Everyone’s got their own travel bucket list, right? But some of my clients and I shared the same wish, to see the African mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. So I took a small group of clients to Uganda to realize what was truly a dream trip for all of us, myself included.
We spent 3 nights at Bwindi Lodge to trek the famous and rare mountain gorillas. The lodge is a 5-minute walk to the Buhoma gate of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
The lodge has 8 “bandas” or cottages named after various mountain gorillas. It has a gorgeous green view of the park, and is one of the Top 3 nicest places to stay in the area. A stay here includes all meals and drinks (even alcohol) and laundry. The main lodge has a welcoming sitting area with fireplace and dining room, and internet is available in the main lodge.
The bandas have outdoor porches and have every creature comfort you need, including King beds, sitting area, desk are with USB plugs and electrical outlets. There is a double-sink vanity in the large and airy bathroom, with a dressing area, safe, stone shower and water closet. We all LOVED the fab-smelling Temple Spa toiletries, including muscle cream and foot balm.
Your wake-up call is a delivery of cappuccino or tea with delicious pound cake, and hot water bottles to tuck you in at night.
The food at Bwindi Lodge was easily the best food we had at any lodge or camp in Uganda. My avocado and tomato bruschetta was one of the best things I ate the entire trip, as well as buttered tilapia that was a revelation and nothing like the nondescript bland tilapia we have here at home. Lunches of chicken wraps with bacon and avocado and thick cut potatoes or chicken and pesto were very tasty. On our last evening, we had 4-cheese samosas as a starter, and for the main we all choose the local specialty of “matoki” or cooked, mashed green banana with peanut sauce, and white rice and a tomato-based chicken stew that was really good. Sharing dinner in the company of our wonderful guide Eric and Omax, one of Bwindi’s park rangers and member of the Uganda Wildlfe Authority, made it our favorite dinner of the trip!
So what is it like to gorilla trek?
Whoever has permits to track that day is welcomed to the Ranger Station by a local women’s group who sing and dance before a general briefing by the Head Ranger, who goes over the rules. No flash photography, keep distance from the gorillas and speak softly. People trek in a group of up to 8 people max, so you will be grouped with other people if you are not your own group of 8. After the general briefing, you are assigned to your own park ranger and group of 8, and are told which gorilla family you will be tracking that day. People who have 2 treks in 2 consecutive days will have priority for the easiest trek if it is their second trekking day–fair enough.
You have to be prepared to trek single-file for 5 minutes or 4-5 hours to see one of the four habituated families in this section of the park. It isn’t called the IMPENETRABLE forest for nothing! There are no paths and your park team will include rangers with machetes who walk out in front and literally machete the dense brush so you can walk through. I highly recommend hiring a porter, who will carry your daypack (must bring 2 liters of water per person with you plus packed lunch, camera equipment, etc) and help you over and around the hilly brush and vegetation. I didn’t like having a walking stick and felt it more of a hindrance than a help, but that’s a personal thing. Tight-fitting neoprene gloves came in very handy when grabbing on to various branches for balance.
An advance team goes out in the very early morning to see where the gorilla families are located, and then radios the specific location to your ranger, who will lead your group there. There is an armed guard at the front of your group, and also one at the back. With 3 rangers, porters, guards and the guest group, it’s quite a scene.
Once you arrive at the gorilla family location, you are allowed exactly 60 minutes to observe them. Only one group of 8 people are allowed to see a family in one day, to limit gorilla exposure to human disease.
On our first day/first trek, we had to drive about 35 minutes away from the ranger station to where the H family of gorillas was located, and then we set about on foot. The anticipation was incredible!
It took almost an hour of hiking to get to the Habinyanja family. When you first spot those black figures in the green bushes, your heart almost jumps out of your chest. And when one of them fully emerges from the bushes and walks right by you, it truly is quite a thrill. You don’t know whether to snap away or just stand there and take it all in.
Unlike very loud-calling chimpanzees, these mountain gorillas are very mild-mannered and quiet….only once the silverback grunted his displeasure (at an armed guard standing too close to the gorillas, which included a baby) or made low noises that our ranger told us was just the silverback communicating with his members to see if all was ok. The noise you hear all around you is branches bending and breaking as these magnificent herbivores go about finding their ideal breakfast.
The members were a bit scattered in different areas, but we settled into a small area to watch a group of about 8 gorillas…..the silverback was lying on the ground napping, having his fill of breakfast already. He was being groomed by a very young gorilla, an orphan whose mother was killed and who now stays right next to the silverback all the time. But the real attention-getter was a small two-year old, who was full of energy and very playful while all the adults around him, including mom, were in food comas and napping, or still munching away. This little guy was so curious, he came right up to one of my client’s (who was at his level, sitting on the ground taking pictures) and started POKING her camera lens with his finger. Our ranger told my client to stand up, which made this toddler back off (remember, they do not want the gorillas that close to humans for a variety of reasons). This little gorilla then ran around, climbed a branch and beat his chest, tried to wake his mother up, sat next to his mother for a bit and cradled her head with his arm, and then jumped over to another adult who groomed him. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him.
His behavior was just like a human toddler! I believe this is why people say gorilla trekking is such an amazing experience, becuase we see ourselves in these primates.
Our second day of trekking was laughable easy—we were going to see the Rushigura or R Family. We started our hike right from the ranger station, and literally within 8 minutes we came upon at least 12 members of the R family eating by the river. But you just never know how long–or short–it will take to reach your family, I cannot underestimate that you need to be prepared for anything. We got lucky. I joked that it didn’t feel right that we hadn’t had to trek through mud and stinging nettles to be rewarded with the family find.
Once again, we were astounded by the quite serenity of these animals, very busy going about their business foraging and eating breakfast. A mother emerged from the bushes with a baby on her back, and proceeded to walk right by me…she was so close I had to zoom my camera OUT, while backing up to give her room to pass, all while trying not to fall into the river behind me.
Some of this gorilla family ate their fill of forest fruit and then were thirsty so had to go take a drink at the stream (swooping their arm into the water and drinking from their hand), and then they navigated the river rocks (even with a baby on back) and passed to the other side. Others stayed on our side of the stream, but at some point they decided to move on. We watched as several gorillas came out of the bushes and walked right by us….and also under the watchful eye of their silverback. The silverback acted like a crossing guard–he stood still in the path as all his family members safely passed by, and only then did he take up the rear and follow them into the bushes, to continue on with their daily life on the move.
I highly recommend a second day of trekking (yes, it’s another $600 for another permit but well worth it) for a couple of reasons….you get to see a different gorilla family, but also because you will give yourself more time to put the phone and camera down, and just observe. If you only have that one 60-minute trek, you are juggling all your electronics trying to get the perfect shot, the perfect selfie, the perfect video. 60 minutes goes by pretty fast. If you have another day, you become more present, more in the moment. You get your shots, and then just relax and watch as nature reveals itself to you.
And Nature is pretty splendid!
For people who want a more active and visceral wildlife encounter that goes beyond sitting in a safari vehicle, you cannot top this experience. Yes, the permits are costly but they are helping to provide the means necessary to ensure that these magnificent creatures survive in their natural habitat to be seen by future generations.