My Gorilla Trek Deep in the Ugandan Jungle
Inspiration can strike in odd places. In this particular case, I was watching Karl Pilkington trudge miserably through his gorilla trek on An Idiot Abroad and thought, “That sounds like fun!”
As fate would have it, I saw that episode at the same time that I was planning a safari in Tanzania. After putting my expert geographical knowledge to the test, I determined Uganda was very close by and I realized I couldn’t pass this opportunity up!
The Mystical Mountain Gorillas
Think you’ve seen gorillas in the zoo before? Not like these! A huge part of the appeal of going on a gorilla trek is how rare these beautiful creatures are. There are only about 880 mountain gorillas in the entire world according to the WWF, and they are completely unable to survive in captivity. They are only found in 3 countries in the entire world: Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some scientists even believe the mountain gorillas living in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest are their own subspecies! Because of their inability to survive in captivity, the only way to see these guys in person is to come visit them in their home!
How To Book Your Gorilla Trek
I arranged a 3 day gorilla trekking trip through a tour company, although if you are very ambitious you can book the permits yourself (but I would strongly advise against it!). The area is vast and remote and it is easy to pick the wrong place to stay in for your group. I’m the first person who would usually recommend doing things yourself and not following a tour, but for this I recommend going with a gorilla trek operator. You can find one through your best friend Google or consult this list of reliable tour operators.
The Road Trip
I began my gorilla trek in Entebbe, where I had stayed the night before after arriving at the airport. First thing in the morning after breakfast I was met by our guide at my hotel in Entebbe. We were properly introduced, I checked out of my hotel, and we were on our way!
The drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest takes an entire day from morning to evening, so buckle up and get ready! I found the drive to be fantastic as it allowed me to see a huge part of Uganda that I wouldn’t have normally been able to. It was fascinating driving through remote villages, seeing the motorcycle taxis lined up in every town and being stared at by anyone who noticed our vehicle. The herds of Ankole-Watusi being herded by farmers towards watering holes are also completely mind-blowing to see as well!
The drive also involved a special stop at the Equator, as Uganda is one of only 13 countries in the world that the Equator passes through! You can take a picture at the official line, buy obligatory souvenirs and watch an equatorial water draining demonstration that is completely staged. After a quick coffee break we stopped for lunch nearby and we were off once again!
The farther west you go, the more mountainous the landscape becomes. Or guide cheerfully referred to western Uganda as the “Switzerland of Africa.” While there may not have been snow-capped mountains anywhere within sight, it certainly was beautiful to see the rolling hills spread out before me. Soon we reached our camp for the night, which was situated right at the southern edge of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It was a small, very rural town but very charming. We enjoyed dinner over generator powered lights and went to bed early for our gorilla trek the next day!
We were up bright and early the following morning and headed to the debriefing are where we met the rest of the group who would join us. There, we were told the ground rules for our gorilla trek:
- We would get exactly one hour with the mountain gorillas.
- If you are feeling sick at all, it is absolutely forbidden to go on the gorilla trek in order to prevent harm to the gorillas. If you voluntarily leave now, you get half your permit fee back, but if you are caught being sick on the trail you will be forced to turn back with no refund.
- No more than 8 people total may visit any given group in one day, hence the requirement of permits.
- When you reach the gorillas, you must leave your backpack, any food and walking sticks in an area away from them. All you get to take is yourself and your camera.
- No flash photography.
- You aren’t guaranteed to see the mountain gorillas and it can take a VERY long time to reach them on some days.
- If a gorilla charges, stand your ground (this advice actually came in handy!).
If you’ve seen the episode of An Idiot Abroad that I mentioned earlier, you know that Karl spent in the neighborhood of 8 hours marching up and down mountains during his gorilla trek. Our group joked about this as we set off, but we didn’t realize quite what we were getting into….
The Gorillas Are On The Move…
Things started off great when our tour guides drove us to the base of a huge hill and dropped us off. We spent the entire first hour of the gorilla trek walking straight uphill until we reached a clearing which was filled with other trekkers… and the vehicles that dropped them off there! It appears our driver made a bit of a miscalculation, but at least we were warmed up for the rest of the hike, right?
From the hilltop clearing we departed into the forest. Accompanying our group were two armed guards, two rangers, a guide, and any porters that were hired. I decided to hire one not because I felt I needed him, but because it brings work to someone very desperately in need. Many of the porters are reformed poachers and employing them helps encourage other poachers to change their ways as well. In the end it was also pretty convenient to have him there!
The rangers that were with us were in constant contact with several trackers that had set out at sunrise. The trackers began at the last known location of the gorillas and tracked them from there. The trackers had located our group, but the gorillas kept moving farther away from us! We marched deeper and deeper into the dark jungle.
Some QT With The MGs
After only 4 short hours of hiking across muddy mountains, we reached our group! Everyone eagerly dropped their belongings in the designated area, grabbed their cameras, and followed the rangers as they hacked their way deep into the bush. We kept our voices down to make sure we didn’t unsettle the gorillas and, before we knew it, an enormous silverback was standing right in our path!
Our entire group soaked up the beautiful mountain gorillas for the full hour we were there. We were fortunate to have a very active group, with several babies and two silverbacks, one of which surprised us at one point with a charge out of the bushes, but thankfully it was just for show.
Getting a picture of the gorillas under the canopy of the jungle can be very difficult. For starters, as you can tell from the photos here, all of the mountain gorillas are constantly surrounded by flies which try very hard to fool your camera’s autofocus into focusing on them. Throw in the darkness and you get a pretty challenging picture taking environment! Most of the time I was shooting at iso 2400 and f/ 2.8, so I had my fair share of throwaway shots.
At the end of the hour, we snapped a group photo and hiked for three hours back to the clearing where our vehicles were waiting, stopping for lunch along the way. It was hard work, but one of my favorite travel experiences to date. I highly recommend you do the same if you can!
What To Bring
- A good, comfortable pair of waterproof boots
- Your camera with fast lenses
- A backpack with a waterproof rain cover
- A waterproof shell jacket
- Insect Repellent
- A sack lunch
- Money to tip the porters, rangers, guards and guide
- A good attitude!