There are some places and experiences that I believe is on everybody’s bucket, like trekking untamed Mountain Gorillas, surely? Is it the adventure or the adrenaline that captures us, or just plain curiosity of being so close to Gorillas?
These two photos do not belong to me, was taken on our trip and not sure who took them as was send on our whats up group..will find out though 🙂 All other photos my own.
What seemed like a fairy tale, the reality was that I was booked and ready to go Gorilla trekking in Uganda to meet the Mountain Gorillas, did I say the Untamed Mountain Gorillas? Deep into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in deep deep Africa.
The thought of embarking on this journey was somewhat daunting. I mean I am not big nor am I anywhere near to having mighty strength like Samson. I am not invisible or as small as a mosquito. I was only but a human treading in nature’s way, traversing on Gorilla homeland. What if the Gorilla did not like me, my smell, sensed my fear, saw my height and what if our eyes locked and he felt threatened by me? Yes is was exciting and at the same time a once in a lifetime experience, but as the quote by Sir Edmund Hillary states: “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” The challenge was not only being in the presence of those amazing creatures but the challenge was climbing and conquering the mountain. I had watched the videos and was prepared to know that it was not going to be an easy task at all. But I was not planning to give up!
Firstly I had to buy proper hiking boots and walk them in, I chose the K-Way Atlas boot. https://www.capeunionmart.co.za I trained every day, climbing up hills and down, up and down till the sweat was pouring off my face. Till I could not walk anymore, then I knew my training for the day was done. 3 months before my journey was to begin, I had started to train. I trained hard as I was not going to go all the way to Uganda and not be able to finish what I had trained for, what I had paid for, what I had dreamed about. I was not going to fail and I was not planning on dropping out. I drank water, ate well and exercised hard. It had paid off.
Arriving at our Gorilla Safari lodge for the night, we all knew it was not going to be a long night of gin and tonics or laughter. But a good night’s rest was needed for the full day’s adventure the next day.
We had an early morning wake up call, ate a good solid hearty breakfast, cameras ready and off we went with our guide. I was dressed in comfy but old attire with long sleeves, thick garden gloves and socks pulled over my well-worn jeans, I looked ready for a trek.
On the drive to Bwindi Forest we were all excited and nervously laughing and chatting to each other; but no one was listening to anyone. All just deep in thought with silent prayers being prayed as we knew this was it. Yes the echo of the song came to mind “If this is it, please let me know…”
The rangers were all dressed in forest green military uniform with rifles positioned on their side and a machete in their pocket. They split us into small groups of eight and did a safety briefing, explaining the different sounds we might hear from the Gorillas. Permits were paid and forms signed. I felt my heart racing and increase waves of nervousness which I was hoping no one would notice as I gave a fake laugh and smiled to everyone in our group. I was silently praying I would see tomorrow, I was really scared! Thoughts and questions raced through my mind, had I trained enough and would I be safe? This was no exaggeration!
We had the option of paying extra for a porter, which I did – it was the best 20 USD I have ever spent!! He carried my backpack plus 2 litres of water and never left my side.
We each grabbed a walking stick for the trek which was free for us to use. Last minute toilet stops and then we were ready to roll. Actually we were ready to come face to face with Mountain Gorillas. It was scary as we were told we have to be quiet and we had to walk behind one another in a row. There were wild elephants in the forest which we might encounter. Now if Mountain gorillas were not scary enough to deal with, we were also told about wild elephants which could be greeting us. I knew enough about elephants to have respect for them and keep out of their way. I wanted to be in the middle of the row, but the ranger asked me to be in the front and lead us. Like really? Are you kidding, I was the smallest and probably the most petrified. But as I walked with my porter next to me, I realized how professional the rangers were, as they choose either the oldest, smallest or youngest to keep the pace, so there is no gap between the rows of walkers. I felt safe as the Ranger and Guide were in front and another Ranger at the end of our row with a machine gun; in case we encountered aggressive elephants, plus a few porters in–between.
We started our walk up and then slowly down a bit, then up again in a zig-zag direction. It had rained two days prior and the ground in some places was still wet and soggy. Certain areas we had to climb over broken tree branches and roots that elephants had trodden over and broken. Puddles of water in some places meant we had to balance on wet rocks to cross over; whilst holding onto our legendary porter so that we did not slip in the mud or twist an ankle.
Again we walked up. We had started our trek early and kept walking and walking. The forest had no pathway and it was difficult to imagine that we were doing a trek without a trail to guide us. The forest was dense with greenery, thickets and branches into twined with each other. It is not called the Impenetrable Forest for nothing! The name itself says there is no exit.
As we walk our experienced ranger in front had a machete and with an quick swift sway of his arm the dense branches were hacked away to make space for us to enter through thickets of stinging nettles. We forged through the thick forest leaving behind broken branches and leaves until we reached the Gorilla family. Not only had I started to feel safe but very Victorian with my own porter, a little like Royalty, as he helped me traverse through the difficult and dangerous terrain, tying my shoelaces as they came off, stopping to give me water and holding my hand going down and pulling me up.
Deep deep in the African bush and forest we went, searching for Gorillas and listening to the forest sounds. But there were no sounds except the earth being trampled as our boots hit the soil, the swish of our longs pants as we moved one leg in front of the other. The leaves brushed against our sleeves and walking sticks pushing into the ground was the only sound that came from our group as we took deep breaths with every step. The bright hot sun pierced through the high trees as we walked further and deeper into the forest. Our energy started to drain as the trek got intense with every hour.
Finally we all gathered on a small open piece of land and took a break. Caught our breath, drank water, took some photos and munched on a biscuit and fruit. We gathered more strength and continued our journey.
And somewhere along my journeys I always find a heart, it gave me hope and I instantly knew it was going to be a glorious day!
Up and up we climbed, but not just a climb. We were taking steps through the forest up on a mountain where there was no path, only jagged rocks, thick vegetation, a gathering of roots and a hugging of branches as we had to lift our legs over every obstacle. Our Porter held our hands and pulled us up as we held onto our walking stick for extra support. With each pull we took a deep breath of extra forced energy to make it to the top. At times our shoelaces came off and our porters politely bend to tie them. We were all on a mission to reach the Gorillas and there were very few moments of taking time to take pictures.
Every stop we made meant the whole team stopped, every pause we made slowed the team down. There were no scenic stops to admire the ground below, or the surrounding mountain vegetation. This was not the time or place to do bird watching. There was only one mission and one mission only, to get to the Gorillas as they stopped to eat lunch before they moved again. It was a jungle out there, as we moved forward so the Gorillas moved; and so the game was on like cat and mouse. Time was of essence, and we didn’t stop for anything else, getting to the Gorillas was all that mattered.
With the heat and sweat our faces were not as fresh as it was in the morning. Each of us started to feel the pressure of the trek. Each one knew this was a bucket list and we had to reach the Gorillas before the day was over. Each of us had determination written all over our faces as we continued to walk up and up towards the sky we continued. There was no time for idle chatter or small talk.
Elevations in Bwindi forest range from 1190 – 2707 metres above sea level and 60 percent of the park has an elevation of over 2000 metres. I think we almost reached the highest point. It felt like we were that close to heaven, the closest we would ever get. Suddenly our ranger stopped and we all stopped to listen and wait while at the same time catching our breath. We stopped but all we could see was dense bush around us, high branches, thorny branches and we were jam packed in the forest like sardines in a tin. Our ranger showed us a route we were going to take to the Gorillas, they were very close he said. I looked at him with big eyes and asked where? He motions to the dense bush and said “this way up”, and again we continued ascending to the top as he hacked away making another path for us. We climbed straight up the side of the rain forest mountain with only the view of the person in front of us. My porter was indispensable to me, he pulled me up from one muddy step to another and took complete care of me, never letting go and always asking if I needed a sip of water.
Suddenly in front of us we saw the back of a massive dark hairy Mountain Gorilla, his silver back shiny and his muscles well exercised. His shoulders were broad and he was busy with Mother Nature. We smelt his strong faeces as it was coming out, and stopped in silence and stared, hoping he would turn around so we could capture his face. We each grabbed our camera and tried to take a quick photo. As soon as he was finished he moved back into the forest. We just heard his heavy footsteps and branches move while he disappeared. As massive as he was, he was suddenly gone and unseen. Our Ranger ushered us to keep going, keep moving forward, there was more to see he promised.
We kept climbing and walking for what seemed like forever when finally we arrived at the Bitukura Gorilla family. We have trekked for 4 hours and with sweaty and shaky hands we tried to take photos. We were all still standing in awe on the mountain side, at an angle trying to balance our shaky legs and trying hard to not breath too loud.
This was live, this was nature, this was not planned or a circus performance where the Gorillas were going to do tricks for us. There were no seats to sit on and watch with popcorn in our hands. The ground was not flat or comfortable where we stood watching them, no this was wild and at the same time natural, this was what Gorilla trekking was all about, this was what we had come here for. And immediately the memory of our long strenuous trek was forgotten as excitement took over.
Each of us slowly moved in front of each other as we took photos of the Mountain Gorillas. Cell phones and cameras were working overtime. As we watched the Gorillas we were very much aware of any noise that was in the distance and on alert to any sudden movements. The only noise that was heard was our heavy breathing of excitement and nervousness of finally having reached our Gorilla family and the clicking sounds of cameras, sounding like a broken record playing.
We spotted a playful 10 month old baby gorilla that looked like a teddy bear that had just come out of the washing machine swinging from the tree onto a tree stump. He was enjoying himself and showing off. He climbed up and stumbled down, and his beautiful big eyes were watching us, but so was his dad lying on the ground hidden behind the bush, his deep serious eyes watching our every move. The baby gorilla was having fun, but we all knew that if baby came to us, dad would be on top of us in no time, and as much as we wanted to have him come towards us and touch us, we were also silently praying that he wouldn’t. We did not want to have an encounter with heavyweight Silver back dad.
I locked eyes with dad and for a moment was afraid that he thought I wanted to challenge him and a chill ran down my spine, I took a few photos and watched him through my lens instead. His face alone was the size of a wall clock as he continued to eat while watching me, pulling leaves from the bushes he was resting on towards his open mouth, stripping each branch clean and munching away without taking his eyes off me or the group . He watched every move. He looked relaxed and uncaring, but we knew he was watching and guarding his baby. While we watched them, they watched us, except they had the “popcorn”
Suddenly we heard leaves rattle and saw another mommy gorilla come out of the bush, and then another Silverback came out as well towards us and stopped two meters away, turned his back to us and ate. The reality hit us as we witnessed their size, height and muscles resembling a 4 wheeler quad bike. Here and there we heard them and saw sudden movements as they came out and went back in the bush like an action thriller, we were caught in the midst of them, not Gorillas in the mist but curious humans in the midst of a Gorilla family. They were all around us and we slowly moved from one side of the group to the other taking it all and at the same time staying close to each other for safety and protection.
As we took our photos and selfies, for once the last thing we were worried about was social media as to whether our hair was right, our skin soft or our sweat and red faces showing. We had limited time to take photos as the gorillas kept moving around. Suddenly one went into the bush and another came out. Just Silverback dad stayed in the same place, guarding his baby.
It felt like we had been in their presence for only 10 mins when our rangers informed us we needed to go, an hour had passed. You are not allowed longer than an hour with them. If we didn’t want to leave, the gorillas themselves seemed to know time, and they made their way and left. We couldn’t see them but we heard them as they went back into the bush. We stood for a moment and held onto the last memory of them, the last sound they made as we too slowly made our way back.
Our Ranger told us we were taking the short route and we all agreed. Down we went firmly holding onto our porters as there were no steps to stand on and guide us. We slipped and slid and fell and stopped, then up we got up and continued. On one of the falls I fell on top of my porter and his face was only 10 cm away, he then asked how old I was? We just laughed and continued.
After a short while we all stopped to have some lunch. I sat on a branch and slid down a bit as there was no flat surface. We were all scattered trying to find a place to sit, eat and breathe. I was sitting on dust and ants, but I didn’t care, I needed to sit and take a break.
After a 15 min break we continued to the end. Our short route was down and up again, then down and up again holding onto vines to stop us from falling. My mind was wrestling with the fact that surely if it was a short route and we were headed back, we should not be going up at all but only down, and so I had to train my mind to just keep going, it was almost the end. By that time it was mind over matter and I would not let it get the better of me. I was talking to myself to just keep going, the end was near and finally convinced my mind it was the short route as I remembered the quote: “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves” and so I kept pushing myself to keep going, moving forward one step at a time, until the finish line.
Our trek was a total of 6 and half hrs walking straight up 90 degrees and straight down in the Rainforest mountain of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It was a hard trek, and I was glad I had trained. I had made it. We all agreed the porters were the second best thing about that day; they made sure we made it safely. My porter protected me, took care of me and never rushed me. Without him I wouldn’t have made it. They are the backbone of your trip and experience and totally invaluable! You also get given a Certificate stating the date of your trek and the Gorilla Family you saw and met, a nice memento touch.
We were all alive with excitement and the reality that 2 hrs prior we were with a family group of Wild Endangered Mountain Gorillas had to still sink in once we arrived at our lodge. Our boots got wet, our faces were red and our hearts were satisfied. We conquered the mountain, we survived. On arrival at the lodge we all just sat and discussed our trek as though we were all with different Gorilla families. Finally after celebrating with a gin and tonic we all went to our warm cosy rooms that provided complete serenity. I had a long leisurely bath and then my bed welcomed me to take a two hour nap under heavy comforting blankets. I fell into a deep sleep with memories of the baby gorilla. The lodge was fantastic and amazing in every way, situated right in the middle of the Rainforest and from my deck I enjoyed hearing and watching the activities from the Pigmy Village on the border of the property. They even cleaned my dirty boots after my trek, dinner was delicious! That one precious privileged hour of being in their presence will last a lifetime.
I would highly recommend staying at the Gorilla Safari Lodge!! Everything was amazing, service, food and creature comforts for any season! To book your Gorilla Safari trip this company will make sure you are well taken care off and in the right hands: https://www.africantraxtravel.co.za
Tips for Gorilla trekking:
Be prepared for a long hard hike – train well and be fit – if you are one of the few that meet their Gorilla family after a short distance, count it a blessing and enjoy it – but be prepared to trek.
Take a porter with you – it also gives them an income as most are ex-poachers and trust me you will need your own – don’t share porters
They provide free walking sticks – take it – you will need it and if you don’t your porter will carry it
Go-pros are great to fix to your cap as you don’t have much time to take photos of your trek and the Rangers are not worried about this – for them getting to the Gorillas is priority – not scenic shots.
Take a backpack and at least 2 litres water per person, energy snacks, rain jacket and camera batteries/cards – nothing else is needed.
Put long lasting high factor sunblock on before your trek, most places are shady from the trees.
Take photos as soon as you see the Gorillas, they keep moving.
After you have taken the photos you want, take 5 min to just watch them and enjoy them –time goes quickly.
It is a rain forest, so it can rain – have a rain jacket – but don’t take your best as it might get damaged and torn due to the branches and thorns.
Have hiking boots that are solid and well worn-in so that you don’t get blisters, and that can cover your ankles for good protection.
Wear old loose jeans or light long pants that will be comfortable to lift your legs over roots and bushes etc.
Long socks to pull over your pants are important, so that the red ants don’t bite you.
Wear a light long sleeve top to cover your arms and gardener’s gloves for your hands.
If you travelling through Uganda and doing adventure activities as well – pay the extra and fly from Kampala to Bwindi Forest – the drive is about 9 hrs and the roads are bad.
Stay at a lodge that is close to the Forest so that you only have a short distance to the entrance in the morning thus saving you time, otherwise it will be a very very early morning.