Gorilla trekking in Bwindi – Habinyanja group – Gretchen’s trip report #3

January 3, 2011  By: Gretchen

Trekking day, I had a 6:30am wake up call, which gave me enough time for a delicious cooked breakfast and to gear up for hiking. I took the packed lunch that Gorilla Forest Camp provided and loaded it into my backpack along with my rain jacket, camera gear and water. It was plenty heavy once loaded up, but I knew I would be hiring a porter before setting off.

I can’t stress enough that anyone gorilla trekking should plan and budget to hire a porter. There are lots of reasons to do so, but the most important one is this: you are providing a local person with employment, which in turn incents them to continue to protect the gorillas and their habitat. Better yet, I can promise you that on a difficult hike, you will be grateful to not be carrying an awkward and heavy backpack and even more grateful that someone is there to help you on particularly difficult terrain. I am fit and I hike nearly every weekend year round at altitudes up to 14,000 feet, and I was plenty pleased to have hired a porter. It was $15 very well spent.

My permit for my stay in Buhoma was for the Habinyanja group, so after the informational session and briefing at park headquarters we headed off in our vehicle for an hour’s drive to get to the trekking start point. Our hike began in an agricultural area but was a well utilized trail and was easy going initially. After the first hour or so, we broke off on to a smaller trail through cultivated fields, which was surprisingly steep and challenging with all of the dense crops and vegetation. We had a few stream crossings then eventually came upon a gorilla nest from the previous evening when we neared the edge of the forest.

Our UWA (Ugandan Wildlife Authority) ranger was in constant contact with the trackers, who reported that our habituated group of gorillas had just had an encounter with a wild group and the silverbacks had engaged in fighting. As a result, we had to do a fair bit of back tracking and enter the forest at a different place. In the meantime, the gloves had come out to hang on to vegetation while climbing steep hills, and the gaiters had done their job keeping safari ants and stinging nettles from annoying me.

We finally entered the Impenetrable Forest. We were immediately enveloped into the canopy, which was actually a cool relief from the blazing sunshine that had been upon us all day (lucky weather to be sure). The sounds were dampened and we could hear more birds and primate life around us, replacing the cheerful calls of local residents as we hiked by.

Another 25 minutes of up and down and we were in range of the gorillas. We put down our walking sticks and bags, grabbed only our cameras, then proceeded to a clearing where we spent an enchanting hour with the H group. They were resting under the forest canopy as a family; a few were feeding, but most were grooming and the young ones were playing.

It is hard to express the feeling I had while spending time in such close proximity to these magical apes. They come across as extremely gentle and you can see very clearly that they care for one another. One can also imagine the ferocity that might be possible in a rival silverback encounter, though I would stress that in my two days with the different gorilla groups, all that I witnessed was gentle, calm behaviour.

Each gorilla clearly has their own personality. The young were full of energy, and the youngest, a four-month-old infant, was so obviously treasured by his mother. The dominant silverback was watching over his family, as well as sitting down to groom and be groomed. Interestingly, the gorillas seemed to know when our hour was up; right at the appointed time, they rose from their family relaxation and slowly made off as a group. The hour seemed to go by in a flash, but I remember every moment of it like it only just happened.

The hike back was less arduous as we didn’t have any of the backtracking, but the overall hiking time was near six hours. Getting back to the vehicle felt like a victory, and the shower and cold drink back at camp were immensely refreshing!

I also took advantage of the opportunity to visit the Batwa (or Twa) community the next morning before my departure. A local guide took us on a walking tour of the nearby village. We were privileged to meet a number of people and get an intimate look at local industry. We saw a (banana) distillery and how banana juice, wine and gin are all produced, we walked through coffee and tea growing enterprises, and we also visited a local witch doctor who showed us a few of his secrets. These were just the highlights. It was nice to get an on the ground picture of the local community and to interact with some of the residents in this beautiful part of the world.

Next: Trekking to find the Nkuringo group from Clouds Lodge!

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