Bwindi Impenetrable Park was established in 1991 and is managed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority which is tasked with the conservation of the area. The park is home to about 340 critically endangered Eastern Mountain Gorillas, almost half the world’s population.
In order to visit the gorillas, one must buy a very expensive ($600USD) trekking permit from the UWA months in advance. The permit is good only for the date, gate, and person indicated on it, which means that if anything in your plans changes, you’re out of luck. Furthermore, no one feeling ill or visibly sick will be given entry either, permit notwithstanding. For these reasons, spending this huge amount of money gave us great pause but we took the plunge and bought permits for one day. At the time, our agent strongly suggested that we buy permits for two days but we refused. Her rationale was that if we didn’t get to see the gorillas one day, we had better chances of seeing them with two treks. For anyone thinking of buying permits, that reason is nonsense: you will see the gorillas almost guaranteed. We didn’t know that at the time of course and when we changed our minds a few days later, permits for the area were all gone! Our agent managed to get us permits to a different area of the park from where we were staying which meant a very early (4:30am) wake up and over two hour drive to get there but we took them anyway. We are not at all sorry we did and actually think it worked even better for us this way.
For our first (far away) trek into the Ruhija area, the wonderful people tending our lodge woke up early to outfit us with waterproof covers for our pants, walking sticks and boxed breakfast and lunch. Upon arriving at the meeting area, we were divided into groups of eight. Three gorilla families here are habituated to humans and thus able to be visited. Each group of 8 people visits one gorilla family for one hour of the day, that’s all that is permitted. Two trackers follow each of these three gorilla families all day, every day, from when they wake up to when they bed for the night. The trackers make a note of where the gorillas bedded down before leaving them for the night and must get back to this place before the gorillas begin their next day in order to not lose them. As the group of people is about to set out on their trek, the guide radios the trackers for their location and then guides the group to that place. This method makes seeing the gorillas an almost certainty. The group is also accompanied by an armed guard since in 1999, Congolese guerrilla fighters abducted a tourist group, killing with machetes and clubs over half of them before releasing the others. The armed guard is really just for show I think since he’s only one person, but better not to dwell on these facts as you’re about to set out.
Before starting on your trek, you are presented with the choice of hiring a porter to carry your stuff for you. We were carrying so much water (heavy packs) that they did come in handy but if you don’t carry as much, a porter isn’t really necessary. Most of the people in our group didn’t hire any. There is another way of looking at this though: jobs are hard to come by in this area of the country. Some of these porters walk a couple of hours every morning to be there when the tourist groups arrive. Those that are not hired are dismissed for the day as there will be no other tourists; dismissed without work. Paying for a porter is providing a source of income for that person if nothing else. Plus they are super nice and helpful when pulling an out-of-breath tourist up a mountain. However, once close to the gorilla family, porters must stay behind and allow for the group of tourists to continue the trek on their own so it happens that the toughest part of the hike is done without their help.
It is not called the Impenetrable Forest for nothing.
Walking in here was exhausting!
This might be the toughest hiking we’ve ever done. It is oppressively humid even though we visited during the “dry” season and the average elevation is over 6,000ft which makes it hard to breathe. There are no paths as the group is simply advancing toward the gorilla family wherever they might be. The advice is to bring a waterproof jacket (leave it), good walking shoes (make that heavy duty boots), gloves (absolute MUST), and 3 liters of water per person (half a liter is more than enough). The hardest part of the trek is that the ground isn’t really there. The ground seems solid until you step on it and fall thru to a stream below which you hadn’t even heard, that’s how thick the cover is. The trees have spikes, thorns would be too gentle a word, so grabbing hold is inadvisable. I literally clawed my way up and probably slowed our group down considerably
but we were well rewarded as suddenly there we were, right next to the family.
Can you believe that these beautiful creatures have been killed to make their hands into ashtrays? Don’t you just want to reach out and touch it?
I do, but we didn’t. That would have been completely inadvisable, not to mention against the rules. Visitors are supposed to stay 7ft away from the gorillas at all times. That’s a truly difficult rule to follow though as finding a solid place to stand is almost impossible. The gorillas take up the best spots! Sometimes being able to stay put means being quite close to them. Plus they move around with no regard to the rule. The distance is meant to provide a safety zone for the gorillas. Since we share over 97% of their DNA, that makes them vulnerable to human diseases; particularly airborne ones, which is the reason for denying entry to ill persons. It has been determined that 20% of natural gorilla deaths which have occurred in the area are due to illnesses transmitted to them by humans. While tourists such as ourselves bring a much needed source of income for the villagers, we also bring diseases from all over the world which threaten their very livelihood from said tourism. The best we can do is abide by our guide’s directions.
Male young gorillas are called Blackbacks. This guy will become a Silverback soon and he will either have to challenge the patriarch of the family or most likely, leave in search of his own family.
The Ruhija trek was very difficult and getting good pictures of the gorillas almost impossible with all the vegetation in the way. It was so thick that we didn’t even notice the gorillas trekking alongside at times:
What our feet looked like after the trek.
The boys loved this trek as it was a rugged adventure, just up their ally. I loved it too but had to take a two hour nap once back at the lodge. It certainly was beautiful and as hard as it was, I would gladly do it again.
Our next morning, we didn’t have to set out as early and were able to have a good breakfast at the lodge since the Buhoma area was right next door. Once again, we hired a porter mainly to help me out. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s trek and seriously doubting my ability to follow the group on this second day. I was thoroughly surprised when this day’s trek was the easiest walk we’ve ever done! Turned out that this gorilla family had made their nests the night before quite close to the park’s entrance and we only had to jump over a small stream to get to them. When we arrived they were just lazying about in their nests, not ready to come down just yet.
Our guide instructed us to stand under the trees and wait for the gorillas to come down. After about half an hour of standing around, craning our necks out to look at the gorillas overhead, I asked the guide if it wouldn’t be better to stand aside as it seemed to me that we were the obstacle impeding the gorillas from coming down.
He told me to stay exactly where I was. I think he did it on purpose. Seconds later, I wondered how the rain could penetrate such a thick canopy until I realized that was no rain: I was being peed on by a gorilla! I chose to take it as a lucky omen. As soon as the shower stopped, they began descending.
Some stopped to pose for pictures. Isn’t he handsome?
Once they were all on the ground, they began walking toward the stream. The Silverback brought up the rear of the column as if to protect his family from this group of hairless paparazzi.
Once at the stream, they settled down to groom each other.
While the adults looked at us with boredom, the babies were very curious.
This guy is only weeks old but with a head of hair to envy.
There was a sense of peace and contentment in the group. The kids played and climbed then upon falling, would run back to their moms for comfort, which these ladies never failed to provide.
Can you feel the love in that gaze?
Everything happens under the watchful eye of the big guy.
Our group of tourists was so affected by the privilege of sharing the gorilla’s day that there were some tears shed and the boys declared that they will never again visit a zoo. While the benefits of a good zoo can be debated, one thing is an absolute certainty: free animals exude a sense of happiness that is not present in caged ones.
Going on two gorilla treks only intensified our desire to be able to enjoy such privilege again some day. May it be so!