Have you ever dreamt of something for so long, unsure if it would ever come true, but hoping every single day that it would? Well, that is what Gorilla Trekking in Uganda was for Moosh.
Gorilla trekking is a once in a lifetime wildlife encounter and Uganda holds the largest population of Mountain Gorillas in the world. Mountain Gorillas can also be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Uganda was our choice because Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is also one of the most diverse National Park in East Africa. The efforts made by the local community to transition their land from an ever-expanding plantation to a conversation and tourism destination is inspiring.
Winston Churchill called Uganda “The Pearl of Africa”, and for good reason, the stunning landscape is unique and captivating. The welcoming and warm people will leave you feeling humbled and centred. They offer you everything they have, despite having only a fraction of what we take for granted in the west. Of course, the gorilla trekking experience will leave you feeling fulfilled and privileged.
There is no other experience that can compare to Gorilla Trekking. It pushes you physically and swells emotions like few other wildlife adventures. With each step the excitement builds, your heart beats a little faster. You climb and clamber through the dense forest, hoping to soon come face to face with one of the world’s most remarkable and endangered creatures.
The trek can take anything from a few hours to many hours, but when you take your first steps towards a band of Gorillas nothing prepares you for how intense your encounter is.
There are 4 regions for trekkers, the most popular being the Buhoma region. There are three groups of gorillas near Buhoma that are habituated to humans. Habituated means they are used to humans being around them but are still very much wild. The group names are Mubare, Habinyanja and Rushegura group. The Habituation process is completed by a group of researchers who operate under the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The exercise takes 2-3 years and comprises of the researchers visiting a particular family of gorillas every day until it gets used to seeing them. During this time, they need to identify the gorilla individuals in terms of their sex, age and later each individual will be given a name. Before they are confident that the gorillas can be visited by tourists, they need to conduct a mock exercise for approx. 8 months. Once habituation is successfully completed, the band is opened for visits from tourists.
At the Buhoma park headquarters, we were shown a short video by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. It was a basic briefing on expectations for the trek and the Gorilla band we would encounter. The Gorilla band we were assigned to was Rushegura. Each band has different member configurations the Rushegura family included 1 silverback, 1 blackback, 4 adult females, 4 sub adult, 4 juveniles and 6 infants. The trekking groups are divided into groups of no more than 8 people. It’s vital the group sizes are kept small and the interaction is no more than 1 hour in duration.
You can employ a local villager to act as a porter during the trek. The porters will carry your bag and assist you with the walk if you need it. This is the primary income for the porters and therefore $15USD is the minimum payment, of course, tipping is appreciated and the extra money can go a long way to support their families.
No one can predict how long you will have to trek, you need to be realistic, Gorillas are wild animals and move through the park freely. When the Vades visited months earlier, they trekked for almost 9 hours. Moosh said to FT, “expect the worst, hope for the best”.
Each trek group is assigned trackers who leave early in the morning and locate the gorillas, they then communicate back to the group’s ranger and advise which direction to go.
Making our way up the mountain, we walked past some men who were cutting timber, no chainsaws, stead doing it by hand with 2 person crosscut vintage saws, it was quite fascinating to watch.
Our ranger was brilliant, we stopped quite a few times for breaks, this time also allowed him to get in touch with the tracker. He spoke with passion about the gorillas, their habitat and how tourism is improving the awareness, shining a light on the danger these animals face. Every 5 years a Gorilla census is completed and the next one is due at the end of 2018. It already it appears the numbers are increasing and at last count, there was around 1,000 in the wild.
Poaching is still a large problem. To combat it they have tightened security, with armed rangers walking the park at night. The money you pay for the trekking permits goes towards saving these critically endangered animals. You can always donate more if you want to make a bigger impact.
Moving further up the mountain the radio informed us that the gorillas were making their way down and we should stay where we were. We sidetracked into some steep terrain. We struggled and slipped clumsy, like the city folk we are. We rounded the ridge and there they were, a female, her baby and the dominant silverback. We snapped some photos and then put the camera down to watched them. The baby was feeding, as the band grazed on leaves. It is very hard to put into words how powerful the experience was. A feeling of a distant, yet common connection, we might have taken divergent branches on the evolutionary tree, but there was still something that links us. The ranger motioned to us and we moved further down into the forest.
Gorillas move quickly through the forest, which meant we needed to move quickly too. We saw another female with her baby, they were completely oblivious to us. Our hearts pounding with excitement it was hard to be quiet, we were in awe of their interaction with one another, they were so human-like. We supposed it is only natural given that Gorillas share 98% of our DNA. 10 meters (30ft) from us there were more playing in the trees and munching on leaves. It was more than we could have imagined. If felt as if we had been dropped into a nature documentary. Before we knew it, our 1 hour was up. The time disappeared so quick we hoped our mental pictures would stay as long as the ones in our cameras.
We were the last group back to park headquarters. We shared stories and came to the consensus that every group had a great day. As we mentioned earlier “expect the worst, hope for the best”. Today we got what we had hoped, we only trekked for 3.5 hours.
We got back to our lodge still in wonder of what we had experienced. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of all our years travelling and one we hope to experience again one day in the future.
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