Uganda is one of three countries in East Africa where wildlife enthusiasts have a life fulfilling opportunity to trek in search of a family of endangered Mountain Gorillas in their natural habitat. The other two countries being Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
I am fortunate in that I have been able to undertake this experience twice – both times in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Each time the experience was completely different. Having done the trek twice I now fully realise how difficult it is to answer the most popular questions I am asked when people enquire about a gorilla trekking tour, and that is how difficult is the trek and how long will I be hiking?
My First Trek
The first time I visited Uganda was in 2013, when I took my mum over for her 60th birthday. We did a three destination trip with a safari in the Maasai Mara, a small group tour around Uganda and then a relaxing few days in Zanzibar. The gorilla trek was towards the end of the stay in Uganda, and was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip; an experience we were very much looking forward to. However, it was only when we got to the beautiful accommodation at Lake Bunyoni that we started to think about what lay ahead. It is made very clear that the hike could be anything from a couple of hours to an all day trek, depending on where the gorillas have settled the night before – but we were certainly hoping for the former, as an all day trek in a dense Ugandan forest may have tested our fitness a bit too far!
On the morning of the trek we were up just after 4am as we had a fair distance to get to the start point of the trek, at Rushaga Gate. The journey was beautiful as we got to see the first light of day rising, and there was a thick mist across the green hills as we headed to the forest. When we arrived at the start point our guide advised us that they would likely split our group into perceived ability levels. There were clearly some keen and super fit regular hikers in our group, so we were completely relieved when we were separated off into another group! There are a maximum of 8 people in each trekking group, and each group is assigned a separate family/troop of gorillas.
Before the trek everyone is given a short briefing by the local rangers around safety and what to do/ not do when you find the gorilla troop. You are allowed to take photographs and videos, but not use the flash as this agitates the gorillas. You do, however, need to stay quiet, mоvе slowly, and аvоid making any sudden movements as this could be perceived as threatening.
You are also asked whether you would like a personal porter to support you on your trek, by carrying your water and assisting where necessary. My mum was concerned about the weight of carrying multiple litres of water for hours so opted to get a porter to assist. I also had a porter to assist but decided to carry my own bag, as I wanted my water close at hand, for the inevitable fluid replacement. I had a CamelBak so could basically just rehydrate as I walked – perfect!
Trackers go off ahead to try and find the gorilla troops. They have a rough idea of where to head as they know where they have been the day before, and these guys are QUICK walkers, covering the terrain with enviable ease. They are in constant radio contact with the group guides so we always knew we were heading in the right direction – although they won’t disclose how far away the gorillas are. The terrain we set off on was actually much better than I had expected. We were on well worn tracks that I would almost go as far as calling a path, albeit there was dense forest on either side! There was a little bit of up and downhill, but the pace was very measured and easy to keep up with. There were regular brief stops to check on the group, and on one occasion we were fortunate enough to spot black-and-white colobus monkeys in the trees so we had about a 5 minute break to take photos of these energetic monkeys. About 45 minutes in to our walk, that had all been on good solid track our guide suddenly took a right turn and started heading deep into the forest. He got his machete out and started carving a route for us through the leaves and bushes! This is when the trek started to get a lot harder. It was necessary to pull yourself through by holding onto trees and roots, as we started a fairly steep incline. After about 15-20 minutes I was starting to worry that this is what it would be like for the rest of the day, and started to question whether we would be capable of completing the trek!
However, no sooner had I started to worry when we heard shhhh shhhh coming from the guide. We had found the gorilla family. More specifically we had stumbled across the mighty silverback. He was in a small ‘clearing’ the troop had made for sleeping in the night before just up ahead. I can not tell you how exciting it was gently heading towards this giant gorilla who was just casually sat there cleaning his teeth, by chewing on a stick. We were less than 5m away, and I was sat in complete awe at how amazing it was to be that close to a gorilla in the wild. It’s so hard to put that feeling of pure contentment in nature into words. In fact I was so enraptured I actually spent my viewing time sat on a giants ants nest, because I had a great view and didn’t want to miss a second! I might have regretted it later that evening, as I sat in bed scratching away at the bites, but definitely not at the time.
We spent about 15-20 minutes with the silverback before moving along slightly, as there was a pregnant female from the group nearby. Again we were able to get a great view of her through the trees. I just remember the beautiful big friendly eyes watching us watching her. Amazing. A couple of the younger members of the family were in the trees so very difficult to spot, but we did get a glimpse of one of them quickly climbing down a big tree, before it was time for us to head back.
In total our trek and time with the gorillas was around 2.5 hours in length, at an easy pace that would be suitable to anyone with an average level of fitness.
My Second Trek
My second trip to Uganda was in 2018 when I met up with a number of other tour operators. We did a super busy tour where in addition to the Gorilla Trek we went Rhino Trekking at Ziwa Rhino and Wildlife Ranch, the only place with wild rhino in Uganda, we climbed to the top of the beautiful and powerful Murchison Falls, we did a Kazinga Channel Cruise, Spotted the Tree climbing lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park and spent time tracking playful chimpanzees in Kibale.
For the gorilla element of this trip I stayed in the gorgeous Gorilla Safari Lodge that is incredibly close to the trekking start point (5 minute drive), allowing for a lie-in this time before the Gorilla Trek. I highly recommend this lodge as it is in gorgeous lush green grounds, the food is excellent and rooms perfect for relaxing after the trek. There is even a small spa area for those looking for a relaxing treatment before or after meeting the gorillas.
On the morning of the trek we had breakfast and then headed over to the start point like before and had our briefing, and arranged for porters to assist the group. We had a very mixed group on this occasion, from some very keen active hikers to a lovely 70+ year old on a bucket-list trip. Just before setting out we were advised by our guide that we had been assigned the nearest gorilla group. Having done the tour before when we had an easy trek to the gorillas of just over an hour, I was immediately positive about the trek and my concerns about a lengthy and difficult day reduced…
However, this time my optimism may have been a little premature. As we arrived at the start point, and the trackers set off it was clear that this trek was going to be very different from before. There was not a path in sight! The trek started by traversing across a gushing stream via strategically placed logs – certainly putting my balancing abilities to the test. I can honesty say I was so grateful for the strong guiding hand from the porter who was assisting me, as I didn’t fancy a swim that early in the day.
After safely negotiating the stream, it was into the depths of the forest. Our guide went ahead of the group to cut a path through the thick trees and branches as we all followed. The route was up, and steeply up – we were climbing up the side of the mountain. Essentially whilst we were technically assigned the nearest gorilla group, the route to them was……well certainly challenging! I was very glad that I had packed some gardening gloves as there was a lot of grappling required on the steep ascent, and a lot of the trees were covered in ants and other bugs. As our guide was cutting us a path through the trees and shrubs the ground was also uneven because we were just trekking on top of the fallen branches/leaves.
Progress on this second tour was slow, as whilst we weren’t covering great distances the terrain was difficult. We also suffered on this tour with the dynamics of the group. The keen hikers were not the most pleasant of people (I am being polite) and were very vocal at their unhappiness of being in a group with the 70 year old who was understandably much slower. They were demanding to split the group, but obviously this isn’t possible once the trek has started as only one gorilla troop is assigned and everyone has to visit together for the allocated hour. This did sadly make the trekking part of the trip unpleasant. The tension had absolutely nothing to do with the tour company, the experience, the guides or anyone involved in Gorilla Trekking in Uganda. It’s just sometimes you come across people in life you’d rather you hadn’t….for me, and others in the group….we met some of them on an Ugandan mountainside!
The upward ascent this time meant it took approximately 3 hours to reach the gorillas. No matter how tense the trek was, nothing could spoil the experience when we reached the gorilla troop. I was once again ecstatic when I got my first sighting of the family. A couple of females were immediately visible within a few metres of us, and they were enjoying a spot of lunch. However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer exhilaration of what came next…..tumbling over the flattened leaves……a tiny, playful and inquisitive BABY GORILLA. To this day this is still my most heartwarming and memorable wildlife sighting, I actually gasped with sheer joy! I must have spent at least 20 minutes of our hour stood watching this baby bounding around, rolling down the hill then climbing back up to do it all over again – not a care in the world.
When you get your briefing you are told that you need to stay around 3m away from the gorillas. However, it seems the gorillas don’t get this same briefing. Whilst we were stood there watching the females and the baby, out of nowhere another young inquisitive group member came bounding out from one of the trees behind us and grabbed a couple of us around the legs. His curiosity had simply got the better of him! This was only a very young member of the group but trying to gently move away was impossible – what a grip! I can’t even imagine the strength of the silverback!
The trek back down the mountain was at a cautious pace over the uneven and often slippery terrain, but was certainly quicker than the ascent. Overall we were out for just under 6 hours, but it was totally manageable with an average level of fitness.
One thing I learnt on this trip that I wasn’t aware of before is that if you have mobility issues, there is still an option available to you to see the gorillas. There is an opportunity to hire a stretcher and be carried by 4+ porters. This is something you pay extra for, and each porter also has to be paid, but it may offer some people an opportunity they thought might otherwise may not be possible. Honestly I am not sure how the logistics on this work, as the terrain is tough, and slippery, and dense, so it certainly isn’t going to be a smooth journey! I am guessing you get assigned the easiest gorilla group to reach, but there are never any guarantees….
This second trek was a lot more challenging than the first in many ways. However, the reward of seeing an energetic baby gorilla, two active female gorillas and having an up-close experience with a young friendly gorilla made every second of it worthwhile. I still smile to this day when I look at the photos, or talk about the trip. It is hands down one of the most amazing wildlife experiences in the world, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in seeing animals in their natural habitat.
Every trekking group gets to spend one hour observing their allocated gorilla family and this is rightly rigorously enforced. Only one trekking group is allowed to visit a gorilla family each day to ensure minimum impact on the gorillas in their natural environment. There is a fine balance between the excellent conservation work that results from the gorilla permit funds, and ensuring the gorillas are able to live freely as wild animals. The gorilla trekking is a huge success story in terms of conservation, as over only the last few years the number of gorillas in the wild has risen from just over 600 to over 1000. There are several reasons for this. Most notably that the permit costs provide necessary funding towards protecting the gorillas from poachers, through deploying more rangers and providing education programmes in the local areas about the importance of protecting the mountain gorillas, instead of hunting them. The regulated tourism also ensures that local communities have the opportunity to benefit from visitors to their area. A good number train as porters and rangers, some sell locally made souvenirs, others provide much needed refreshments or work in the local lodges that are only built for the wildlife tourists. As long as the fine balance continues to be met to the benefit of the gorillas and local residents, then Uganda is getting it right.
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Top Tips for Trekking
- I cannot recommend getting a porter highly enough as they are invaluable in helping you get across some of the more complex terrain. Even if you are fit, you will still benefit in this complex environment as it isn’t like a regular hike. In addition, you are helping to provide income to the local communities, who are most impacted by tourism to the region.
- Pack some lightweight gardening gloves – they certainly won’t win you any fashion awards but they are invaluable when your trek is largely through thick forest, when you need to regularly hold on to branches and trees….that might be covered in biting ants!
- I recommend walking boots and not walking shoes/trainers, to provide additional ankle support. The ground can be very uneven, as you are often walking over chopped down branches, and the leaves and mud also mean it can be very slippery. Boots can help to avoid mild sprains.
- Water, water and more water. If you get a shorter trek it will probably not get drunk. However, if you end up on a longer trek it will be invaluable because the forest is hot and humid, and you are likely to sweat ….. a lot.