Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
On our road trip through Uganda, we spent one day in the National Park of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for what you can call a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The jungles of Bwindi, situated in the south-west of Uganda, are home to almost half of the world’s surviving mountain gorilla’s. It is the place to be to see these gentle giants in their natural habitat.
If you are planning to do this activity, note that you have to plan your trip in advance. The permits are expensive; we paid 600 USD per permit. They are limited and only a few groups per day are able to make the tracking. Each group consists of 8 tourists, complete with rangers and porters. You are free to hire a porter and we absolutely recommend you hire one. Their help is invaluable and almost indispensable. They not only carry your bags but they also push and pull you when the terrain is steep and tough. A helping hand is encouraging when fatigue begins to weigh you down!
By purchasing a permit, you have to declare you are in good condition and healthy. That last issue is very important because gorilla’s are 98% genetic similar to human beings. They are even susceptible to a simple cold. On the day of the tracking and before we left, we were asked again to declare being in good health!
The duration of a tracking is sometimes unpredictable. It depends on the time the trackers (they go in before the groups into the forest) need to find signs of a gorilla-family/group and send the messages (radio-contact) to the rangers accompanying the groups. It took our group at least around 3 hours to reach the gorilla’s. Some groups are doing it in half an hour. Everyday, it changes! In the past, we had already encountered other big wildlife (humpback whales in Greenland, bears in Canada) so we knew it was also important not to focus too hard on your desire to see what you are expecting to see because it is not a zoo; there is always a little possibility that a group does not succeed on the tracking. But as the proverb says; focus on the journey, not the destination! During your hiking, you see already such beautiful and untamed nature in the jungle! It is really paradise.
After a short briefing with some general info and the do’s and dont’s when we are in contact with the gorilla’s, we were divided into groups and we left in the direction of the jungle. In front of us were rangers, armed with guns, machetes and other equipment. The men with the machetes have to cut our path through the bushy jungle. It is a tough hike over ridges, through valleys and this lasts for several hours. After 2 hours, there is another short break for a drink and a snack. The warmth, the humidity and the fatigue begins to weigh you down but giving up was not an option for our group. At such moments, the leading hand of my porter was invaluable. He almost continuously held my hand on the toughest parts when the path is steep, muddy or just when I am almost too exhausted to go on.
When we were halfway through the climb of the second ridge (2.5 hour after we left); the trackers sent some messages to the rangers about some activities observed in the next valley. We were on the right path and all group members continued to be full of hope. After more than 3 hours, there was magic. The moment we encountered a Silverback gorilla and his family was amazing. We were almost making eye contact with this gentle giant. This amazing animal creature with his deep brown eyes; it seemed like a gentle and almost human gaze. The moment was very emotional and a few tears were shed among our group.
From the moment we reached the gorilla’s, the time begin to move fast. For exactly one hour, we had the privilege of being a part of their world. In an instant, all efforts and pain were forgotten and we enjoyed observing the animals in their natural habitat, busy with their daily activities. We captured the moments and enjoyed this once-in-a-lifetime experience in complete silence. No one of the group needed to say one word!
Encountering nature creatures, with their genetics so close to us human beings, was absolutely my most memorable moment of 2016. It might be the best moment of my life. I do not know how another nature experience could top this!