Gorilla trekking in Uganda: the ultimate bucket list experience

Cowritten by Lyndsey and David

If seeing gorillas in the wild isn’t on your bucket list, I hope that this blog convinces you otherwise, since this was one of the coolest experiences of my life. But before I tell you about this life-changing trip, I want to give you a background about gorillas. Mountain gorillas are Critically Endangered, with only about 1,000 left in the wild. There are two species of gorillas, the eastern and western gorilla, with the mountain gorilla being a sub-species of the eastern gorilla. Mountain gorillas live in two isolated locations, one in the Virunga Volcanoes region (Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo), the other is in Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks in Uganda. We are closely related to gorillas, sharing about 95% of our DNA with them, meaning that human illnesses are easily transmittable to them, which is why we kept our masks on when we were in close proximity to them. Further, they are the biggest and most powerful primates in the world. An average male weighs 180 kg (400 lbs) and is over 5 feet tall.

Some fun facts about this amazing species. Mountain gorillas present a denser and thicker fur than their western and low-land cousins (the other subspecies of gorillas), adapted to live in higher altitudes where temperatures are lower and humidity higher. Each gorilla can be specifically identified by their nose print, the same way the dark bands in tigers or spot distribution in whale sharks is characteristic of an individual. Gorillas are herbivores, eating mainly leaves, fruits and roots. They live in families and move in the forest all day long to eat, which is why they are so elusive. The group is led by a dominant silverback (male), who decides everything for the group and mediates the internal conflicts. The rest of the group is generally composed of females, and in rare cases, a couple of other males. The females are not bound between each other like in lions’ pride. Surprisingly, compared to most social animals, gorillas are not territorial. However, the silverback is extremely protective of his group, as far as dying to defend them. Gorillas, like other primates (chimps and orangutans) make their bed every night before going to sleep; as such, they are diurnal animals. A silverback will accept any new female in his group, but will fight off any unrelated males. When the dominant silverback dies, the group generally becomes unstable and disbanded, unless a new male, either a descendant from the previous dominant or a new silverback, can take over. In the latter case, the new dominant will often kill the children that are not his, a trait also observed in chimpanzees. Finally, although gorillas are unbelievably strong and powerful (although herbivores, gorillas have twice the bite force of a full grown male lion…), gorillas are very calm and peaceful animals. Gorillas become aggressive only when their group is threatened. In that case, the silverback generally demonstrates his power by standing up and iconically banging his chest. The silverback may charge, often as a demonstrative display but will rarely follow through, unless his group is in danger.

In Bwindi National Park, rangers follow the gorillas all day long to have a better idea of the direction to trek to the next day. At night gorillas make nests on the ground and sleep together, then in the morning they will move and continue to eat. Sometimes, it takes over 8 hours to trek to the gorillas, and sometimes it can be a short hike. 

Unsurprisingly, gorillas have many human threats (actually pretty much their only threats…), one of which is habitat degradation. The people who live in these mountains are largely farmers, and as they extend their agricultural land, this encroaches on the range that gorillas use to forage. Also I wanted to take a moment to talk about the rangers, as this can be a very dangerous job. Last year in January six rangers were murdered in Congo by a local militia group. Previously, last April 17 people were killed (12 of them rangers) in this national park. The rangers were building an electric fence to keep people out of the park, which I guess upset this militia group. They were not poachers but were actually battling for control over the natural resources and land. They believe that people have taken too much land for the animals and conservations, which is why they did this brutal and devastating attack. Watch the movie Virunga to learn more about the incredible brave rangers working to protect these amazing animals. Lastly, gorillas are no exception, suffering from poaching like many other animals.

Our trek was in the Ruhija sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We met at a ranger station in the morning, and watched some local dances as others arrived. In the end, it was me and David and two other couples who joined us for our trek. We also had our guide, who was a ranger, as well as armed rangers who were there to protect us from forest elephants and buffalos. These animals are not used to humans so they can become aggressive. The forest, as the name suggests, is very dense. There were no trails or paths, but the ranger in front had a machete and cut his way through the dense brush. The trekking can be pretty intense so I suggest wearing long sleeves and long pants to avoid thorns and ants. We also used a hiking stick which came in handy since we were hiking down and up a very steep mountain, so it was easy to slip. We also had no idea how long we would be out in the forest so I came prepared with lots of water, lunch, mosquito spray, cameras, snacks, etc. Fortunately for us, it only took us around 20 minutes until we found the trackers, who told us the gorillas are close. I had so much adrenaline and excitement that I didn’t even become emotional. I just knew I wanted to see the gorillas. We took a sip of water, put on our masks, and then followed the rangers who were cutting a path for us to follow. In a few minutes we were in front of our first gorillas, a mom and her baby (barely 1 year old). The family that we trekked to was called the Oruzogo group, one of the habituated families in the park. The family is composed of more than 13 members including two silverbacks. We were honored by the presence of the dominant silverback, Kasumari. We also had the chance to see some of the blackbacks (young male) of the group, including Kaganga and Bwoba, and Otaka. Seeing the baby was one of the highlights for me, it was holding onto its mom and staring at us with curiosity. It was unbelievably amazing to be so close with these massive and majestic animals. The group is led by a silverback gorilla called Bakwate, which translates to “he who learns fast and is intelligent”. 

One of the other highlights was seeing the silverback. It was relaxing and eating on the ground for a while, allowing me to take some great photos. Although my camera wasn’t working perfectly, I am so relieved that it was working well enough to take a few shots of these gorillas, otherwise I would have been very bummed. The gorillas aren’t as vocal as the chimpanzees, and seemed more laid back. 

With the permits they offer, we were allowed to watch and be with the gorillas for a total of one hour. They move quite a bit so we got a good workout in as we followed them as they walked around. I actually got a bit lightheaded, mostly because of the heat and dehydration (we couldn’t drink water while near the gorillas and had to keep masks on). But I persevered and enjoyed every second of being with these amazing animals. By the time our hour was up, we had backtracked up the mountain so we had a short (but steep) trek back to our starting point. We were finished by around 10:30 AM, which was great, since the previous day they had been out all day and returned in the late afternoon. Although I love trekking and adventure, I was pretty happy that we had a short trek to the gorillas. Needless to say, David was in heaven.

After our trek, we left our beautiful cottage at Bakiga Lodge, and headed off to our next hotel, located on an island in Lake Bunyoni. It was a few hours to get there, and the landscape on our way was so beautiful, the mountains were so lush and green, and the air was so crisp and fresh. It was a lovely ride, though I admit I fell asleep for some of it. 

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