, it really rains, and today the weather gods definitely mean business.
We’re all here for one purpose: to trek through the tangled Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in search of the rare and elusive mountain gorilla. Even at an eye-watering USD $600 per person this is still Uganda’s number one tourist attraction – a once-in-a-lifetime experience available only to a privileged few. We all know we are extremely lucky to be there, we just wish it would stop bloody raining.
GETTING TO BWINDI
I arrived in Bwindi the night before, travelling from the Rwandan border after successfully climbing the volcano Nyiragongo just the day before (if you want to know more about that, read Nyiragongo: The World’s Largest Lava Lake – the photos are pretty awesome!).
I’m travelling with my friend and fellow travel blogger Linn (check out her blog here), and a Ugandan tour guide named Hassan who has been our driver, organizer and all-round hero for the past two weeks. As we drive north from the border along a winding and bumpy road that ascends gradually into the mountains, we begin to catch glimpses of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest hugging the hillsides. Mist hangs in the valleys and coats the trees in an eerie white cloak; you can clearly see why early British explorers were afraid of it, and called it ‘impenetrable’.
On the road we spot other curious wildlife, but we don’t stop for long. These baboons may be interesting, but it’s their much larger cousins we’re here to see.
The heavens open the next morning while we’re having breakfast at our lodge (about which, more at the bottom). Hassan promises to pray hard for the rain to stop, but I’m not sure I have as much faith. We’re slap bang in the middle of the rainy season after all, and so far we’ve been extremely lucky – we didn’t see a drop on the volcano – so it was only a matter of time before our luck ran out. Anyway there’s nothing we can do: we’re here now, so we just have to make the best of it.
I don’t have waterproof trousers, so I put on my lightweight running leggings, waterproof jacket and proper hiking boots (the ones that took me successfully up Kilimanjaro), pack all my camera gear into individual plastic bags, cover my entire backpack with an additional rain cover, and off we go.
We arrive at the ranger station at 8 am, and after showing our passports and being briefed, we’re divided into four groups, one for each of the four habituated gorilla families living in the area. As we gather, some people are looking nervous – we’ve been warned that the going is steep and difficult at the best of times, but with the rain it’s also going to be treacherously slippery. Hassan implores me to hire a porter to help carry my heavy camera gear and at first I refuse, unwilling to seem weak or lazy in front of my fellow hikers. I’m tough! I just climbed a volcano yesterday, for crying out loud! How hard can it really be? I argue, but when Hassan assures me that in this kind of weather it will be harder than I can possibly imagine, I give in, justifying it to myself on the basis that I’ll be contributing to the local economy and giving a guy a day’s work. I will soon be extremely glad I did.
Preparations completed, it’s time to start walking. The gorilla families are constantly moving through the forest looking for food, so tracking teams have been out since 7 am looking for them. We’re told that the trackers will start by going to the place where our family was yesterday, and then use old-school methods: looking for bent branches, crushed foliage, footprints and droppings to follow where they went. It could take them just an hour or two to find them, in which case our day will be quite easy, but if we’re unlucky it could take many hours. We haven’t brought packed lunches, so I’m praying they’re nearby, otherwise I could get pretty hungry (which is not a good look on me).
GORILLAS IN THE RAIN
A 2010-11 census calculated that there are just 880 wild mountain gorillas left in the world, all living in the same mountainous region that spans the borders between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. About half the population – around 400 – live on the Uganda side in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park; the remaining 480 live in Rwanda and Congo.
The 400 gorillas in Bwindi are divided up into 31 families. Fifteen of these have been habituated – trained gently over 2-3 years to become used to the presence of humans – while the remaining sixteen families are completely wild and cannot be approached. Habituated families are allowed to receive a single group of up to eight visitors per day, for a maximum of one hour. We’ve been assigned the Mukiza group, named after the silverback and head of the family. I’m excited and nervous to meet them: I’ve heard stories of people getting patted, thumped, and even pushed to the ground by overly-curious animals, and I wonder if we will come back with an unexpectedly exciting story to tell.
The gorilla families are spread out across the park, with access possible from one of four trailheads: the main and most popular base is at Buhoma in the north-west, with others at Ruhija in the east, Nkuringo in the south-west and Rushaga in the south-west. We’ve come to Ruhija, where there are four families – so that’s 32 people per day who get to enjoy the privilege of being able to spend a brief moment with these incredible and rare creatures. But first, of course, we have to find them.
RAIN, RAIN, GO AWAY
We trudge through the pelting rain. I can’t get my camera out because it will get destroyed, so I’ve given all my gear to Crinerio, the porter, who now has the backpack on his back, covered with a plastic poncho in addition to my rain cover. I may not get a chance to a actually use my camera, but at least I’m reasonably confident it’s going to survive the trip. Without it the only thing I have is my phone, which I take out occasionally to grab a quick snap and then wipe on a lens cloth. With this soon soaked through, it’s not a terribly effective strategy, but frustratingly it’s the best I can do.
The path leads steeply downhill, though right now it’s less of a path and more of a shallow river. A small torrent of water flows thickly down the slope, turning the ground into a slippery, muddy mess. I lean back into my heels and plant my walking pole firmly into the ground to avoid slipping, though every so often there’s a little yelp as someone nearly goes over. I hear one of the guides talking on his radio, saying, “Yes, it’s raining very hard. Very difficult,” which makes me feel a little better about how hard I’m finding it.
We reach the bottom of the hill and take another path along the valley, this one also slippery with thick mud and tangled with vegetation. My boots have made a valiant effort to keep my feet dry, but this is too much even for them: my socks are sodden now. No one really knows where we’re going; we’re just walking in the vague general direction of where the guides think the gorillas might be, and waiting for a call from the tracking team.
And after about an hour and a half of walking, it comes. There’s a crackle on the guide’s radio, and we all stop. The family’s been found – hallelujah! – but we’ve been going the wrong way. We turn round and track back the way we’ve come for about ten minutes, and then without warning, the lead guide steps off the path and dives head first directly into the thick forest and straight back up the hill. Like bedraggled rats following the Pied Piper, we follow.
Now the going gets really tough. Straight up the steep side of the hill we go, with no path, in the torrential rain. We just have trampled plants underfoot, their stems tangled and slippery, ready to jump up and wrap themselves round an ankle without warning. There’s nothing to hold onto – if you reach out to grab something for balance you’ll probably just get a handful of stinging nettles. I can definitely understand why they call this place ‘Impenetrable’ – and I’m now extremely grateful for Hassan’s insistence that I hire a porter. It’s tough enough as it is, even without carrying 10 kilos of camera gear that I may not get to use. And Crinerio is more than just a bag-carrier – he’s there with a helpful hand to steady me and even pull me up the slope when my mud-clogged boots lose their grip.
FINDING THE GORILLAS
We struggle uphill in single file, pushing through the thick forest, for another half hour, until finally the person in front of me stops. We look at each other: have we found them? It’s hard to tell, there’s thick jungle all around, and all I can see is the couple of people in front of me and Impenetrable Forest everywhere else. I certainly can’t see any gorillas – but apparently they are close by. And right on cue, at the perfect, blessed moment… It. Stops. Raining. It seems Hassan’s prayers have finally worked after all.
There’s a little rearranging as we get ourselves ready. We’re told to give up our walking sticks to avoid upsetting the animals. Bags are opened, cameras extracted, hoods removed. Tentatively now, we continue up the hill, even more off balance without our walking poles, but excited. We’re almost there.
And then, finally, a glimpse. It’s not much, just a dash of black fur in amongst the green. We jostle for position; with so much foliage it’s not easy to see anything, but he’s there, Mukiza, the 28-year-old silverback himself, his fur glossy with rainwater. The rangers push forward and use hooks and machetes to clear the undergrowth so we can see better. I quickly swap lenses that perfect silverback hero shot.
Other gorillas are nearby: there’s Kanywani, a 6-year-old male, who hangs halfway up a small tree, breaking off stalks and stripping the leaves off with his teeth.
There’s 20-year-old Twijukye, which means ‘remember’, and 19-year-old Mugenyi, whose name means ‘visitor’.
There’s also 29-year-old mum Korugyezi and her baby Kanoel.
Thirteen gorillas in the group in total, though we are only able to see six of them. Well, maybe five-and-a-half, if you count this little guy.
Seeing them clearly and getting good photos is harder than I expected. When you watch gorillas on wildlife programmes they’re usually just sitting about in a big group, calmly munching away or grooming each other. But here, they’re dotted about, often obscured by the thick undergrowth.
Balanced unstably as we are on a steep slope, the eight of us struggle to get into a position where we can all get a clear view. Often just as soon as we do, the animal in question moves off again, and we have to battle our way further up the hill in hot pursuit.
But we manage to find our rhythm, taking it in turns to get a look and take photographs. And now that the rain has stopped and I can get my proper camera out, the experience is intense. To be so close to these incredible creatures, to spend time up close and personal with them, knowing that there are just a few hundred left – well, it’s not every day you get to do something like that.
Particularly awesome is the way they don’t seem to mind us being there. We look at them, and they look right back at us. Our presence doesn’t bother them; they aren’t at all upset by the furious clicking of eight shutters and the excited whispering of eight thrilled humans. They just take it all in their stride. I can almost imagine this guy thinking: Oh hi, it’s you lot again. Bit weird, all this, but whatever floats your boat. You carry on, I’ll just be here having lunch. Don’t expect me to stick around for too long, though, I’ve got shit to do. See you tomorrow though maybe, hey?
Now we’re here, in a way the challenge of the hike makes it all the more worthwhile: I know it’s not something I will ever do again, so it makes me savour that precious hour all the more. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one I will never forget. The rain just makes it even more memorable.
But eventually our hour is up. I reluctantly take the last few photos, and we head back, buzzing from our close encounter, and grateful that don’t have to trudge through the rain on the journey back too.
1/ Gorilla tracking costs USD $600 per person for a non-Ugandan, and $500 for non-Ugandans resident in the country. Discounts are available in the low season months of April, May and November. The fee includes your permit, park entry, guides, and walking stick, and 20% of your entry fee goes to support community projects in the area. You can buy your permit directly from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, or if you book an organised tour group, your tour company will arrange it for you. For more information visit the Bwindi National Park site.
2/ You can also do gorilla tracking in Rwanda and DRC but it costs $1500 in Rwanda and $400 in DRC. At the time of writing, however, Virunga National Park in DRC is closed to tourism due to conflict.
3/ A porter will cost an extra $15. If you are fit and healthy, the weather is dry, and you are not carrying much you won’t need one. But if you are at all in doubt, if it’s wet or slippery, you have a heavy bag, or are unsure about your fitness, then get one. You’re contributing to the local economy and giving someone a day’s wage.
4/ Numbers for gorilla tracking are strictly limited, so book early to avoid disappointment, especially in the peak or dry seasons. If you go in the rainy season you may get lucky if you leave it late, but there are no guarantees, and you will need to be prepared for rain!
5/ Most people find the gorillas within a few hours, but there is a chance you may have to walk for a lot longer. Bring a packed lunch just in case. If you haven’t found your family by about 3 pm, they will take you to see one of the others instead. In extreme circumstances they will let you come back the next day.
6/ You will need to be fit and healthy as the trekking is not easy. If you have a cold or worse, you will not be allowed to go near the gorillas for fear of infecting them.
7/ You will need to bring:
- Proper walking shoes or boots (some people wore trainers but they were far from ideal in the rain)
- Waterproof cover for your bag
- Gloves are highly recommended for grabbing onto trees and plants to help keep your balance.
- Packed lunch
- Warm clothes for the evening – the highlands can be chilly!
WHERE WE STAYED
We spent the night before and after at the wonderful Bakiga Lodge, an eco-lodge and community project perched on a hillside overlooking the rolling hills of Bwindi. It’s just 10 minutes drive from the Ruhija gorilla tracking meeting point.
Bakiga Lodge has four cabins and two safari tents, all self-contained with ensuite bathrooms and stunning views over the valley. At the time we were there, more cabins were under construction. There’s a also a central bar and restaurant area with a cosy log fire for those chilly mountain evenings.
Bakiga is a non-profit safari lodge, part of the Bakiga Community Project which works across the district to help communities access safer water. All profits from the lodge are used to finance the water projects, which means that if you stay here not only will you get a cosy room and amazing views, you’re also helping the local community at the same time.
Have you been gorilla trekking? How did you experience compare? Or are you thinking of going? Post your comments and questions below – and thanks for reading!
Note: my gorilla permit was provided courtesy of the Uganda Tourism Board and accommodation at Bakiga Lodge was complementary. All thoughts and opinions are my own. I don’t accept freebies in exchange for positive reviews. All prices are correct at the time of writing.