What an incredible experience!
This is, hands down, one of the most incredible moments in my travels and it was well worth the hassle of getting there, the monstrously well-fed insects ready to suck your blood and the hardship of walking through the Impenetrable Forest which does get the name for a reason.
The forest is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its ecological value. It was included in the list in 1994, one year after gorilla tours started.
Getting to Bwindi was not easy. We broke down the trip from Kampala in the north of Uganda with a stopover in Queen Elizabeth National Park (see my other article about tree-climbing lions here). After the safari, on New Year’s Day, we set off towards the Forest where these mystical creatures live.
The forest is on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and along Virunga National Park in the triangle between Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC which is home to all of the remaining endangered mountain gorillas in Bwindi.
At that time, Uganda was the most popular access point to see the habituated animals and therefore the infrastructure was the best. DRC is not a real option most of the times given the constant fighting and safety concerns but Rwanda is a more accessible, if also much more expensive, alternative as the park is closer to the capital and the airport.
The Impenetrable Central Forest Reserve, as is officially called, has been expanded over the years and is today a wildlife sanctuary. One of the sad side stories of this conservation effort is the displacement of the Batwa Pygmy population who were evicted from the park and no longer given access to its resources. If you visit Bwindi you will also be able to visit the Pygmies who are also trying to make the most of the tourist influx into the area.
There are only around 1,000 mountain gorillas in the world, half in Bwindi. All efforts to make them reproduce in captivity have failed so their preservation relies on efforts done in their wild habitat. It seems that these efforts are paying off: In the last few years population has steadily increased.
It is easy to forget that the area on the border where the park lies is often wrapped in conflict but you are reminded of this reality quite often while trekking with gorillas in Uganda. Aside from seeing gorillas, we also got the occasional sight of a soldier carrying from a riffle to a bazooka walking through the forest. We were told they were coming home but it was a rather scary thought, much more than facing the gorillas, to see these perfectly camouflaged full loaded individuals.
Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi: How it works
You need a permit to visit the gorillas and this only guarantees your entry into the park and the opportunity to track the animals during the specific day. If you do not see them on the day you would have to get another ‘ticket”. However, your chances are typically very high.
If you plan to go on one of the high season periods make sure to book ahead to ensure you get a ticket.
On the day, you show up at the ranger station and get assigned to a group. Each group is going to track a specific family of habituated gorillas together with a couple of guides. Not all the gorillas living in the park are habituated, meaning they are not used to seeing humans so close, and therefore only a handful can be part of the gorilla tracking tourism.
Earlier in the day the trackers start looking for the animals in order to minimise the time tourists spent wandering around the forest. Bwindi is not particularly dangerous in the sense of large animals eating humans but it has its fair share of insects that will quickly crawl up your legs if you stand still for more than a second. Many are poisonous.
Each group will start the trek shortly after the safety brief is done. The rangers are equipped with riffles to fend off wild life.
We walked for around 2-3h until we found them but you could be walking much longer or much less depending on where the gorillas are on that day. Every day they move around the park but tend not to walk long distances ina given day from where they slept the previous night.
Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi: The moment we all had been waiting for
When I saw them my heart skipped a beat. The grandiosity of the forest and the elegance of these animals made me forget that we were in the wild with no protection from the 150kg silver back. And there they stood, the entire family of habituated mountain gorillas in Bwindi eating their way through the forest.
Each pack has usually one adult male silver back and several younger ones and females. In the group we were tracking there was a very playful 2 year old gorilla who insisted on tucking at my travel companion’s trousers. He was looking for attention but we couldn’t give him any. You are explicitly told to ignore them if they come close to you and to keep a safety distance. Like in the movies, we were told to avoid their gaze, particularly that of the silver back, and to keep a submissive posture. The safety distance is a bi-directional measure to ensure they don’t attack or feel threatened but also to avoid human diseases transferring to the gorillas. We are close relatives but our harmless diseases could easily kill them without the right immunity.
They were absolutely fantastic. Their features so human, their moves so well calculated eating through kilos of foliage and fruits, climbing trees.
We spent about an hour with them and then, as in a Psychologist chair, they decided to leave. We briefly followed them until the reached the river and we were advised not to proceed. Our time was up.
I found these creatures very gentle despite their size. They moved with intent and agility through the branches and the forest. At one point the Silver Back decided to show us who was king and made some noises and hit his chest, like in the movies, yes. And it was simply amazing.