For the safari of a lifetime, go Uganda gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a national park in the southwest of the country. It’s home to more than half of the world’s surviving population of endangered mountain gorillas. An encounter with these gentle gorillas is one of Uganda’s best safari experiences and is sure to make a profound, even life-changing, impression.
We had come to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda to experience the thrill of gorilla trekking. For my partner and I, it was the journey of a lifetime.
The ancient rain forest of Bwindi extends over a series of steep ridges in the midst of the volcanic Virunga mountain range. This area has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site due to its ecological uniqueness and natural beauty.
Our lodge, one of Uganda’s best, occupied a spectacular setting surrounded by dreamy, mist-covered hills. The ‘impenetrable’ forest that surrounded us protects more than 300 mountain gorillas – roughly half of the world’s population.
We were woken early in our lavish tent by the twitter of birds, and I gazed out over the forest canopy below. My partner and I dressed in long-sleeved shirts and trousers (for jungle walking). Boots and rain jacket on, we were good to go.
After a hearty breakfast, we were given a briefing by our guide, Dembe. ‘Out of a population of approximately 340 mountain gorillas, more than a hundred are habituated,’ he said. ‘If we approach them with respect, they let us get very close.’
‘Although strong and powerful, gorillas are generally gentle and shy. They live in groups of between two and 40 individuals, averaging around 11. Groups are led by a dominant male, the silverback, named for the silvery grey hairs that grow when the male matures. Today, we will try to find one of our resident families. Now, let’s get going.’
Our little group set off with Dembe leading, accompanied by three armed escorts and a porter. The forest’s impenetrable nature soon became apparent. It’s dense with thickets, vines and bamboo forests.
Following in the steps of our nimble guide, the rainforest unfolded magically around us. Occasionally we’d stop to catch our breaths, have a drink of water and take it all in: the sounds, smells and astonishing scenery resplendent in a myriad of greens.
‘The major threats to mountain gorillas are poaching, habitat loss and disease,’ said Dembe. ‘However, since 1997 there has been a steady increase in Bwindi’s gorilla population. We are lucky. This is not the case elsewhere.’
Upward and onward we trudged. At times, the going was rough, with steep slopes covered in dense foliage and the ground muddy underfoot. I was sweating profusely as we slogged our way deeper into Bwindi.
Suddenly, in the middle of a stand of bamboo, we happened upon a family of gorillas: a large silverback, six females and five babies. We were spellbound.
I started taking photos, my Nikon clicking away noisily. The male gorilla turned from his meal of bamboo shoots and glared at me. He was a monster, three times bigger than an average man. His eyes, soft amber, bored into me as if asking a thousand questions, or maybe just the big question separating the two of us.
I was mesmerised, staring through my lens and pressing the trigger continuously. But then he grew in size, his face filling my viewfinder. I lowered the camera. He was striding straight towards me with a hunched and swaggering gait. I held my breath…
The silverback brushed past me, heading for two baby gorillas that had wandered behind us. My heart was pounding, but my whole being was elated. I’d been touched by a big, hairy angel!
‘The silverback serves as the leader and protector of the group, to whom all members defer,’ whispered Dembe. ‘He decides when and where to forage, rest or sleep. He arbitrates disputes among family members and protects them from rival silverbacks and human predators.’
The young ’uns were gambolling about like animated balls of fluff, unconcerned by the bipedal apes in their midst. They’d climb a bamboo shoot until it bent to breaking point, sending them tumbling to earth. My partner stifled a giggle as the silverback glared at us.
We moved a short distance away and sat watching the group going about their business. While we gazed, Dembe spoke in a hushed voice: ‘Mountain gorillas do not survive in zoos. Thus, they can only be seen here in Africa. And they only occur in three countries – Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. In my opinion, gorillas are our most cherished citizens and, here in Bwindi, we are doing everything we can to protect them.’
One of the babies approached us, raised himself up on his hind legs and beat his chest, imitating daddy. The ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from our group were not exactly the reaction he’d hoped for. He slouched off in a huff.
After the shortest hour of our lives, we were led back down the mountain, slipping, sliding, caked in mud and utterly elated. That evening we sunk into a comfortable couch in front of a crackling fire and recounted every aspect of an experience that had profoundly touched both of us.