Gorillas in the bright sunshine

By Gretchen Healey

Gazing out at the Virunga volcanoes in the distance with a cold beer in hand, I decided it had all been worth it. The interminable, 76-hour journey to Uganda that was fraught with annoyances and difficulties, the lack of clean clothing or decent boots with my luggage being held hostage due to a baggage handling strike in Europe, the 25 km trek through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to get to our incredible lodge - it was all fading into distant memory as my foot massage started. I'd had some bumps along the way, but I was not exactly roughing it.

Typically, you can get to Uganda from just about anywhere in the U.S. in 27 hours or so, traveling via Europe with a brief and easy layover. That is assuming your flights are on time, or that they depart at all.  This trip was just a gentle reminder to me that travel doesn't always go exactly as scheduled, regardless of how meticulously you may have planned every detail. Despite the relative ridiculousness of this particular journey, I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.  Uganda is not a destination to be missed.

There is more to Uganda than gorillas. It is home to the source of the Nile, the highest mountain range in Africa, a huge amount of wildlife, 10 national parks, and many other wildlife and forest reserves. That said, mountain gorillas are an incredibly compelling reason to visit this gorgeous Central African country.

Gorilla trekking is not an activity to be undertaken lightly. The areas in Uganda where the mountain gorillas are found consist of steep hills and, in some cases, active volcanoes reaching over 14,000 feet in height. I hiked to find them in the Nkuringo area of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where the hills are a more modest 8,500 feet at their highest point.

Bwindi is home to about half of the world's mountain gorilla population, which stands at a total of 880 individuals as of the last official census conducted in 2011, a huge improvement from the 260 or so that were thought to be in the area 35 years earlier. Massive conservation efforts and a focus on how tourism benefits surrounding communities have helped the population to rebound with numbers slowly, but continuously, increasing.

Gorillas in the mist this was not. We were at least prepared for the conditions after our lengthy hike through the forest the day before, but that didn't mean we weren't wishing for cooler temperatures. I visited in late May, at the end of the rainy season (Mar - May and Sept - Nov), but as we began our day, there wasn't a cloud in sight. It was extremely humid and the temperature was probably well into the 90's. Not too bad if you're in shorts, but this kind of activity requires long pants, thick socks, hiking boots and layers on top.

On the day of our trek, we checked in at the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) ranger station and had a briefing on the requirements of trekking and the rules surrounding our time with the gorillas before heading to our vehicle to drive for about 15 minutes to our starting point.

Upon our arrival at the starting point, we were paired up with our porters ($15-20 US including tip). While not mandatory, hiring a porter is critical when trekking. It puts money directly back into the local economy, which in turn places value into maintaining gorilla habitat and promotes the benefits of tourism into all levels of society. Hiring a porter also allows you to hike without carrying your many, heavy bottles of water, and not least of all, porters will physically assist you during difficult hiking conditions (which can be pretty incredible, especially during the wet season).

We set off downhill, as our lodge was set on the top of a mountain. This was not a maintained hiking trail with switch backs or bridges over water crossings - instead, they are slick, packed earth trails used by villagers to get to their neighbors, to their fields and to fetch water. They are designed to get you from point A to point B as quickly as possible, and are therefore often either straight up, or straight down.

Our walk began through a village area, and everywhere we went, children were waving and shouting 'How are YOU'? I felt like someone in a parade, constantly waving as I tried to keep my feet beneath me.  Terraced fields lined every hillside abutting the forest, planted edge-to-edge with maize, beans, tomatoes and more. The surroundings were so beautiful, it was distracting.

Trekking to find the gorillas can range in time from 30 minutes to many hours, so travelers should be prepared. Proper gear and decent (or better) physical fitness are a must. Our hike this day ran for about 2.5 hours of pretty strenuous trekking before taking a break while the trackers continued trying to locate the Nkuringo gorilla family.

After some socializing and relaxing with our trekking group, we were told that the trackers had finally found the gorillas. I had secretly been worried we might not see them. Almost everyone does end up seeing the gorillas, as the guides take great pride in their ability to track them successfully, but there are no guarantees - and no refunds.

We grabbed our walking sticks and bags and started to quickly climb a steep and slick hill. After making some progress, the UWA leaders advised us to leave our packs and walking sticks behind, as the gorilla groups have not been habituated to humans carrying either item, and they can be perceived as a threat. This means choosing your camera equipment carefully, as you can only bring what you can carry in your hands or pockets.

Freed of our gear, we climbed further until we reached the first of the gorillas. At this point, we were standing on an incredibly steep slope in tough lighting, so it was nearly impossible to take photos, but we could see the gorillas just fine. It was a great reminder for me to be in the moment rather than worrying about trying to record it! 

We climbed a bit more and came to a large clearing where the entire family was found - including four silverbacks. There, we spent one magical hour with these incredible creatures. We watched them feed, socialize, relax and play - doing all of the things gorillas do while their bipedal cousins sat by to watch, spellbound. We each tried to lock into memory every privileged moment spent with them.

Travelers are only allowed to come within 7 meters of the gorillas, but it is clear the gorillas themselves have no such prohibitions. So when an extremely large silverback began approaching, I glanced behind me, realized there was nowhere to go, then sat back on my haunches, let my camera sit idle and simply waited. Time stopped as the massive 450-pound ape quietly strode by me.  It was almost as if he was showing off a bit, and I must admit, he was very handsome.

All too quickly, our hour was up. We hiked away to give the gorillas their peace, and found our way back to an area where we could eat our packed lunches and compare notes on our experience in the forest.

After lunch, we were confronted by a version of one of Newton's laws...all of our earlier climbing down and up had to be repeated in reverse. At first, the adrenaline from our gorilla encounter pressed us along, but I could have sworn it was hotter than it had been in the morning.  More humid too. Regardless, we eventually made it back to the top and congratulated each other on our hard work and our exciting day of trekking and spending time with the gorillas.

We drove back to our lodge and within moments, the heavens opened and rain began to lash down from the skies, almost instantly forming puddles. Our hot day had suddenly felt like great luck. When the hail started, we further counted our blessings.

Spending time with mountain gorillas is one of the most intimate and incredible natural experiences I have ever had. It takes a great deal of effort to plan a trip half-way around the world in unfamiliar territory, and a not insubstantial sum of money to make it all happen, but I can assure you that it is worth every effort and every penny. To look into the eyes of a mountain gorilla will change something inside of your soul forever.

Start planning. Safari njema (good journey).

Recommended operators:  Denver-based Africa Adventure Consultants (866-778-1089) specializes in small-group and custom African safaris, including gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda.  They can create an itinerary to suit your needs, whether you choose basic accommodations or luxury, or a driving or flying safari.  I stayed at Clouds Lodge while gorilla trekking. It’s at the end of a horrible 35km road from Kisoro (which is why I walked there), but it’s worth the journey. Guests stay in private villas equipped with patios, fireplaces and lovely furnishings. It is situated at the top of a mountain and has tremendous views over the surrounding countryside and into Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. Clouds has great food, an excellent spa and a nice shop. There are numerous lodging options throughout Uganda and Rwanda; your selection may be determined by permit availability. One day permits are $500 in Uganda and $750 in Rwanda.

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