The Epic Quest To See Africa Gorillas in The Mountains of Uganda
An epic tale of the most remarkable wildlife adventure of trekking to find Africa gorillas in the tropical mountain forests of Uganda and Rwanda.
Undoubtedly, the most remarkable wildlife adventure is trekking to find Africa gorillas in the tropical mountain forests of Uganda and Rwanda. Many spirited travelers who've been on this epic quest have enchanting stories about their encounters with the gentle giants in the misty mountains. Observing these great apes in their natural habitat enduring in man's brutal world is as glorious as it sounds.
I've realized this dream a couple of times, and recently as earlier this year when I ventured into Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to visit gorillas. Cathy Nabbaale of Gorilla Junction, a specialist in planning gorilla trekking tours in Uganda, shares his knowledge and passion in an intuitive and very informative conversation about Africa's gorillas.
Tracking Africa Gorillas — An Insider's Tale
Bert: I'm fascinated by the human-like social structures of these primitive creatures. Tell us briefly how Africa gorillas live and what they're like in the tropical wilderness.
Cathy: They are like us, social, and live in family groups. I think they also worry about the same things. Interestingly, they are emotional and display many other human-like behaviors, like laughter and sadness. Just like traditional African families, mountain gorilla families are patriarchal. The group is controlled by a male Silverback (his back fur is silver coated). He ensures his family is safe and well-fed, and every member has to follow his lead.
The females in the group, who are usually sisters, are all his wives. If there's another male in the group, maybe, the Silverback's brother or son, they wouldn't dare touch the females at his watch. The females care for the young ones, and juveniles do the jesting for family entertainment. There's leisure time for napping, farting, fornicating, grooming, ruff and tumble for the boys, and occasional babysitting for dad.
The group usually has young adults called Blackbacks, who are yet to grow a silver back. They are typically the rowdy bunch, showing off jungle antics, running around, and fighting each other.
And then, of course, you have the babies and toddlers, taking their first tentative steps and falling over. They somersault and climb their father's back, who is surprisingly calm and so patient with the little rascals. It's incredible watching Africa gorillas.
Bert: Wow, just like most human families I know.
What does someone have to do for a Uganda safari trip to see the mountain gorillas in Africa? And what's it like trekking in the misty woods?
Cathy: The first thing you must consider is booking the trekking permit, an exclusive entry ticket issued by the government. The permit determines your entire holiday calendar. It gives you guided access to the park and one hour to observe the gorillas. It's not cheap, though: USD 700 in Uganda and $1,500 in Rwanda per person. Regardless, that hour gives you one of the most amazing wildlife encounters, a priceless experience. Our gorilla trekking tour packages include a processed gorilla permit, so you don't have to deal with government logistics.
The daily excursions occur in the misty morning, just after sunrise. You must have slept near the trekking center to meet the rangers' briefing at the visitor center. This means you book accommodation at the location indicated on the permit; otherwise, you'll find it difficult to reach the visitor center on time.
At the visitor center, the warden groups trekkers into small groups of eight tourists and assigns you a pair of rangers and an expert tracker guide. Usually, the warden advises trekkers to support the local communities by hiring a porter from the uniformed men and women outside the hall. It's good manners to take one. And besides, they come in handy navigating the steep terrain; they know the woods like their backyards. You then head into the woods single file, maintaining the slowest person's pace and flanked by armed rangers for security.
It's a physically demanding experience trekking those wooded mountains, and the gorillas move around a lot. They are wild, after all. We can't tell how much you take to find the gorillas—thirty minutes if you are incredibly lucky, or four hours. Meanwhile, one can let the ancient woods bathe them in natural freshness and engross them in the enchanting beauty of everything natural.
The tracker guide stays in radio contact with rangers who go ahead of you, follow the gorilla group's trail, stick with it the whole day till dusk, and send location coordinates to your guide. You follow his lead and will definitely meet Africa gorillas on that excursion.
As you trek deeper into the jungle, you can tell the gorillas are nearby when your guide points at gorilla footprints, broken branches and asks you to shut up—ssh! He will point at dark-furred bodies lurking in the shadows and ask you to leave your bags and anything unnecessary behind, sanitize your hands, put on your facemask, and quietly go closer. That's when the nerves kick in.
Bert: It's so exciting
Cathy: It's riveting when you suddenly realize you are surrounded by over a dozen giant apes over nine times stronger than you are. Especially if Hollywood shaped your reality about the primates of Africa. Fortunately, these gorillas are Habituated to human visits. They can tolerate a few people around them for a limited time before they get fed up.
Bert: Oh, that is much settling. How do they (experts)... Habituate the gorillas?
Cathy: Gorilla Habituation is a process scientists use to gradually introduce humans into a wild gorilla troop's daily social activities without threatening, disrupting their lives, and feeding the wild primates. It usually lasts about five years, visiting the gorillas daily while shrinking the observation distance. After a while, the gorillas allow people to stay for about an hour and start getting restless—that's why authorities control the number of visitors and the duration of your visit.
Bert: The rangers are strict on that, I can tell you. Keep your mask on, switch off your camera shutter sounds and flash, and do not try to spoof or make contact with the gorillas—they can get infected by the same pathogenes we carry. It's a well-managed conservation program, but we'll get to the conservation part. Take us back to that scene when you lock eyes with the Silverback.
Cathy: At first, the excitement blended with fear rule your nerves; you may make out the huge, black, and furry-bodied beings but not clearly comprehend what you are seeing. The guide urges you towards them cautiously, cutting some branches down for a clear view. By the time you settle into your environment, the gorillas are everywhere—behind you, a juvenile walking past, a small group of mothers in front of you, and a couple in the trees above you.
Bert: They are also curious, especially the young ones who can't observe the 10-meter rule. What do you do when that giant Silverback comes to you? And can he?
Cathy: You have to be realistic. The rule is to stay about 30 feet from the gorillas. But when you're their guest, Africa gorillas won't stand in line 30 feet away to welcome you into their domain. They can be anywhere. You could be watching the playful juveniles; suddenly, the Silverback will walk towards your location, knuckles on the ground. In that case, your guide would have recognized this and will guide you through giving the Silverback a way to reach a branch near you.
Bert: This extraordinary experience is crammed into 60 minutes. That's the thrill of it. You must keep your eyes open because the gorillas could be anywhere —it's the fear mingled with respect for the similarities we share with these primates of Africa that will keep you alert. But they are gentle giants and would not harm a being. I was told I shouldn't pound my chest. Why is that?
Cathy: Exactly. You could get it wrong when you try to imitate the gorilla sounds and tick off the Silverback for an anger spike. It's just like insulting someone when you try to speak a foreign language without guidance or practice. But it's intriguing and heart-stopping watching a ranger interact with them using grunts, like a pig.
Bert: Misty rainforest, mountains, trekking all sound like a real physical challenge. How challenging is the quest to see African gorillas?
Cathy: The mountains where Africa gorillas live are covered in thick misty forests reaching altitudes of about 8,000 to 13,000 feet. The hike can be steep, muddy, and the altitude can certainly affect your breathing. However, it's not a technical climb like ascending the Rwensori summits. Most people make it without any assistance.
Besides, there are luxury lodges with cottages at high altitudes of up to 7000 ft (2130 meters), like Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, where you can base for a day or two to acclimatize for the experience. Some trekking sectors are at lower altitudes, like the Buhoma Sector north of Bwindi at 4905 feet (1495 m). If you are really worried about altitude, that is where you should book.
If you just head into the steep climb, you may feel shortness of breath, but the guides take you slow and steady. Preparing yourself, visiting the gym, taking walks before you come, and staying a day or two at the lodge before trekking to acclimatize is a good idea. But nothing can prepare you for the moment you lock eyes with the giant Silverback.
Bert: Most people make it to see the gorillas in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and very few have failed. Is that so? Can older people or those with mobility issues achieve this dream?
Cathy: Everyone at the trekking center has different fitness levels—the rangers can see that during the trekking briefing. First, they assign you a gorilla group that matches your physical ability and then group you accordingly. Second, they will ask you to hire a local porter or stretcher bed if they believe you can't make it in the woods. Although mountain gorilla trekking is quite challenging, everyone gets to see Africa's gorillas with the trekking systems in place.
Bert: African helicopter; that's what you call the stretcher bed. Fascinating name! I've seen it in action—a porter for each of the four sides on their shoulders wobbling you through the hills and valleys like a medieval queen. Those porters live in the mountains carrying things up and down every day. They are well-shaped for this kind of work.
How helpful are the gorilla trekking porters?
Cathy: People living in the mountains have adapted to the conditions most city dwellers find pretty challenging. Porters come from communities surrounding the park and can navigate the steep slopes without breaking a sweat. They do the hard work during gorilla trekking to help you keep it light on your foot. They will carry your bags and even carry you over streams and dangerous places. Many leave their homes for this employment opportunity every morning, but only some get hired. The lucky ones hired get to earn the twenty bucks that could feed their family for almost a month. So hire one even if you don't need one. You'll gracefully be supporting an underprivileged family.
Bert: They are great conversationalists. I mean, besides pulling you through challenging climbs and carrying your bag, the porters will keep you company with local tales and answers to many of your questions about the region and its people. It's an excellent way to numb the "are we there yet" thoughts in an unfriendly African jungle.
When is the best time to visit gorillas in Africa?
Cathy: Since it is a mountainous region with a tropical climate, it is humid all year. However, the wooded floors are too slippery from March to May when the heavy rains come down. You want to avoid spraining an ankle the minute you head out. June through September, the rains subside, and the paths dry up. It is the best time to see Africa gorillas. And you should know that everyone else planning Uganda Safaris wants to go then. So book your gorilla tour months way in advance. At least six to twelve months ahead.
Bert: Seeing these magnificent, gentle creatures flourishing in their natural habitat was one of the great travel experiences of my life.
What are your most meaningful moments with the giant primates of Africa?
Cathy: My memorable moment was actually the fourth time I went gorilla trekking with my colleagues a year ago. We encountered the Nkuringo Gorilla Group, commonly known for losing its lead Silverback Rafiki to hunters during the Covid lockdown. Silverback Rwamutwe suddenly stopped whatever he was doing and turned to stare me straight in the eye, checking me out from top to bottom. The Silverback's stare sent a twinge down my spine like an electric shock.
They say you don't stare him in the eye, but I was hypnotized at this moment and couldn't take my eyes away from his deep gentle eyes. For a moment, it was just his and my soul intertwined. No other animal had ever locked eyes with mine as Silverback did. It's just exceptional.
The 8-day forest adventure takes you trekking the endangered mountain gorillas and golden monkeys in Uganda on the misty Virunga Mountains.
$4,097 Per Person