I describe myself as adventurous, a thrill seeker, if you will. I am always on the hunt for the next adrenaline rush. However, my mother may describe this same behavior as reckless. Anyway, would you believe me if I said jumping out of a plane or throwing myself off a bridge were not the most adventurous activities I have participated in? Allow me to walk you through one of the most epic days of my life: my gorilla trek in Uganda.
About Gorilla Permits
The mountain gorillas are a highly endangered species; consequently, the price tag on the permit to go see them is high. Gorilla tourism was a last ditch effort to save the population. At the time of our visit in August 2015, only 880 remained in the world. The money generated goes toward conservation, in addition, a portion of the proceeds go towards local development projects which allows for the community to become invested in gorilla conservation as well. In the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the permits cost about $600 in the high season. In my situation, Acacia Africa secured these permits far in advance. If you are looking to obtain permits on your own, keep in mind only 80 tourists can visit the gorillas each day. Mountain gorillas also live in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Before the Trek
Gorilla trekking was one of the most highly anticipated activities of my entire overland trip. As I went to bed the night before, I had the same excited sensation as I did as a kid on Christmas Eve. Gorillas=Santa! We woke up extremely early to drive from our campsite to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Just as my alarm started going off at 4:30am, I felt what I thought was heavy traffic passing by our tent; however, we were nowhere near a road. I was experiencing my first earthquake! What kind of sign is this on gorilla day? I started resorting to my (old) worry-wart ways, assuming the earthquake would scare the gorillas off, yadda, yadda, yadda. How negative of me! After a hearty breakfast, we got our day packs together and drove off into some epic fog to the forest.
What to Bring on the Trek
- Camera, obviously
- Lunch: to eat out of sight from the gorillas
- Water: I recommend at least two liters. This is a physically exerting day. I only brought one liter and it was not enough
- Rain coat
- Insect Repellent
- Proper shoes and socks (and a change of socks)
About the Trek
The staff divided all of the gorilla permit holders into groups of eight or fewer people. We would have a leader, a guy with a gun, and a couple of guys with machetes to chop down some of the “impenetrable” branches.
The guides informed us that not only gorillas live in this forest, but lions, elephants, and others you wouldn’t want to meet on foot! The staff also covered the rules:
- You cannot visit the gorillas while you are sick
- Keep your distance! They say 5-7 meters, however, the gorillas could possibly come closer on their own accord
- No eating or drinking near the animals
- Once you spot the family, you are allowed one hour viewing time only
Seeing gorillas is not a guarantee, so the staff are continuously keeping tabs on the gorillas to maximize each groups chance of spotting them. The leaders then informed us our trek could go one of two ways. Some groups will have an easy trek. The gorilla family they are meant to visit could be located right on the edge of the forest. This group will trek for maybe 45 minutes, spend an hour observing the animals, and then trek out. ORRRRRRRRR maybe you will be searching for a family in the thick of the forest. You will hike up and down and around and through and all over creation looking for these magical creatures. Also worth noting, there is a maximum time limit of 8 hours for each trek, including the hike in, observation time and the trek out.
Spoiler alert: my trek was option 2 described above.
The day started with an excruciatingly steep hike for about 45 minutes in order to reach the forest. As hinted by the name “Impenetrable Forest”, there are no paths or trails. It is up to you to stay on your feet and your machete men to plow a small clearing because the forest is heavily vegetated. As these animals are called Mountain Gorillas, their habitat is, in fact, on the side of a mountain. We spent hours going uphill then downhill, slipping and sliding, and picking each other up by our backpacks.
The hike was hard and we hadn’t seen anything yet!
And then it happened: someone must have stepped on a nest of African black wasps, because 75% of our group got stung (and I got stung twice!). I reacted by cursing incessantly and my leg reacted by swelling like a balloon. The pain was like nothing I had ever experienced and it never subsided. We continued hiking, stings throbbing until we finally spotted one!
There sat a mother and baby who were quickly upstaged by the Silverback, the man of the house. I was awestruck by the fact that a 250 kg beast of pure muscle could gracefully glide down a mountain whereas slightly smaller me fell at least 25 times so far. Based on the description, we thought the one hour observation time would be a relaxing period where we would sit and watch the family in its natural habitat. WRONG.
We had an antsy Silverback who was constantly on the move. Consequently, we were constantly on the move. The hike’s difficulty amplified as we had to move more quickly to keep up with the Silverback. I believe the Silverback was fully aware of the posse of paparazzi following him because at one point he did what I can only describe as “the gorilla thing.” He turned and faced us, put his fists to his chest, and started pounding and grunting. OMG. Another rule that I didn’t mention earlier is not to turn and run when you are startled. But what about scared shitless? I shut my eyes, blocked myself with another group member, and hoped for the best. We were fine. The staff members lifted their machetes above their heads and grunted back. This assertion of dominance seemed to work and the gorilla continued to lead us on a wild goose chase around the jungle.
After our hour of “observation” time, we began the trek out of the forest only to reach a clearing where we had a magnificent view of the entire family eating on the mountainside. It was spectacular and the perfect culmination to my most adventurous day ever.