Tracking Mountain Gorillas in Uganda: (When & Where, Plus the Batwa Community)

A gorilla posing for a photo at the end of the tracking session

I am writing this on my way to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Yeah, yeah...I know people say this all the time. But seriously, I am typing this sentence on my phone, in a speeding taxi to Kabale town.

 

For as long as I can remember, this is the most excited I have been.

 

Why, you ask? 

  

a) In a few hours, I will be exchanging smouldering looks with a mountain gorilla, LOL!

b) I am staying at a beautiful lodge right by the national park.

c) But most importantly, I am on the road. In a place that's completely new to me (it's been a while)

For the most part, the journey is smooth. Though, the driver veers off the road every once in a while.  

 

I think he secretly does that just to throw all the passengers into potholes. (We've been a noisy batch, hehehe). But hey, what's an African adventure without a few potholes, huh?

 

It will all be worthwhile when I see a gorilla beating on its chest.

 

P.S: I wrote the rest of the article after my tracking experience.

 

P.P.S: Just so you know, I was having the best time. Until the gorilla attacked us. (details below)

TRAVELLING TO BWINDI

On the road to Kisoro

Bwindi Imprenetrable National Park is located in South Western Uganda (Kisoro district).

 

Unlike popular belief, the park can easily be accessed by road. But there is an airfield in Kisoro as well.

 

Quite frankly, I loved how adventurous the journey by road was. The roads in the western part of Uganda are similar to roads in Rwanda (so many curves and steep slopes).

  

If travelling from Kampala, get a bus to Kabale. I recommend Trinity bus because of its good facilities. The buses are properly maintained and almost always arrive on time. 

 

From Kabale town, there are several options for travelers. 

 

a) Get a taxi to Kisoro town, then a private car to your lodgings/the forest (costs about UGX 100,000)

 

b) Get a private car from Kabale to the national park (can be a bit pricey because of the distance)

 

c) Although I don't condone the use of boda bodas (motorcycles) due to the high accident rates, I actually used one as a more direct route to the cottages that I was staying at.  Plus, it is considerably cheaper than a private car (UGX 30,000). But, I got one that was highly recommended by the lodge).

 

The distance from Kabale town to Bwindi is about one and a half hours by car and two hours by boda boda.

TRACKING MOUNTAIN GORILLAS

Munini and her one month old baby

I spent the night at Gorilla Safari Lodge which is a 5 minutes walk to the park entrance. The staff were so helpful. On short notice, they contacted the park and inquired about last minute permits. Luckily, I secured one.

 

Note: During the low season, it is generally easy to acquire permits on short notice. But tourists are advised to reserve in advance (only a restricted number of trackers are allowed into the park per day.) 

 

The D-Day 

 

At 8 am, trackers gather at the park entrance. Payments are made, and all trackers undergo a briefing session for about 30 minutes.

 

During the briefing session, instruction are given. Such as:

 

  • Do not eat or drink in front of the gorillas (they may grab your food, and knock you out while at it)
  • No flash photography
  • Do not hold a walking stick in front of a gorilla (sticks are threatening, so you may get slapped by a gorilla, like this one mzungu I know of)
  • Each tracker must carry packed lunch and at least 2 liters of water (in case one is stranded in the forest) 
  • If approached by a gorilla, remain still and in a submissive position. (When this happened, we ran... but more on this later)
  • Each group of trackers is escorted by mountain rangers with firearms. Each of these rangers undergoes para military training beforehand. So, you are in safe hands.

 

Laha (meaning playful) swinging off branches

In recent years, 12 groups of mountain gorillas have been habituated due to constant contact with humans. For one, they aren't as aggressive as the solitary gorillas (if you see a solitary gorilla, run! Just kidding.)

 

In fact, there are certain parts of the park without barriers from the local community. So, every once in a while, the locals see gorillas moving about in their neighborhoods. How cool is that?

 

But the forest itself is so impenetrable. Every morning, a group of trained rangers go into the jungle ahead of the tourists to locate the gorillas. Otherwise, tourists could spend a day or two in a fruitless search.

  

There are clear paths to follow in the forest.  But trackers must be ready to follow the gorillas into the jungle, once they locate them. So, long sleeved shirts, trousers and long socks are a must at this point.

 

Mountain gorillas are generally known to be gentle and friendly, and will not attack without just cause. Once located, tourists are only allowed to view the gorillas for a maximum of one hour.

 

By the way, there are 880 mountain gorillas in the world. Uganda is home to more than half of this population with an estimated 480 mountain gorillas.

Bweza: The alpha male (he was so calm...)

Bweza, the alpha male gorilla 

Bweza is a 25 years old mountain gorilla. He is also known as a sore back or silver back because of the grayish hairs on his back. 

 

He leads the pack of 8 gorillas that wander through the forest, looking for fresh leaves, roots and fruits to eat (gorillas are mostly vegetarian, but every once in a while, they eat bugs.)

 

We located him after walking in the jungle for about an hour. According to the guides, locating the gorillas usually takes longer, so we got lucky. The group of mountain rangers who left ahead of us had been following him for a while, while communicating with our guides. 

  

We actually got as close as 1 foot away from the alpha male gorilla. He is a mean looking one, who seems ready to pounce at any moment.

 

Surprisingly, when he saw us, he remained unbothered (for the most part). That was before all hell broke loose... 

And then he pounced...

We had been viewing Bweza for about 30 minutes. He stopped to eat leaves and roots, and when he got bored, he moved on. Down into the forest, he went. And we followed, eager, with our cameras dangling from the neck.

 

The rangers, holding machetes, walked ahead of us. They swatted at the tall grass, creating a path for the rest to us to follow. 

 

Bweza looked comfortable around us. Seemingly not bothered by our presence.

 

And then, it all happened at once.

 

He turned and jumped right at us.

Bweza, right before he pounced.

 To be honest, none of the tourists remembered the instructions from the briefing session.

 

If approached by a gorilla, remain still and in a submissive position.

 

We all ran. Or, at least we tried to.

 

There was no where to go. We were in the middle of a jungle. Surrounded by broken figs. So, we fell, one after the other.

 

For a second, I thought I wouldn't survive his attack because, I was ahead of the other trackers.

I knew that if I survived this, I would be scarred for life.

 

Right then, I turned to the guide, seeking comfort from him. But I swear that I saw a look of panic in the ranger's eyes as he aggressively swung his machete at the gorilla, trying to scare him off. 

 

And then, Bweza was gone.

 

Just like that. He continued on into the depth of the forest. Like nothing had happened.

 

We were left there, wondering what had gone wrong in that moment. When we asked the guides, they said...

 

...we were blocking the gorilla's way. He had wanted to move right past us, but we were in his way. So, he had to scare us away.

 

That is his way of communicating. He didn't mean to hurt us.

 

And that, my dear reader,  was the highlight of my trip. Would I go back?

 

Gladly.

 

Tracking was so enjoyable especially at the end of the session when, believe it or not, the rest of the gorillas posed for photos (hence my beautiful cover photo above).

PARK PRICES

Travelers can choose to track either mountain gorillas or chimpanzees. There are different permits available for both at different rates during the low season (April, May and November) and during the high season (the rest of the year). Here are the current rates;

 

During low season:

 

Gorilla tracking permits

East African citizens: UGX 150,000

Foreign Residents: $400

Foreign Non Residents: $450

 

Chimp permits

East African Citizens: UGX 75,000

Foreign Residents: $75

Foreign Non Residents: $100

 

During high season

 

Gorilla tracking permits

East African citizens: UGX 250,000

Foreign Residents: $500

Foreign Non Residents: $600

 

Chimp permits

East African Citizens: UGX 100,000

Foreign Residents: $100

Foreign Non Residents: $150


WHERE TO STAY

Gorilla Safari Lodge, Uganda

I stayed at Gorilla Safari Lodge, a luxurious lodge situated right next to Bwindi Impenetrable National park. Here, you are as close to nature as you could ever be. A location, where luxury meets mother nature.

 

It is the perfect choice for a group get-away or a honeymoon. This serene location is exactly what you need to celebrate love and seek adventure, all at the same time.

 

The lodge overlooks the newly constructed Batwa community houses and the impenetrable forest acts as a beautiful backdrop.

 

On site, there are 9 cottages, 2 twin guest houses, a spa, a restaurant and a lounge. The cottages are very spacious with amazing views.

 

At night, you hear birds tweeting, crickets chirping, and if you're fortunate, a forest elephant rumbling. During cold nights, hot water bottles are tucked into each bed. So cozy!

 

But most importantly, the staff are very attentive and friendly. Upon arrival, I received a warm welcome from each employee, a complementary massage, and refreshments followed by a briefing about the place.

 

The staff were eager to organize community trips, and show me little treasures around the forest. They organized my trip to the Batwa community, the Rushaga Women's community, a walk through the neighboring villages and a visit to a waterfall right next to the forest.

 

In the mornings, as I prepared to leave for my daily activities, they organized a packed lunch, always inquiring about my preferences. This clearly made my day, on several occasions. 

  

One downside is that there is a major network problem in the area. You can only use MTN simcards to communicate. So, before you leave the city, purchase a MTN card or inform your relatives that you can't be reached. 

THE BATWA COMMUNITY

This lady is supposedly 110 years old

Usually, tourists visit Bwindi with the sole purpose of seeing the gorillas or chimpanzees. But there are several other activities to engage in around the park.

 

Interacting with the Batwa

 

The Batwa is an ethnic group in South Western Uganda. They are also known as pygmies because of their smaller physical build.

 

They were hunters and gatherers who lived in the forest for more than 3000 years until they were evicted, when the forest was named a national park in 1991. 

 

There were left without land or a source of income, and many lost their lives. Today, there are an estimated 4000 Batwa in Uganda, making them an endangered people. You can find them in communities surrounding the Bwindi Impenetrable forest. 

 

As they interact with tourists, they share their deep knowledge about the forest and their unique way of life. They sing and dance, and showcase their ability to make fire using sticks and grass.

 

During my visit, I interacted with a woman rumored to be 110 years old. When she saw us, she stopped digging and approached us, singing and dancing.Check out my Instagram and Facebook for some of the videos I captured with the Batwa community.

A home owned by a Batwa family

The Batwa still prefer their traditional way of life. Many of them have abandoned the houses constructed by NGOs, in favor for their huts.

 

All in all, I had an incredible time visiting this beautiful park and interacting with so many people I met along the way. I would definitely recommend a visit to the forest, a visit to the Batwa Community and other surrounding communities. Would you visit the Impenetrable forest?

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Hi, I am Angelica, a creative writer with a particularly intense interest in travel blogging.

 

After graduation, I started this blog to write about what I love to do...Travel. And occasionally, a few other topics.

 

On the blog, you will find travel tips, recommendations and imaginative stories. Hope you love to travel as much as I do. If not, this article may persuade you!

 

Oh, before you go on with your fab life, leave a comment below and subscribe to my mailing list. Cheers!

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Comments: 4
  • #1

    Jude (Tuesday, 18 April 2017 07:10)

    Nice article, I intend to visit Bwindi some time in May this year and all the questions I had about it have been answered here. On a lighter note, in which language did you communicate with the Batwa?

  • #2

    Hetty (Tuesday, 18 April 2017 11:55)

    Like. You have given me a reason to explore gorilla tracking in Bwindi.

  • #3

    Mercy (Wednesday, 26 April 2017 16:01)

    Incredible!!! �

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