Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
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The day for trekkers begins around 8 am with a briefing at headquarters. We watched a short video about the history of the gorillas in the area, heard an introduction from a ranger, and then we were split into hiking groups to receive further instruction from our guide. Our driver-guide for the trip had previously chatted with the trekking guides about the skill levels and health concerns of those in our group. I cannot stress enough how important it is to honestly communicate to your guide ahead of time about your physical ability and if you have any concerns about the hike. The more the guides know about your health and skill level, the better it is for everyone!
While the trekking guides never know for sure where the gorilla families will be located, they are in communication with a team of trackers who head out early in the morning to help locate the families. Because the guides are in communication with the trackers, they often have a general idea which family will be closest or furthest from the trailhead. However, it’s never guaranteed that every group will find their assigned family or that they will be where the trackers and guide teams think they’ll be.
Before setting out, we had the option of hiring porters for the trip. Regardless of your physical ability, I highly recommend a porter. They carry your pack and provide stability on the uneven terrain. If you’re not an experienced hiker, I recommend two (or maybe three) porters. In addition to providing much-needed support during the hike, hiring a porter is a great way to support the local community and get to know a local.
Our hiking group consisted of a guide, eight hikers, porters, two security guards to protect against dangerous animals like forest elephants, and a researcher. How long it takes to find the gorillas really varies. It took us four hours to find them, even though the same family had only been about 45 minutes away from the starting point the day prior, and sometimes groups can hike all day without ever finding the gorillas.
The hike itself was beautiful, with breathtaking views and lush vegetation all around us. While the gorillas steal the show for the day (rightfully so!), the hike itself was still a highlight of the trip. Bwindi National Park is surrounded by coffee and tea farms and you can often see locals at their homes or working in the fields from the trail. The area is filled with a variety of plants, including palm trees and beautiful flowers. You’ll likely be on a semi-cleared path though until you get closer to the gorillas. Despite being semi-cleared, it was slippery and uneven and everyone in my trekking group relied on their porter for assistance, even those of us who are used to hiking.
Our guide was great about checking the pace of the group often and adjusting as necessary. We also took plenty of breaks for food and water. Our lodge packed us a lunch and water to take with us in our day packs, as most in the area do. I recommend also packing some small, lightweight snacks as well in case of a long trekking day.
After about four hours trekking, our guide could tell we were getting very close to the gorilla family. At this point, the porters stayed behind with packs and the trekkers continued with just their cameras and the guide. This is the only part of the day where you won’t have assistance walking and it likely won’t be on a cleared trail. Our guide used a machete to clear low-hanging branches as we made our way through the dense forest until we came upon the Rushegura gorilla group. This group was habituated for trekking in 2000 and started receiving tourists in 2002.
My trekking group was lucky to see the entire family. Mountain gorillas and humans share 98 percent of DNA, and it is fascinating spotting the similarities in their behavior. From the alpha male silverback all the way down to the three little ones, each of the 16 gorillas gave our group something to admire, giggle at, and enjoy. The three juveniles, in particular, were so fun to watch. The two slightly older gorillas would lead the way, climbing trees, swinging, and wrestling with each other. The youngest would tag along, trying to follow in their footsteps and playfully picking on the older siblings when she could. The adult gorillas spent time eating, grooming, resting, and feeding their young.
Our hour with the gorillas passed by all too quickly, but it was well worth the $600 gorilla permit fee, especially when you consider it goes toward helping to protect this endangered species. Our guide told us to all take one more picture and then we started our trek back out of the forest. Meeting up with our porters, we had a snack and then started hiking again. It took us only two hours to hike out, because we caught a different trail and left a different way than we had hiked in. The guide phoned our safari driver guide, who met us in a small village at the edge of the forest to drive us back to our lodge.
Gorilla trekking is an experience I will never forget, and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to see them. These beautiful animals are only found in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and there are only about a thousand in existence. Mountain gorillas are unable to survive in captivity, so if you have a desire to see them let us help you plan your trek!
Contact a Journey Specialist today to start planning your gorilla trek!
Gorilla trekking calls for a different packing list than a traditional safari. Here are my packing recommendations:
- Hiking boots with good traction and ankle protection
- Gaiters to protect clothing – many of the lodges will also loan you a pair if you don’t have your own.
- Tall, breathable socks
- Breathable hiking pants and a long-sleeved shirt to protect yourself from the plants, regardless of the temperature
- Walking stick – you can borrow a stick at the starting point, but some people prefer to bring their own from home
- Bug repellent
- Sunscreen and hat
- Money to tip your guide and porter
- Camera and a plastic bag for it in case it rains
- Rain jacket
- Gardening gloves for grabbing on to vegetation as you hike – there are some spiky plants in the forest
- Snacks to supplement your packed lunch