When I was invited on an educational through Uganda with Wild Frontiers, I jumped at the opportunity. My main objective was to experience the country and see how we can fit this magical destination into our client’s wishes without compromising comfort.
The mountain gorilla's habitat is limited to protected national parks in two regions of Africa. One group of gorillas lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda – Buhoma region - which is where we saw them, and the other group is spread over three national parks in the Virungas mountain region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda.
We arrived at Bwindi the day before the trek and settled into the comfortable Buhoma Lodge. The lodge is perfectly located for Gorilla Trekking, as you can walk to the Buhoma Park Headquarters where it all begins.
Buhoma lodge – owned by Wild Frontiers - is very comfortable, the staff amazing and food awesome. A great USP (unique selling point) is that massages are included in the rate. And after a long trek – especially if it takes you a couple of hours to find the gorillas, this is very much needed and appreciated. Another USP is that they can clean and dry your gear in record time. They have some sort of hot chamber which dries the clothes and shoes. To us this was so helpful because we still had ahead of us another 7 days of “living out of a suitcase” and there in nothing worse than carrying wet and dirty gear.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast and “gearing up” we walked to the Headquarters where it all starts – a 5 min walk from Buhoma lodge.
To be honest, I was a bit sceptical about all the recommend gear on the ‘to take with’ list like gators, walking stick, rain coat. At the time, I felt this to be a little much because I consider myself a “tough South African” that doesn’t need all this “stuff”. But I went with the flow only to be very glad I did! The forest is impenetrable in every way, and with heavy rains it becomes very slippery and steep - one needs all the help (and gear) one can get 😊
We arrived at the briefing center in Bwindi in the early morning, where everyone was given a short briefing and then split up into smaller groups. Each group was assigned a different family of gorillas located in different areas, and we then set off in different directions to begin our descent – in our case ascent into the jungle. We drove for about 40 minutes and then started with a steep ascent past the most amazing little village with beautiful shy kids, and tea plantations.
Then a steep decent through the plantations, crossing streams and into the impenetrable forest. The trek involves getting quite dirty, especially after heavy rain and bushwhacking through thick jungle – this was the most exciting part to me. We were accompanied by a very experienced local guide and trekkers. They literally cut away the dense forest with a “panga” “machete” so that we could walk through. The trekking experience to me was very surreal, magical and emotional, and unlike anything I had experienced before. With each step my anticipation built up, then we heard them and then they moved…..and on we went one step at a time due to the density of the forest. I was almost at the stage of thinking we will never see them and then suddenly after a two-hour trek, there they were - a group of 5 with two babies (about 2 years old). We were lucky because a trek can take anything between 40 minutes up to 8 hours. One is allowed one hour to observe, ask questions, take loads of photos and videos and just take it all in. During the entire hour I was mesmerized. This was the most intimate and magical experience ever. The gorillas literally look into your eyes – one moved closer to me and just sat on the branch and ate facing us – the others just carried on minding their own business. Then Mr. Silverback decided to snooze whilst the two ladies ate, and the kids swung on the branches like Tarzan and bounced playfully onto the ground screeching and playing. We were all watching them in awe, with me hunched down closest to the group when the cheeky kids decided to jump onto snoozing Mr. Silverback who got a fright and mock charged us! Some in the group retreated, one hid behind the ranger (safest place 😊) and I just froze…..The guides and rangers know the gorillas so well and know what to do in situations like this. They stood their ground and calmed Mr. Silverback down. After 5 minutes of eyeballing us on all fours, he retreated. My heart has never beaten so fast…..Although these Gorilla groups are familiar with humans and the guides and rangers know the troops very well, we are still dealing with wild animals who protect their young over and above everything – and Mr. Silverback just wanted to show us who the King of his Jungle is.
And then our hour was over, and we started the trek back to the vehicle. The heavens opened, and it poured down with rain. That was then when I was forever thankful for my waterproof rain jacket and plastic bags protecting my camera, cell phone and backpack. All the important stuff was dry, but we were soaked – drenched in water and happiness from this magical, mystical and humbling encounter I will never ever forget!
Although Gorilla Trekking is expensive due to the permits, accommodation and transport costs, it is so well worth saving up for this once in a lifetime experience which truly is a luxury in value and adventure.