Forest so thick you can’t see the person walking less than a meter in front of you, ground as slippery as ice and at a minimum angle of 30 degrees – our second mountain gorilla trekking adventure in Uganda had begun!
Even second time around it was as unforgettable an experience as the first time. There is something about staring into the eyes of so human a creature and seeing recognition and acknowledgement that makes it impossible to leave without a very different attitude to all our fellow inhabitants of earth.
Our first trek was back in 2009 and we trekked from Buhoma in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Uganda) but this time we trekked from the opposite side of Bwindi, at Rushaga.
I’ve read many pieces discussing whether it is better to do your gorilla adventure in Rwanda, Uganda or the Congo but these often miss the fact that not all gorilla trekking experiences in a particular country are the same. I don’t know much about gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Congo since I’ve never trekked in either country, but having trekked to gorillas twice in Uganda, in different locations, I can confirm that each experience was completely different. There are as many factors to consider in picking your location within one of these countries as between them.
However a large amount of your experience depends on luck. The gorilla families are not in a zoo but roaming free in a very large area of very dense forest and so many factors, such as the length of your trek or how open the area you end up encountering the gorillas in, cannot be planned for. There are, however, some things you can plan for.
Assess your fitness levels
At Buhoma we walked for almost 3 hours just to get to the forest, while the starting point at Rushaga was right in the forest, meaning a much shorter trek to our gorilla family. The longer trek is not necessarily a problem, just something to be prepared for. Our longer trek in 2009 allowed us to experience the village of Buhoma in a completely different way as we wandered through the tea plantations and as we got higher and higher we were rewarded with breath-taking views of endless bright green mountains quilted with even greener forests, just before we entered the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest itself. One of our group members had a knee injury and didn’t have nearly as much fun getting to the gorillas. So do an honest assessment of your physical condition and your priorities, then choose a site that best fits with your abilities and wishes. Porters are available to assist with carrying bags and in an emergency can carry you down and out of the forest – but if this is as a result of your lack of physical ability it’s going to cost you a rather large sum of money!
Plan for what you want to see
You can also plan for the gorilla families themselves, if you do your homework. These families are just like ours, made up of different personalities, ever-growing and changing, sometimes losing members to old age but also gaining members through births. Doing a little research on the exact status of each family, when births are expected, how large each family is and what each family’s behavioural characteristics are will ensure you know what to prepare for.
In Buhoma we were privileged to be with a gorilla family that had recently grown by one young, rather mischievous member, and watching this baby being breastfed by his mother as she gently stroked his face is a moment that will forever be imprinted in my memory. In Rushaga the gorilla family we met had a pregnant, very very hungry member who pulled a tree down on top of us, a much more outgoing (a complete showoff, in fact) silverback and they all loved to climb trees in search of fruit. Both our experiences were unforgettable, but very different from each other, and as a result there were people we encountered each time that left disappointed at not having seen what they wanted to see.
Schedule your time carefully
Some say that another factor you should consider is what else you’d like to do in addition to gorilla trekking, and while this doesn’t make sense if you’re short of time, their is lots of other things to do in this areas. The constantly improving roads mean that even getting between Rwanda and Uganda is a breeze. We self-drove each country from end to end and even the roads that were not up to par were being upgraded.
The best way to think about the five sites from which it is possible to track gorillas is to ignore the arbitrary map lines (which mean nothing to the gorillas), and recognise that regardless of the country you chose, each site and even each specific gorilla family offers very different experiences. Taking these into account will take an already unforgettable experience to the next level and ensure you make the best of this unique opportunity.