Coming face to face with our long-lost cousin in the jungles of Uganda is something I won’t forget anytime soon.
It could be debated which one would be more intimidating – the gorilla right in front of you or guard armed with a rifle next to you. You need not to fear though as the only way to get up close to the rare silverback gorilla in ‘The Pearl of Africa’ is with the accompaniment of a guard as a safety measure.
Gorilla tracking in Bwindi
Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to the largest mountain gorilla population in the world. It is here in this World-Heritage Listed park that you can get up close with these fascinating beasts in their natural habitat. With neighbouring Rwanda recently doubling its gorilla tracking fees from $750 USD to $1500 USD, there has never been a better time to see how our close relatives live in the most mind-blowing wildlife encounter Uganda has to offer.
The park itself is home to much more than mountain gorillas, although they are the coveted kings of the jungle in this reserve. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of the world’s most biologically diverse rainforests with over 400 species of plants, 120 mammals and 350 bird species deserving of the binoculars – it certainly makes for one epic biological bingo game! The ultimate prize is, of course, an unforgettable encounter with the rare Silver Back and Mountain Gorillas.
Rightfully and responsibly stepping away from what could have been mass exploitation the gorillas, the tracking is conducted in small groups (up to eight people) with a leader and porters for assistance. Many people may snub using the services of a porter however it is well recommended for two reasons. One is that the exercise of trekking up the mountain to get a glimpse of the gorillas in their natural habitat is a challenging and physically exhausting exercise, especially when steep inclines and dense vegetation is involved. Trekkers needed to be fit and prepared to face potentially humid, wet and muddy conditions as this is one breath-taking feat – literally. Secondly, employing the services of the porters helps to support the local community as many people in Uganda live on less than $2 USD a day. Supporting locals, the conservation of the gorillas and the park is a winning outcome for all.
Sure I have done plenty of treks in my time. Inca Trail? Check. Tour the Rockies? Check. Getting caught up in a Thailand jungle and swimming through a cave? Check. All diverse environments but none can compare to the rawness of an encounter with a gorilla out in the wild. It isn’t just the natural surrounds that add to the excitement; the certainly of what these wild, nomadic beasts are capable of is obvious with one glance at their 200kg plus frame. Fear not, however as tracking guides are equipped with rifles (as intimidating as that may sound) to scare the gorillas off on the rare chance they become aggressive. They are also there with machetes to cut through the dense jungle to get you ‘front row seats’ to your once-in-a-lifetime gorilla viewing. Porters are also there to assist you with trudging through the dense, vine-laden jungle if it all becomes too tough; this definitely ain’t no walk in the park.
One must be physical, mentally and fashionably prepared also – gloves are a must. Wearing gardening gloves may seem a tad excessive but do not underestimate the need for this. It is encouraged to wear full body protection including covering your hands (Hello jungle fashionista) for protection from insects, thorns and itchy stinging nettles (put in the same category of annoyance as mosquito bites).
Best time to see gorillas
The best time to ascend the steep slopes of the jungle to get a glimpse of the gorillas is during the region’s dry seasons – December to February and June to September. Lucky the odds are in your favour as chances of finding a habituated gorilla family is over 90%. Once the gorilla family has been successfully tracked by the guides, you will settle down with them for a maximum of an hour and observe their activities. To help preserve the habitats and livelihoods of the gorillas, visitor numbers are restricted, so it is well worth booking in advance to avoid the despair of missing out on this remarkable encounter.
Check out my very unglamorous, unfiltered and unedited video of me tracking in Bwindi to see the gorillas!
The magical moment of seeing the gorillas
After all the hardship of combating the jungle (Jungle: 0, You: 1), this moment is your holy grail. It’s the moment when you realise you are totally out of your comfort zone completely and somewhat inferior to the rest of the natural world. After beating your way through the dense forest under the protection of towering trees, you have found your long lost jungle friends and distant relative.
Here in front of you, these giant, black, long-haired beasts are living out their lives in the most extreme of environments. Silence was golden as I stared at these hunched and shaggy gorillas and looked into their soft brown eyes only a few feet away, silently observing their every move.
I just felt so small in comparison when I saw their mammoth sized hands and feet. Crazy to think that silverback gorillas can reach up to six feet tall while the female can reach up to five. Also that their arms are longer than their legs.
I found myself feeling envious of their simple life of eating bamboo, sleeping and fooling around in the jungle with their family – looked like a good life to me!
Gorillas travel in clans, led by a male, and it is possible to see many of them at the same time (I saw roughly six to eight). The cherry on the top of my encounter was a storybook ending – where I saw a baby gorilla swinging around a small tree. It had then tumbled backwards onto the shrubby below, and it just felt like that was meant to be a climatic end of my hour with the gorillas.
The gorillas may be kings of the jungle, but the moment I stepped out of it, I felt on top of the world. My cheesy smile could not be wiped off my face a long time after my awesome (in a literal sense) encounter – it was just that surreal and incredible to see. My gorilla tracking in Uganda was a spine-tingling experience that would be hard to top – mountain views included!
Disclaimer: I travelled as a guest of the Ugandan Tourism Board. Seriously, cannot wait to go back to this stunning country!
Main image credit: Ben Stern on Unsplash. I made the rookie error of not taking any photos as I wanted to be in the moment for it all.
Article originally appeared on News.com.au