It was not until 1902 while Rwanda was under German colonial rule that mountain gorillas were first discovered by a Captain Von Bereng while hiking Mount Sabinyo. At the time and in many years to come, mountain gorillas were thriving in the wild. They were only seen as simple hunting trophies with little realization of how much of a treasure they would become in later years. After severe hunting and poaching disseminated their numbers to alarming levels in the mid to late 20th century putting them on the endangered list, great primatologist like Dian Fossey took action and helped raise concern about the plight of the apes worldwide. Several conservation programs were initiated by Dian Fossey and in later years by other gorilla conservation programs helping raise the number of mountain gorillas and ensuring they became one of the leading tourist attractions in Africa. An encounter with mountain gorillas is considered the ultimate wildlife experience and gorilla trekking is top on the bucket list of most tourists on a wildlife safari to Africa.
About Mountain Gorilla and where to find them
Mountain gorillas share up to 98% DNA with humans. They are highly intelligent and organize themselves in families living under the leadership of a dominant male Silverback. Living to at least 50 years, an adult Gorilla can consume at least 50 to 60 pounds of food on a diet made of bamboo leaves, ripe fruits, stems, roots, flowers and shoots. The males are usually stronger and heavier weighing almost twice the weight of the females – about 200 Kilograms. Unlike their close cousins, the chimpanzees who are occasionally seen on two limbs for short distances, Mountain Gorillas move on all the four limbs with the stronger arms supporting all its body weight. When habituated, these large primates allow humans very close to them. Their shy and calm nature makes them very approachable at close range, but this attribute shouldn’t fool you as the heavy mass concentrated on their fists could certainly get you a Peter Pan on a single blow if they feel threatened.
Mountain Gorillas are territorial and unlike their comrades the lowlands Gorillas are not found in Zoos as they can’t survive in captivity. Mountain Gorillas are currently found in the mountain rain forests of four national Parks of Mgahinga, Volcanoes, Virunga and Bwindi. The Mgahinga National Park and the Bwindi National Park in Uganda have more than half of the total population of the remaining mountain gorillas. The other half are found in Virunga National Park found in the slopes of Mount Nyiragongo in DR Congo and the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.
Bwindi impenetrable National park
Bwindi impenetrable forest is one of the two National Parks where mountain gorillas can be found within the Uganda territory. Bwindi was first gazetted as a forest Reserve in 1942 and declared a National Park in 1992. Bwindi is famous for gorilla trekking which is the most attractive activity there. Besides gorillas, several other primate species such as L’Hoest’s Monkeys, Grey checked Mangabeys, Red Colobus Monkeys, Black and White Monkeys and several other mammal species like Antelopes, African Civets, Elephants live within this dense forest. Over 350 bird species, chameleons, frogs, Geckos and nearly 200 species of Butterflies live within this vast forest.
Visitors to Bwindi can also decide to go for community walks to visit local communities particularly the Batwa pygmies who are the original forest habitats but have now been relocated elsewhere. Local tour guides familiar to the area help visitors explore the Batwa traditional dishes, dances and of course a bit of their language. One can also enjoy trails along the River Ivi, Munyaga, the Rushurra trail, Ruizi and the Muzabajiro loops which give you wonderful scenery of a real tropical forest full of orchids and Epithetic ferns. You might even decide to engage in other activities like mountain biking and cycling.
Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi
Gorilla trekking in Bwindi started over two decades ago after the declaration of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest as a National Park. There are currently 13 habituated Gorilla groups that are open for trekking in the park. Trekking starts as early as 7:30 am in the morning. A hot cup of coffee and heavy breakfast is highly recommended for visitors as they get ready to find their way through the thick forest. After breakfast, trekkers gather at the park headquarters for a brief orientation from the Uganda Wildlife Authority officials. Visitors are divided into separate trekking groups usually based on their overall fitness level and the particular gorilla group they wish to track. From here the groups (8 members in each) move to the particular sector of Bwindi forest where the gorilla family assigned live. They are led by armed park rangers and guides in search of the Gorilla groups starting from their previous day nest – Mountain Gorillas rarely move far away from their previous resting point. The tour guides know the groups’ behavior, lifestyles and will locate them by identifying the last day’s leftovers and footprints.
Once the location of the gorillas is identified, trekkers are allowed one hour to enjoy watching and taking videos/photos. Look out for the silverback commanding the other group members, mother breastfeeding the newly born, young adults shyly grooming themselves and the youngsters swinging on low tree branches. This hour photographing and observing the gorillas closely will be one of the highlights of your safari in Uganda and will remain in your memory forever.
Mountain Gorilla trekking usually involves long distance hikes which require a certain level of fitness. Gorilla trekking in Bwindi sometimes involves passing through rough terrain and high altitudes. The problem has been partly solved by allocating gorilla groups based on the individual fitness of a particular trekker. Trekking is divided into three categories based on the location of a particular gorilla group – the short trek of about thirty minutes to one hour, the medium trek of a maximum 3 hours and the longest trek lasting more than 5 hours. It is recommended that visitors hire porters to help carry their loads and give a hand while navigating steep slopes.
The cost of Gorilla trekking in Bwindi
A gorilla safari is more costly than other wildlife safari in Africa. A gorilla trekking safari is highly sought out because the primates are rare, endangered and only found in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Tourists do not just pay for the gorilla permits though, but also to support gorilla conservation efforts and the local community living near the park. Once the communities realize the benefits from gorilla trekking and visitors coming to the park, they learn to value the gorillas and will not resort to poaching or harming these endangered primate for fear of losing the economic benefits. Gorilla permits in Uganda cost $600 which is far much lower than in Rwanda where gorilla permits are sold at $1500. Apart from the cost of the gorilla permit, there are Visa, accommodation and transport costs to think about. A luxury gorilla tour could cost you about $ 2000 or $ 1000 if travelling on budget.
Gorilla permits can be got directly from the Uganda Wildlife Authority headquarters in Kampala depending on your safari experience or through your tour operator in combination with other services like securing accommodation and transportation. Since Gorilla trekking is on high demand by wildlife travelers to Africa, it is advisable that the booking is completed 3 to 4 months prior to your visit.
Getting to Bwindi
Bwindi is approximately 530 km from the capital Kampala. There are several ways to reach Bwindi. One can take go by road from Kampala to Buhoma through Kabale taking five hours of driving. A second method is to go by air from either Kajjansi Airfield along the Entebbe – Kampala highway or from Entebbe airport itself to Kisoro airstrip or Kayonza airstrip. Air transport is by far the quickest means to reach Bwindi. The last method is interesting. Visitors can actually come from Kigali in Rwanda and cross the border to Bwindi in a journey which takes 4 hours at most. This is shorter than driving for over 5 hours from Kampala.
When to go gorilla trekking
Mountain gorillas can be visited at any time of the year. However it is great to understand the different seasons in Uganda in order to choose the most ideal time for your gorilla safari. These are:-
The dry season: Also known as the high season are the drier months of the year and are considered the best for Gorilla trekking and wildlife viewing. It occurs in the months of December through to February and June to August. As a rainforest, expect showers even during the dry season in Bwindi – carry some warm and heavy clothes. The roads are drier and less slippery during this season. However mosquitoes leave their breeding grounds and bushes to go feasting during the dry season – expect more mosquito bites if you don’t cover yourself well while in or out of your room.
The rainy season: The low season occurs in the months of March through to May and September to November. This season is characterized by frequent rain showers as well as thunderstorms which make roads muddy and slippery. Gorilla photography also tends to be a more difficult as they move to the thicker/denser parts of the forests. The rainy season can turn out to be the best time to come for a safari for some. During these months, the vegetation around the park and the country as a whole is beautiful green. Migratory birds cross into the country and to Bwindi forest making this the best time for birding.
Gorilla rules, requirements and regulations
While on a gorilla trekking safari, there are the rules and requirements that need to be followed in order to have the best experience.
- The minimum age of Gorilla trekking is 15 years.
- Visitors with communicable diseases like diarrhea, flu are not allowed to participate in the process. In case you want to cough or sneeze, face an opposite direction or cover your mouth and nose since Gorillas have low immunity to such diseases.
- Spitting within the park is prohibited.
- All human disposables should be kept out of the reach of the gorillas.
- No smoking or eating is allowed in the presence of Gorillas. If you have to smoke, do it at least 200m meters from the primates.
- No flash photography is allowed
- No littering within the park
- Stay a distance of at least 7 meters from the Gorillas and do not provoke or threaten them in any way.
- Gorilla trekking is strictly in a limit of one hour.
- Avoid any form of noise or sudden movements that might be interpreted it as a threat.
- Follow all instructions given to you by the tour guide.
What to pack and wear for gorilla trekking
When planning a gorilla safari to Bwindi, consider bringing the following items.
- Light weight long sleeve shirts and down the heels pants is recommended due to the ever changing weather conditions caused by the rising and falling altitude.
- Comfortable seasoned hiking shoes, preferably waterproof as well as long synthetic stocking to keep away the crawling insects.
- A rain jacket even during the dry season.
- Backpack that is waterproof to keep your valuables safe such as phones and camera.
- Gardening gloves are essentials as you will continually grab tree branches in search for support. Some of these branches are rough with thorns.
- A walking stick will help you climb steep and rough terrain.
- At least 2 to 3 bottled water and some snacks to give you strength during tracking.
Accommodation in Bwindi
You can find a variety of accommodation facilities within the Bwindi area ranging from luxury, medium and budget with the later going for as low as USD80. A luxury accommodation costs up to USD900. Some of the lodges include:-
- Mahogany Springs: As the name suggests, is built with Mahogany and overlooks the thick Bwindi forests. This accommodation offers luxury facilities.
- Ruhija Gorilla Friends Resort and Campsite: Is located right at the park headquarters and provides luxury, midrange and budget rooms, tents and campsites.
- Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge: Found on the southern arm of the park. The 8 self-contained rooms in the lodge are given a touch of African art design and stone finishing.
- Volcanoes Safaris Bwindi Lodge: This lodge is located within 10 minutes walk from the park entrance. They offer massage spa and well furnished rooms.
- Gorilla Forest Camp: Is also located at park entrance. The Campsite is made of several well established tents that provide quality services.
- Silverback Lodge: Is located within the Buhoma sector of the park offering luxurious and midrange self contained rooms. Residents can go take part in other tour activities like guided community walks to neighboring villages during their free time.
- Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge: Is a budget facility located within the park and because of the numerous birds found around the lodge, is ideal for birds watching.
- Buhoma Community Campsite: They offer spacious self contained rooms that are good for budget travelers.