I’m regularly asked, if I could go anywhere in the world for any travel experience of my choosing, where and what would it be?
My answer remains unaltered – ‘gorilla trekking in Uganda’.
For as long as I can remember I’ve held on to this as the ultimate wildlife experience, one that would take me close to these gentle giants, offering the privilege of time in their company. Last year I had the opportunity to live out this dream when I travelled to Uganda.
It was everything I dreamed of - and much more.
The trip started with my arrival in Entebbe on the edge of Lake Victoria. This place is hot and I shed layers of clothing whilst seeking out a driver to take me to Kampala. The distance is only 35 kilometers, yet the journey takes 2.5 hours through peak traffic. With my windows down, I welcomed the sounds and smells of Africa as we weaved through trucks, bicycles and people. My driver chatted away, giving me the lowdown on a country I was meeting for the first time. By the time we arrived, I've been suitably seduced.
The main focus of the trip is gorilla trekking where logistics are all encompassing. With this in mind, I opted to join a 7-day guided over-landing tour. I’d always had the misconception that overland trips were all about raucous drunk students with no appetite for the environment. I was wrong. They are actually about like-minded people seeking extraordinary experiences in a safe and structured manner.
I joined the rest of my group; South Africans, Polish, Swedes and a German, aged between 25 and 70, with professions ranging from movie-maker to dentist. We gathered around a cluster of tables and began to break down international barriers over some local beer.
The road trip from Kampala to our campsite on Lake Bunyonyi, took most of the next day. Our reward was to be green landscapes, rolling hills, the occasional hub bursting with consummate traders, goats and Ankole cattle with their impressive horns.
This is the Africa that I belong to.
Yet nothing could have prepared me for the surprise of Lake Bunyonyi. Meaning ‘place of little birds’, this is one of the deepest lakes in the world, is home to 29 islands and has a calm dark water idyllic for swimming and kayaking.
The day is finally here – gorilla trekking day!
We access Bwindi from Bunyonyi via a mountain pass set in the deep forest. At base camp we are kitted out with walking sticks and briefed by our guide. Only about 800 gorillas are left in the wild, with 11 habituated families in Bwindi, which is home to about 400 of them.
Visits are capped at three groups of eight people per day and permits need to be bought well in advance, that’s no more than 24 people on the mountain at any given time. There is a chance that you won’t see the gorillas, although trackers go up to find them on a daily basis, as much for their protection as for our convenience. Correct behavior is key.
Be quiet, keep a respectable distance, do not try and touch the baby…
The family we were tracking was BituKura, a large group with an impressive silverback. There are only three habituated families in this part of the reserve and my heart started to pulse at the magnitude of the moment. I was to see one of them.
Stick in hand, we followed our guides onto the mountain, taking an established path for the first hour or so before turning into dense vegetation, which the guides cut back with machete to make way for us. Three hours of heavy walking though the muddied forest floor, ferns and fungi, under a canopy of tall trees and with a sweat and breathlessness to match, we found the tracker who pointed us to the family.
Hugging the ridge and moving slowly forward, we caught a glimpse of our first gorilla and all but the joy of the moment was forgotten. Your time with the gorillas is limited to an hour. We followed them, watching as they chomped on bamboo and headed slowly towards a clearing amongst the trees. A mother and her baby stole our hearts and the silverback the show, as he walked right past where we were sitting.
A surreal sense of privilege and emotion
There are no adequate ways to truly describe the surreal sense of privilege and emotion that I was overcome by in their presence. As an animal lover and advocate, I knew that to sit only a few meters from mountain gorillas and watch the sweet albeit awkward interaction between a 10-month-old baby and the silverback, is a memory I will forever hold dear.
Heading down the mountain for a picnic, our group had the chance to excitedly share impressions of our experience. I understood Dian Fossey and have nothing but admiration for her followers who put their lives at risk for something greater than us on a daily basis.
This giant yet fragile animal that man has yet to learn to respect
From there, mud underfoot and hearts aglow, we continued our days in Uganda. I visited the Queen Elizabeth National Park on the DRC border, experienced chimpanzee trekking in Kalinzu Forest and ate street food in the remote villages we passed through.
Winston Churchill called Uganda ‘The Pearl of Africa’, and after my time there, I certainly agree.
Important points to guide you whilst you plan:
- The hike in the rain forest is a tough one through thick vegetation that could last anything from 2 to 8 hours. Good walking shoes and long trousers with socks tucked over them are recommended. I’d even say long-sleeve cotton shirts, as the nettles may get you. Also a rain jacket is a must.
- It’s important to have a good level of fitness as this will make the experience more enjoyable. I find it refreshing that the gorillas are difficult to reach. It heightens the sense of appreciation that we had to work to find them.
- I took a porter at a cost of US$20. The porters are from the nearby village and this forms an important part of their income. There are about 50 on rotation, which means they only work a couple of times a month. My man Valdi carried my backpack and took my hand to guide me through the slippery steep bits. I don’t think I could have done it without him.
- My trip was booked with Nomad Africa Adventures Tours, who cater for an older set of travellers. Their comprehensive itineraries offer the option of camping or accommodation. I camped, but I’d recommend accommodation for the private showers and plug points to charge phones and camera batteries. It’s not much more expensive.
- South Africans get an automatic 20% discount on the tour price.
- The cost of a gorilla permits in Bwindi in 2015 is set at US$630pp (about R7 780 at R12.35/$) –US$730pp (about R9 015) , which is much, yet remains significantly cheaper than in Rwanda. During the months of April, May and November, the permits are discounted to only US$370pp (about R4 569).
- A Yellow Fever Certificate is required for South Africans travelling to Uganda.
Don't live this precious hour from behind your camera
Most importantly, when you find the gorillas, take the photos you need, but don’t live this precious hour from behind your camera. The most useful advise I was given whilst preparing for the experience was to put my camera down and simply enjoy the privilege of being in their company. The hour flies by and once it has, like me you’re continue that dream of a return.