Our close encounter with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas was an exciting highlight of the long African safari – BIG smile! Gorillas are extremely endangered, but Uganda is home to a vibrant, growing population of over 800. The Uganda Wildlife Authority maintains camps where these magnificent animals live peacefully within man-made borders.
Mountain gorilla habituation takes a grueling 2-3 years. Inside the camps 12 gorilla groups are habituated for human trekking. Uganda’s neighbors, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, also have gorilla camps. The gorillas are protected, so visitors need permission. The Ugandan Government collects fees for a limited number of permits. The money goes toward Mountain Gorilla conservation programs.
Several different gorilla families live within the groups. The Kyaguriro group lives in Ruhija, a place of research and habituation. We were tracking the relatively new Bweza Family in the Rushaga area of Uganda’s Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust (BMCT) – home to over 300 mountain gorillas.
Led by expert trackers and trained guides, we carefully trekked through the jungle searching for the Bwezas – 8 family members including several infants. The Bweza group formed in 2013 when they broke away from the Nshongi Family because of too many feuds.
The gorilla trek was the complete opposite of our chimpanzee excursion in Uganda’s Budongo Forest Reserve a few days earlier. We trekked for four hours in the steaming hot jungle to find one elusive chimpanzee hiding in the trees with her baby. Our guide knew the chimp – Sheena – and told us she had been sick and separated herself from the chimpanzee troop. Sheena is a brave chimp, unlike most shy females with babies who run away when they encounter humans.
We left our accommodation on Lake Bunyonyi or “place of many little birds” near the Rwandan border at 5:00 a.m. and drove blurry eyed and half asleep over rough potholes for several hours to Bwindi National Park in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Beautiful Lake Bunyonyi is surrounded by steep banks and spectacular mountains. Its cold bilharzia free water is safe for swimming.
Dotted by 29 small islands, Bunyonyi is one of the deepest lakes in Africa. Uganda’s infamous former president, Idi Amin, frequented Lake Bunyonyi for holidays. On our way to the lake we passed the Jinja airport where Amin made his final Ugandan exit.
We reached our destination at 8:00 a.m. and listened to a briefing by the park manager. Trekking groups of 6 to 8 explore the rainforest accompanied by qualified guides. Trained park “spotters” track gorilla movement in the area and report their whereabouts to the guides.
Our guides included two guards armed with rifles, not for the gorillas but to protect us from unhabituated (not accustomed to humans) forest elephants. Interesting and elusive forest elephants are a subspecies of African elephant living in dense rainforests. Guides told us they delight in chasing and harassing humans. The guards never shoot them but firing a few shots in the air sends them running. Much to my disappointment we didn’t see any forest elephants, only piles of their dung along the rainforest floor.
Portions of the terrain were difficult to manipulate, including muddy areas, streams, wet rocks, and thick brush with vines that wrap tight around your legs and boots making it challenging to gain a solid footing. Not sure how long we’d be trekking before finding gorillas, everyone carried two liters (68 oz.) of water. Lunch, snacks, gloves, insect repellent, raincoats, and cameras were among other essentials in our packs.
A beautiful, mysterious fog shrouds the Bwindi rainforest. The rainforest was cool compared to the extreme heat in Ugandan equatorial cities and villages we had passed – Kampala, Jinja, Masindi, Murchison Falls, and Mbarara.
I hired a Ugandan porter to carry my pack and help me climb and move through the thick jungle vegetation. Francis was indispensable! He almost pushed me up parts of the rough climbs and stopped me from falling a few times when I slipped in the mud or on wet rocks. Despite Francis’s help it was a sweaty, wet, muddy day.
Suddenly like magic a hulking blackback male appeared in front of us! He seemed to fly up a tree where he perched nibbling leaves and watching the curious human group below. A few seconds later the rain came – a torrential downpour – making it impossible to take photos. With a groan, we donned our raincoats and waited in silence enjoying the lush foliage, singing birds, and tropical smells of the glorious Ugandan jungle. While we waited, the gorilla above eyed us warily from his vantage point in the trees.
The Ugandan rainforest is exquisite, even more so than other rainforests I’ve experienced in Vietnam, Borneo, and South America. The cities are crowded and polluted, but Uganda’s pristine rural areas are spectacular with interesting people, plants, trees, and birds.
When the rain subsided, we continued trekking in light mist. Soon Mountain Gorillas surrounded us!! It was thrilling! There were mostly young males and one female with a baby. After encountering the gorillas visitors have a maximum of one hour to photograph them (no flashes) and hang out. More than an hour stresses them.
Gorillas are gentle creatures that are amazingly relaxed and alert but calm. These impressive animals watched us closely but didn’t seem to mind our presence. We lined up in the dense bush along a rough overgrown hillside with five to six gorillas a few feet away. While eating vegetation, they looked right through us! Somehow the huge gorgeous animals seemed oblivious to the smell of human bodies and the obnoxious sound of our fast clicking cameras.
Suddenly a massive blackback startled us by pounding his chest and rushing toward the group! The guides whispered to stay calm, move back slowly, and keep out of his path. I was at the base of the hill and as he passed within touching distance I held my breath – he was magnificent!
After about 30 minutes our guide led us uphill and then down through a steep dense thicket to approach the gorilla group from the other side. There was no trail so we bushwhacked our way through dense jungle on the wet, slippery hillside.
Then we saw the dominate, illusive silverback sitting in lush foliage majestically overlooking his kingdom. He never moved but watched us closely with a sense of unimpressed boredom. Silverbacks are the mature leaders of mountain gorilla groups living in the wild. The silverback is completely in charge and decides where the gorillas travel and forage for food. After a few minutes, we backed away and headed uphill. Sadly our magical hour with Uganda’s mountain gorillas was over. We retreated in silence….
Feeling intoxicated by our intense and unbelievably close encounter with the gorillas, we stopped to rest and for water and snacks. I looked at Francis who smiled back and then pointed to the area behind us. A huge blackback was following the group! He had stopped a few feet behind us. Suddenly he darted ahead of the group and sat down in the middle of the narrow partly cleared path, blocking us from moving forward.
Clearly, the blackback was asserting his dominance, letting us know who was boss. Our guides said to stay calm, be quiet, and not challenge him. We didn’t mind our predicament and with delight stood almost paralyzed admiring and photographing him for about 20 minutes, unable to continue and thrilled to be his captives. Suddenly he grew tired of us, jumped off the path, and disappeared into the jungle allowing us mere humans to continue on our way!
I’m considering buying a new lightweight digital camera since I lost one last year in Patagonia. Another safari member from Switzerland had a small Canon with 40x zoom that took amazing wildlife photos. I have a heavy Nikon with powerful lenses back home in Oregon but never invested the time to learn how to master it. Sadly but honestly, a point and shoot is more my speed.
A large, cumbersome camera is too much to handle on a messy safari. A small light Olympus has served me well and somehow survived being dropped, sat on, and exposed to rain, dust, mud, and extreme hot and cold. Just the same, wish I’d had a better-quality camera for such special photos.
Soon I leave East Africa and fly back to Cape Town via Nairobi and Addis Ababa. Africa is a challenging but fulfilling continent and the safari was a learning experience and an unforgettable adventure! It wasn’t an easy trip…. From day-to-day you truly must be prepared for whatever comes, and I will detail some of our most unsettling surprises in posts to follow.
There’s an old saying that no one really knows Africa until they’ve gone on safari! I believe that, humbled and touched deeply after two mind-blowing months traveling in isolated parts of Africa. As soon as I rest a bit and collect my thoughts I’ll be postings blogs about this incredible two-months of travel through nine spectacular African countries! Other items on the agenda include finding an apartment in Cape Town and beginning volunteer work with Shine Literacy Centre again.