Our close encounter with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas was an exciting highlight of the long safari – BIG smile! Gorillas are extremely endangered, but Uganda is home to a vibrant and growing population of over 800. The Wildlife Authority maintains camps where these magnificent creatures live peacefully within man-made borders.
Mountain Gorilla Camps
Mountain gorilla habituation takes a grueling 2-3 years. Inside camps thirteen groups are habituated for human trekking. Uganda’s neighbors, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, also have mountain gorilla camps. Visitors need permission to enter gorilla camps. The Government issues a limited number of permits and collects fees used to fund conservation.
Different gorilla families live in the groups. The Kyaguriro Group lives in Ruhija, a camp for research and habituation. We tracked the Bweza Family living in the Rushaga area of Uganda’s Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust (BMCT) – home to over 300 mountain gorillas.
Led by expert trackers and guides, we trekked through the thick, steamy jungle searching for the Bwezas – a family of eight with several infants. The Bwezas formed in 2013 after they split from the Nshongi Family because of ongoing feuds. Gorilla groups gain and lose members. During family feuds many choose to leave, not fight.The gorilla trek was the complete opposite of our chimpanzee excursion in Budongo Forest Reserve a few days earlier. We trekked for four hours in the hot, humid 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 was separated from the chimpanzee troop. Sheena was a brave chimp, unlike most shy females who run away when encountering humans.
Lake Bunyonyi Uganda
We began the adventure by leaving our Lake Bunyonyi – “place of many little birds” – accommodation near the Rwandan border at 5:00 a.m. Lake Bunyonyi is one of Africa’s deepest lakes and the panoramas are spectacular! Surrounded by steep, lush rainforest hills it has 29 small mysterious islands. Swimming is safe in the cold bilharzia free water.
Bwindi National Park and Impenetrable Forest
For several hours we drove blurry eyed and half asleep over rough potholed roads to Bwindi National Park in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We reached our destination at 8:00 a.m. and listened to a briefing by the park manager.
Guides, Forest Elephants, Terrain
Trekking groups of 6 to 8 can 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 forest elephants. A subspecies of African elephant, frisky forest elephants live in the jungle and 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 forest elephants, only piles of their dung along the rainforest floor.
Portions of the terrain were difficult to manipulate, including muddy areas, streams, slippery wet rocks, and thick brush with vines that wrapped 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, cameras, insect repellent, and raincoats were the other essentials we carried in out packs.
A beautiful, mysterious fog shrouds Bwindi rainforest. Jungle temperatures are cool compared to the extreme heat in Ugandan equatorial cities and villages we passed, Jinja, Kampala, 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 when I slipped in the mud or on wet rocks. Even with his help, the day was wet, hot, sweaty, and muddy.
Mountain Gorilla Encounter
Suddenly like magic, a young hulking blackback male appeared in front of us! He seemed to fly up a tree where he perched nibbling leaves watching the curious humans below him. Suddenly more 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, dense 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 rainforests experienced in Vietnam, Borneo, and South America. The crowded cities are polluted, but pristine rural areas are spectacular with interesting 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, you have a maximum of one hour to hang out and photograph them (no flashes). More than an hour stresses the gorillas.
Gorillas are gentle creatures that are amazingly relaxed and alert but calm. These impressive animals watched us closely but didn’t seem bothered by our presence. We lined up in the dense bush along an overgrown hillside. There were five to six gorillas at the base of the hill a few feet away. While eating vegetation, they looked right through us! Somehow they 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 the huge gorilla passed me within touching distance I held my breath – he was magnificent!
After 30 minutes, our guide led us back uphill and then down again through a thicket to approach the gorillas from the other side. There was no trail. We tried to quietly bushwhack our way through dense jungle on the slippery hillside.
Then we saw the dominate silverback sitting in thick jungle foliage overlooking his kingdom. He never moved but watched us with a sense of unimpressed boredom. Silverbacks are the mature leaders of mountain gorilla groups living in the wild. The silverback is 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 silent contemplation reveling in our incredible experience.
Followed by a Blackback Gorilla
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 blessed predicament of being unable to continue along the trail. For about 20 minutes of sheer delight we stood almost paralyzed admiring and photographing him, thrilled to be his captives! 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. 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 an education and unforgettable adventure! It wasn’t an easy trip…. From day-to-day you truly must be prepared for whatever comes. I’ll detail some unsettling surprises in blog posts to follow.
There’s an old saying that no one really knows Africa until they’ve gone on safari! I believe that and am humbled and touched deeply after more than two mind-blowing months traveling through game reserves in isolated parts of Africa. After a rest, I’ll collect my thoughts and post blogs about this incredible trip through nine spectacular African countries! Other items on the agenda are finding an apartment in Cape Town and continuing volunteer work with Shine Literacy Centre.