We actually hear them before we see them - sounds of chewing and grunting from the undergrowth and thick creepers that are higher on the slope of the mountain forest as we round a corner.
led by an enormous
, and we are deep in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to more than half of the remaining mountain gorillas in the world. We left our base lodge, Silverback Lodge in Buhoma District much earlier that day with the hope of catching a glimpse of these peaceful, rare and highly endangered creatures.
Silverback Lodge boasts impressive views of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park which is a UNESCO site and home to approximately 350 mountain gorillas. From our early morning viewpoint , the mountain forest appears a very formidable place that we will enter for what could be as long as an 8-hour hike.
Our tour company, Riverside Safaris has done all of the organizing up to this point. Our accommodations are highly recommended both for the quality of the hotel and for the spectacular view that appears just below the clouds above the forest.
Owner and tour guide Bonnie Kwiringira collects us in Kampala for the 8-hour guided drive to Western Uganda. He arranged the permits from the Uganda Wildlife Authority for $600 each and brings us to the start of the trail. Bonnie grew up in the area and therefore knows our surroundings well. He is a wealth of information and points out local flora and fauna as well as regaling us with humorous stories about the animals.
Enroute from Kampala, we stop in Queen Elizabeth National Park and are fortunate to see some of the "Big Five" while there.
Queen Elizabeth Park
is home to "tree climbing" lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards, chimpanzees, hippos and so much more. We also stop for photos and shopping at the Equator and make a couple of stops in small villages to see the traditional way of living.
We drive past miles of banana plantations, rice fields, pineapple and tea groves covering the hillsides. The incredible scenery is validation for Uganda's nickname, "The Pearl Of Africa."
Bonnie also knows the Bwindi park rangers and arranges porters to assist us throughout the trek. Hiring porters helps the local economy as they are very reasonably priced and helpful! The terrain is wet, slippery, muddy, straight up and down, hilly, and constantly changing. My porter's name is Godfrey but I soon nickname him God-send as he helps us navigate slick trails, steep slopes and rocky river beds. Our walking sticks are essential items!
Our hike is pleasantly challenging but not dangerous. While not for the faint-of-heart it can be done by most able-bodied adults. We stay together as a group and hike for a couple of hours. The staff is very knowledgeable and clearly love their jobs as well as the wildlife that they protect. Safety for everyone is of paramount importance to the staff, and they do their job well. Not for one second did we ever feel unsafe.
Finally, in a dense section of the forest , we stop. Our UWA Rangers advise us that we are near the gorilla family. We shuffle forward peering through the dark foliage to be rewarded with the incredible view of
a gorilla mother and her baby. We have discovered the Rusheguru Family led by Kabukojo. We are informed that the flattened vegetation indicates that this was the gorillas' sleeping nests from the previous night.
Nearby, two other gorillas groom each other and just a few metres away stands the Silverback with his silver grey fur, all in his glory. Most of the others are resting, having eaten well, and several are still up in a tree. The mother at the bottom with her 10-month old, was quite protective of her offspring, alternating between the hidden deep shade and open grass below the trees. A special show is provided, courtesy of the adolescent male, who cavorts above and practices his aerial moves until he falls from one branch to another and lands on the soft carpeted forest floor. We are able to spend an hour observing these beautiful creatures.
Words are inadequate to describe how you feel when standing a few meters away from one of the most magnificent, intelligent animals on the planet. You are in their home. They are so close that one brushes by my leg. They do not fear us at all, and go about their daily lives. And when they look at you with their soft brown eyes, your heart melts.
Mountain gorillas are the largest and most powerful of the apes. Gorillas share 98% of the same genetic components as humans. They have a large chest, huge muscular arms and broad feet. They live in a group of 10-14 individuals led by a male, the Silverback. The Silverback is extremely protective of the gorilla family that he is with and will even sacrifice his life to keep them safe. There are less than 900 gorillas alive today which makes it even more incredible to be able to see these amazing creatures.
Riverside Safaris will customize a tour of Uganda for you. For the budget conscious, they have access to small guesthouses in addition to large lodges. In addition to wildlife safaris, they can also arrange day trips to local orphanages and villages to allow for a complete cultural experience.
Gorilla trekking in Uganda is one of the most unique and memorable things I’ve done while traveling around the world. I highly recommend it!