Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
I’m not sure I can faithfully convey how cool this experience was…
Fair Warning #1, the park fees are $500-$750 per day depending on which country, and the time of year… So yes, you should do it, but no, it ain’t cheap.
Fair Warning #2, be in shape and ready to hike. This was AS DIFFICULT as Kilimanjaro (just lower altitude).
Ok, now for the adventure…
Sept 24, 2016 – Flights and Transfers
The day started with a flight from Zanzibar back to Nairobi, followed by a delay before the flight from Nairobi to Entebbe (Uganda). The Entebbe airport was a bit chaotic, but there was a rep from A&K there to help me thru and get me onto the next plane.
Speaking of that, had my plane been on time; I was already holding up the bush flight. So they apparently left without me, but had another plane waiting… thus, I was the sole passenger in a Cessna Caravan flying across Uganda.
We landed a little over an hour later at Kihihi airstrip, a slightly North of Bwindi
There I was met by Moses, who would be my driver and local guide for the next few days… in my favorite kind of truck: Toyota FJ70 series, which you sadly cannot get in the USA.
Moses took me thru the nearby town, and pointed out all kinds of things… like this little blue lizard.
And storks up in the tree tops…
The home-made wooden scooters, and kids packing for a week at school…
(side note: the local kids all run out and scream “Hello!” whenever they see you, and it generally appears that Uganda may rival Disneyland as the “Happiest place on Earth”)
It was also market day. Apparently all the locals do most of their shopping on 1 day a week…
Some repairs to a motorbike hauling mattresses…
The Uganda version of the Texas Longhorn…
After about an hour of driving and touring, we made it to the Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge… A very nice place on the edge of the national park. They told me that 2 weeks prior, a group of Gorillas was actually on their property. I checked into my bungalow, had a very nice dinner, and got ready for bed. The next day was an early start. But I did snap some nice bird pics sometime before dinner.
Sept 25, 2016 – Gorilla Trek #1
You meet up early at the park headquarters for a briefing on how to behave around the gorillas, and to break into groups of about 8 trekkers. I landed in the Rashegura Gorilla group. We also learned about the park, conservation efforts, and that Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park has over half of the world’s wild Mountain Gorillas. 402, including 2 born in the last month.
Scary that there are only 800-ish wild mountain gorialls.
The park has tracker’s that start at the last known location of the group around 7 am, and follow the trail of droppings and broken branches. We drove for about 45 minutes, and got to the end of the road around 9 am (had to drive around the outside of the park), and started trekking thru “Community Land” that surrounds the park. This is mostly tea, coffee, and banana plantations.
The locals are again enthusiastic to see tourists. They get a percentage (like 10-15%) of the $500+ daily visitor fee in the form of community projects and schools. In return, they actively watch for poaching and other illegal activities, while being super friendly to tourists.
We got our porters, guides, and armed escorts (who were there to shoot in the air and scare away any elephants or un-habituated gorilla groups we encounter). We trekked thru the community land for about an hour, then down a freshly cleaned and steep hillside in a tea plantation, and finally into the forest. It was hot, humid, and you’re at 5,000 ft, so breathing a little heavy. For me, this was as difficult as Kilimanjaro… but I prefer hiking in cooler weather.
20 minutes later we met up with the trackers on a forest animal path. We put away our walking sticks (gorillas don’t like humans holding sticks), got cameras out, took our last sips of water for the nest hour, and reviewed the rules. Standing in a semi-circle, our guide said “Okay, time to see the gorills… turn around”
We turn around, and holy crap, we’re 20 ft from the Rashegura Gorilla group… 15+ ape’s led by a 17 year old, and roughly 350 lb Silverback:
The juveniles were wrestling, while the toddlers were climbing trees and vines. Mom was nursing a baby, and the Silverback was just sitting and watching us.
At one point, the Silverback got up and walked right in front of me… literally 2 ft away. Check it out in the video…
And more pictures:
Overall, this group was very relaxed and playful. As we got closer to the end of the hour, they started walking away as if they knew our time with them was up. Each of the habituated groups (I believe Bwindi has 6) only see humans for a maximum of 1 hour a day, and not every day.
Sept 26, 2016 – Gorilla Trek #2
You’d think that would have been enough, but we booked 2 days of gorillas… and it was an entirely different experience.
The 2nd trek was to see the Habinyanja group. Same briefing, different guides, different gorillas, cooler weather. We got to go with G.G. – the man who habituated this group roughly 20 years ago.
For this trek, we drove for about 60 minutes, a bit farther North to an area called “The Neck”. Literally a slender area joining the Northern and Southern expanses of the forest (check it on google maps). We trekked for about 2 hours, but I like it because it was cool out. We had to cut our own trail in the bush. The guides were hacking with machete’s as we descended and climbed and re-descended and re-climbed some very steep and slippery slopes that were thick with plants.
We reached the tracker’s, and reviewed the rules. No sticks, last sips of water, and cameras out. Then we heard a growling howl from behind a shaking bush. G.G. told us the Silverback is really defensive because they have a new baby.
It was also harder to see this group as the vegetation was dense, and the light was more harsh than the previous day. Still, got a few decent photos and video:
G.G. giving the briefing:
Marcus, my porter:
Baby hanging under mom:
Mom guarding baby:
After seeing the gorillas, we has a quick lunch and started back to the trucks. Then the rain came…
I actually enjoyed the cool rain, but the trail was about 6 inches wide, very muddy, and very steep. Everyone fell and was covered in mud. Then more rain helped clean you off. It took over 2 hours to get back to the trucks, but it cleared up as we exited the forest, and was pretty nice again for the drive home.
And finally, a map of where I was: