Eye to eye with gentle giants – tracking gorillas in Uganda

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is likely the most appropriately named stretch of jungle on the face of the planet. It is dense and foreboding, with its countless silent trees that all appear the be interconnected with vines, covering the ridges at the foot of Central Africa’s towering volcanoes. These volcanoes are not barren and bare; they are green as they are covered in vegetation up until their very rims. It is as if the forest is trying to smother these entrances to the underworld, like a determined giant fungus.

Standing at the veranda of our jungle lodge, the forest looks uncompromising. It is a wall of green, steamy fumes and inauspicious animal sounds rising from its interior. My heart races thinking of the secrets it keeps and knowing that anyone who’d be foolish enough to set foot in there without a guide would quickly be consumed by the immense green organism that is the forest.

The forest is threatening and brooding, in a sinister kind of way. Standing here, finding what we came here for seems like an impossible task. We walk down to the last open space before the forest swallows the air and light, and we follow our guide into its wooden caverns along a jungle stream, until our guide halts at a sign that reveals the final proof of presence of human life in this remote region on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo: “Absolutely no entrance past this point without a guide.” In we went…

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Our reason for venturing down here was to stand face to face with the largest of primates: the mountain gorilla. Bwindi and the nearby Virungas National Park are the only areas in the world where this mystical creature can be found and to be able to see it, you’ll have to make some sacrifices. Not only do you have to buy a permit ($600 in Uganda, $1500 in Rwanda and $450 in DRC – the permit allows you to be with the gorillas for maximum one hour), you also have to work hard to get where they are. Mountain gorillas continuously move around their habitat and have to be tracked down in the dense, steep and slippery jungle. Every day in the early morning hours, local rangers set out to the location where the gorillas were last seen the previous day, and will track their traces (such as broken twigs and feces) to try to get an idea of where they might be located. When setting out to find the gorillas, it is impossible to tell how long your trek may take and how demanding it will be, depending on the accessibility of the terrain.

Our guide had given us some instructions before we commenced our adventure: when we find the gorillas, do not look them directly in the eye as they may perceive this as an intimidating threat. Crouch low on the ground and stand still; do not make unexpected movements. Keep your voice low and do not take flash photographs. Do not touch the gorillas and keep a minimum of 5 to 7 meters. Anyone suffering a cold or flu is not allowed to commence the trek, as these contagious diseases may be caught by the gorillas with disastrous results. Humans share 98% of their DNA with gorillas, which makes the animals very susceptible to human diseases. There are only 790 mountain gorillas left in the world, and they are only able to survive in the wild, so any risk to their existence should be prevented at all cost.

Our trek immediately started with a steep ascent on slippery slopes. No paths here, just jungle, and as we tried to hold on to vines and trees, we slowly made our way through the forest. It was dark and it smelled humid and earthy. Just making our way through this wilderness was an adventure in itself and keeping myself stable and balanced occupied much of my mental capacities, so when our rangers suddenly halted us and gestured for us to quiet down after about an hour, I was pulled out of my reverie. “The trackers are very close now. We have found the gorillas,” they said. We took a collective gap and stood there, trying not to move, listening sharply to the sounds of the forest. Then, a dark shadow moved through the foliage, not too far away from us. Then another, and another… and as quickly as they had emerged, they vanished. “The gorillas are still foraging for food. We will have to track them until they sit down to rest and play,” the ranger told us. We saw the group of black apes descend quickly down a steep slope, then cross a muddy river far below, to disappear into the green wall of forest opposite. Trying to grasp what had just happened with such intense speed, we feared that these few seconds of gorilla sighting would be our only ones for that day. But the rangers were determined and and immediately commenced pursuit. One by one we half climbed, half slid down the slope to the river which we crossed with a result of wet feet and pants. The rangers could tell from the trees and twigs broken in their path which direction the gorillas had gone, and led the way onwards.

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More climbing, more sliding, rangers cutting our path through the jungle for us with their machetes. We now reached the top of a ridge, and sunlight started to filter through the foliage. Here we felt a dry kind of heat, not resembling the humidity of the lower ranges of the forage. We walked and we walked, tracking our close relatives who are so much more at home in this environment than we are. Then, finally, we caught up. The gorilla family, by the decision of the imposing silverback leader of the group, had come to a halt in a grassy area near the top of a hill. The rangers again told us to stand still and made low grunting sounds to appease the gorillas, who were lounging around in the grass, eating and the youngsters playing. While we keenly remembered the rule not to come close to the gorillas, it was apparent that this rule did not apply to them; a large female brushing my leg caught me by surprise, as she passed me from behind. Fascinated, we stood watching these creatures for an hour. These gorillas are often called gentle giants, and while a tinge of fear for their majestic size and power remained, I began to understand this expression. While resting, the animals moved slowly and displayed no signs of aggression. The babies played gently and the large silverback quietly observed his family from some distance, until he decided it was time to move on, and disappear beyond the ridge, the females, younger males, and babies following without hesitation. The magic of being in their presence, being able to observe their natural behaviour and to share for a brief moment the depth of this magical forest with them lingered as we made our way down, back to our camp, enriched with a once in a lifetime experience that cannot be expressed in words, or in dollars.

When it was time for us to leave Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for the hilly lowlands around Lake Bunyonyi, it did not feel in any way like we had conquered or defeated the forest. Maybe we were just lucky that it had not defeated us, but it was still as gloomy and mysterious as it had been when we first laid eyes on it. But the forest had disclosed to us some of the planet’s most precious forms of life, in all its resemblance and familiarity installing both a sense of enigma and of revelation.

Standing face to face with the giant mountain gorilla is a humbling experience, and it seems only natural that this creature’s home does not grant easy access to those who want to see what’s in her heart. Packing our bags at the lodge, I still felt like looking over my shoulder every once in a while, just to check if the forest had not silently crept up on me, vines ready to snatch me at the ankles and pull me in. Setting off on the dusty and potholed road leading us back into a more familiar reality, one with people and cars and shops, I took a final glance at Bwindi’s impenetrable frontier, wishing intensely that it will remain relentless in its efforts to protect the invaluable treasures it keeps.

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You can track mountain gorillas in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Uganda. We opted to enter the forest from the Ugandan site as the gorilla permit is cheaper there than in Rwanda ($600 versus $1500, currently) and Uganda is safer and more stable than DRC. Bwindi National Park in Uganda harbours more than half of the area’s gorilla population.

To be able to see the gorillas, you must buy a permit and use the services of a ranger. Permits are scarce and in high demand (only 80 people per day are allowed to track the gorillas at a maximum of 8 persons per group) so you’ll want to secure your permit far in advance of your trip, preferably 3 to 5 months before your departure. There are two ways to secure a permit:

  • Do it yourself though the official selling point: the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Their head office is based in Kampala. You’ll probably have to e-mail or phone them to try to secure your permits; there is no official booking procedure on their website.
  • Use the services of a travel agent. This involves paying a service fee to the agent but saves you a lot of hassle in trying to reach the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Most agents don’t charge a fee if you also arrange other parts of your trip with them. For a list of professional tour operators in Uganda, see the website of the Association of Ugandan Tour Operators. We personally used the services of Matoke Tours, which is a Netherlands/Uganda based travel agent specialised in travel in Uganda. Their website is in Dutch but if you contact them through phone or e-mail I am sure that they can help you arrange your permits. My experience with them was top notch – they arranged our permits which were delivered to us upon arrival in Uganda. We also booked our transport (jeep and driver) to and from Bwindi National Park through Matoke Tours because we wanted to save some time – you can also get there by bus and matatu from Kampala via Butugota but this is obviously more time-consuming.

You can visit the gorillas year round, although the trek is usually tougher in the raining season (March, April, May and November), but the upside is that in these months permits are often available at a discounted rate. The minimum age for gorilla tracking is set at 15 years.

Near the entrance of Bwindi National Park there is some choice in accommodation in the village of Buhoma. We stayed at the Buhoma Community Rest Camp at the edge of the forest where we stayed in a self contained tent but you can also opt to stay in one of the banda’s (small huts). Elsewhere in Buhoma you can find other types of accommodation to cater to various budgets, including some luxury resorts. From Buhoma you can easily walk to the entrance of the forest.

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