It is very easy to ignore people when they speak but once their talk becomes a sound of a mob, you have no option but to listen. Mountain gorilla trekking is one of those things that you can easily ignore per adventure because of the mystery of Africa. However, once you tune into the frequency of the wonderful tales of gorilla safaris, you cannot but consider giving it a thought.
Unlike any other African safari experience, gorilla trekking is typically a hiking experience like no other. It is beyond the game drives that you will encounter on an African safari. It is not the tale of Maasai Mara neither is it the thrill of Serengeti national park in Tanzania; it is simply unique. You cannot mimic it; it is simply a total injustice if we try comparing it to anything that is not gorilla trekking!
A simple trivia; mountain gorilla trekking can only be done in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. It is only these three countries that host the few remaining mountain gorillas.
There are as few as 1000 mountain gorillas left in the whole world. These great apes live in two separate habitats; the Virunga Mountains and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The Virunga Region is a transboundary region and to emphasize conservation, each country gazetted the places where these great apes as national parks. These are the Virunga National Park of DR Congo, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park of Uganda and the Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda.
Each of these countries offers its distinct gorilla trekking experience and the two most popular destinations for gorilla tracking are the Volcanoes National Park Rwanda and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in south western Uganda. Today let us focus on the gorilla safari experience in Uganda; one of the most rated the face-to-face encounter with the great apes;
Where to Go
Uganda has two national parks where gorilla trekking is done; Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in south-western Uganda stands out for offering ultimate gorilla trek alongside the extraordinary “Gorilla Habituation Experience” where visitors trek and spend four hours with semi-habituated gorillas. This park undeniably shelters the highest concentration of the endangered mountain gorillas in the entire world.
According to the most recent census of 2019, there are about 1063 mountain gorillas in the entire world and about 470 of them are in Bwindi while the remaining ones are shared among Mgahinga Gorilla National Park also in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in DR Congo.
Within Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, there are 18 gorilla families that have been habituated for gorilla tracking. These families are spread over a huge forest that covers 331 sq kms that is divided into four sectors. Every day, there are 144 gorilla permits available for booking at the Uganda Wildlife Authority Offices.
There is more to Bwindi than just mountain gorillas because there are over 120 mammal species, 350 bird species, about 300 butterfly species and many others. With more exciting adventures such as mountain biking, birding tours, Batwa cultural experiences and guided forest walks, Bwindi is the best place to be.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is less known to most travelers who go gorilla tracking. This is due to its sheer size! However, despite its small size, it is one of the most scenic national parks in East Africa and the backdrop of the three of the eight Virunga volcanoes add much to its beauty.
For those who would like to track the mountain gorillas in Mgahinga National Park, it is important to place your booking early enough. This is due to the fact that there is only one gorilla family that can be visited in the park. This therefore means that there are only eight gorilla permits available to be booked per day.
Apart from the great apes, other adventures that you can take in the park include tracking the golden monkeys, a rare ancient world order monkey, only found in the Virunga Region, hiking three of the Virunga Volcanoes and experiencing the culture of the Batwa, a pygmy tribe that used to live in the gorilla forests.
Typical of a gorilla safari in Uganda, you need a minimal of 3 days at your disposal. The long transfer from Entebbe passing through the lashing swamps, and the highlands of western Uganda are actually part of the experience. You get to see Uganda through unfiltered lenses of trying to create an experience.
Before reaching the gorilla park, the green scenery throughout your transfer comes with a soothing sight to the beholder. Talking about this 9 hours journey is an experience worth a long tale but still kept a secret till now. Consider a stop at the equator; conducting a differential experiment for the southern and northern hemispheres is a memory worth recording more so in this digital era of smart phones.
The biggest part of the journey is on tarmac. I think it also one of the reasons many people have chosen to do self-guided safaris in Uganda. However, worth noting; the long transfer might get you too tired hence ruining your next day trekking. It is for this reason why unless you have enough time at your disposal not to attempt a self drive safari.
The Night before Trekking
Where you spend the night before your gorilla trek has a big influence on your experience. Depending on where you spend the night; it might take you between 20 minutes and 2 hours to transfer to the point where you attend your gorilla trek into the jungle. Choosing a lodge near the park offices will save you from waking up too early in case you are not an early riser.
While putting in mind the long transfer to the gorilla park, you must give yourself enough rest. It is actually recommended to have a massage after the long transfer so that you may wake up totally fresh the next morning.
It is important to know that unlike gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda where travelers assemble at one point and get assigned to the gorilla families to track on the day, for Bwindi, you have to take seriously the sector to be visited and thus book accommodation that is close to your sector. Many travelers get surprises and end up paying more to make changes in the sector to be visited.
The Morning on the Day of Gorilla Trekking
Depending on where you have spent the night, you wake up early enough for a breakfast good enough to take you through an hour to 3 hours walk. It is after your breakfast that you should transfer to the park office to attend the gorilla trekking briefing.
Upon reaching the park, you will meet other trekkers and get briefed about gorilla tracking. The Uganda Wildlife Authority staff will advise you on the dos and donts that you should know before moving into the gorilla territory! It is important to pay attention to the directions to follow including tips on how you have to behave while you are with the gorillas.
The Gorilla Trek
The Journey is all about encountering the mountain gorillas in their natural environment. But this is not like a walk in a zoo or sanctuary. It is a walk through a natural forest coupled with climbs and slopes through pathways that sometimes have to be made along the journey.
Depending on where the gorillas are, you might have to plan for a walk between 3 hours to 7 hours. One hour of these is simply spent in the presence of the mountain gorillas. Upon approaching a family, the first beasts you will see are the babies. They are very active and playful.
The most thrilling of all is the face-to-face encounter with the silverback. It is the biggest of all the gorillas in the family. It makes you appreciate the fact that they are habituated. If it is not for habituation, you can barely stand face to face with a silverback. It leaves you thinking; what next, until you realize that emperor of jungle is minding his own business regardless of your presence.
During the one hour, you have a lot to do. Watch the apes, learn about their life and take photos of the great apes at your pace.
It is important to maintain the safe distance that is recommended. At all times, you need to ensure that you are 7 meters away from the apes. Due to COVID 19 Breakout, it is quite essential to follow the mountain gorilla protocol that have been adopted in all the destinations where gorilla trekking is done.
Tipping the Rangers
After encountering the gorillas, you will have to see off some of the rangers (trackers). It is recommended to at least consider a tip of your choice. It makes a big difference for the rangers in terms of motivation.
After your eye-to-eye experience with a silverback; you will set off to return to the Uganda wildlife Authority offices where you will receive your gorilla trekking certificate. You will then say farewell to the rangers and proceed to your lodge. If you can get a massage, it would be a better way to relax that evening.