Our close encounter with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas was an intense and exciting highlight of the long safari – BIG smile! Gorillas are extremely endangered, but Uganda is home to a vibrant, growing population of over 800. The Wildlife Authority maintains gorilla camps where these magnificent creatures live peacefully within man-made borders.
Mountain Gorilla Camps
Mountain gorilla habituation takes a grueling 2-3 years. Inside gorilla camps, 13 groups are habituated for human trekking. Uganda’s neighbors, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, also have camps. Visitors need permission to enter, and the government issues a limited number of permits and collects fees that are used for conservation.
Different gorilla families live in the groups. The Kyaguriro Group inhabits Ruhija, a camp for research and habituation. We tracked the Bweza Family in the Rushaga area of the Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust (BMCT). More than 300 gorillas live in the Bwindi area.
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 continually gain and lose members. During family feuds, many choose to leave, not fight.
The gorilla trek was the 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 troop. Sheena was a brave chimp, unlike most shy females who quickly run away when encountering humans.
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. The lake area is home to birds, otters, and other wildlife.
Bwindi National Park and Impenetrable Forest
For several hours, we drove blurry-eyed and half asleep bumping over rough potholed backroads 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, Jungle Terrain
Trekking groups of 6 to 8 can explore the rainforest accompanied by qualified guides. Trained “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. Frisky forest elephants are a subspecies of African elephant. 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 forest elephants, only piles of their dung along the rainforest floor.
Portions of the jungle terrain were challenging, including muddy areas, streams, slippery wet rocks, and thick brush with vines that wrapped tight around your legs and boots making it hard to gain a solid footing. Since we weren’t sure how long we’d be trekking before finding gorillas, everyone carried two liters (68 oz.) of water. Other essentials in our packs included lunch, snacks, gloves, insect repellent, cameras, and raincoats.
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, Murchison Falls, Masindi, Kampala, and Mbarara.
I hired a Ugandan porter to carry my pack and help me maneuver through the tricky, thick jungle vegetation. Help from 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, our day in the jungle was wet, hot, sweaty, and muddy, but still thrilling!
Sudden Mountain Gorilla Encounter
Suddenly like magic, a young hulking blackback appeared in front of us! He seemed to fly up a tree where he perched nibbling leaves and watching the curious humans huddled below. Then 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 vivid tropical smells of the glorious Ugandan jungle. As we waited, the gorilla above eyed us warily from his vantage point in the trees.
Uganda’s rainforest is exquisite, even more so than those experienced during trips to Vietnam, India, Cambodia, Borneo, and South America. Ugandan 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, 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). Spending more than an hour with them 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 dominant 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, male 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 contemplation, silently reveling in our incredible experience.
Followed by a Blackback Gorilla
Feeling intoxicated by our intense, unbelievably close encounter with the gorillas, we stopped for water and snacks. I looked at Francis who smiled and 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 photographing and admiring him, thrilled to be his captives! Soon, 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.
Back to Cape Town
Soon, I leave East Africa and fly back to Cape Town via Nairobi and Addis Ababa. Massive Africa is a challenging but fulfilling continent. The safari was an unforgettable, educational adventure! It wasn’t an easy trip…. From day-to-day, the safari group prepared to be astounded and deal with unknown challenges that continuously came our way. I’ll detail some 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 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 9 spectacular African countries! Other items on the agenda are finding an apartment in Cape Town and continuing volunteer work with Shine Literacy Centre.