Some of the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas can be found in Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda and it’s been our writer Lee Hubbard’s life long dream to see them. Last month he flew to Uganda to track and watch these beautiful rare creatures in their natural habitat. Here he tells us about the his journey to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the heart-stopping moment he finally got to see them….
My journey to track rare mountain gorillas, deep in the the forests of Uganda, took me 10 years. On my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa in 2003, doing a more traditional safari in Kenya and Tanzania, I learnt about the chance to spend an hour with this critically endangered species and I vowed that one day I would return. The US$500 cost, just for the permit alone, meant it was not the kind of trip you make often but this year I fulfilled the promise to myself and ventured to the south west corner of the country, near the border with Rwanda.
It was reassuring to know that, as I awoke from my slumber in the middle of the night at Byoona Amagara on Lake Bunyonyi, the same thing would be happening for the trackers a few hours away in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, as they set out to locate the gorillas each morning. After seeing a gorgeous African sunrise, the small village of Rubuguri was our entry point for the Rushaga sector in which we would start the trek. An entertaining briefing at the start consisted of a lot of marketing (selling postcards, books, t shirts etc) and not much gorilla info – like the appropriate amount of eye contact to make, or what to do if one runs at you! However, the Ugandan Wildlife Authority have at least realised that the gorillas are “worth” more by protecting them from poachers, so if our money goes towards conservation then I’m all for it. Besides, money also covered the cost for the rangers and their AK-47’s, who we had at the front and back of our eight person group.
Having been warned that the tracking can take anywhere from 15 minutes to more than 8 hours, we walked for about an hour before our first encounter – off the path, hacking through forest. We may have made the Impenetrable Forest marginally less impenetrable, but this is nothing the gorillas themselves don’t do as well! The ranger calls out – I’m not sure if this is to find the trackers or the gorillas. We eventually see the trackers who have been out since early morning – this means our group (the Kahungye) are close by. We leave our food, water and bags with the trackers and continue with the rangers – we keep our camera ready, our eyes peeled and our wits about us. We sense we’re getting closer, then we see some branches move.
Like many wildlife experiences, you hear the animals before you can finally lay eyes on them. In fact, the first noise we hear is more of a scream, which us first-timers mistake as aggression. Apparently the Kahungye (all 26 of them) are among the most peaceful of the habituated groups. Still, that first roar startles all of us, including the rangers – but who then calmly beckon us on to follow them. The first look is fleeting – a flash of silky black fur amongst the foliage, then the sound of a beating chest. We’re teased with more snatched glances through the dense bush, but can hear the groans of the 200kg primates we’ve come to see. Finally we see one square on, but it’s too brief and he moves away – perhaps reassured that we pose no threat. We hack through a little more forest, in the knowledge that these gorgeous creatures are only metres away but still largely unseen.
After watching David Attenborough documentaries as a child and Gorillas In The Mist as a teenager, and being amazed at their close-up experiences, I’m worried for a moment that we won’t get a clear view at all. Thankfully, my worries are unfounded and the next 40 minutes are sublime. I had to remind myself to stop taking photos and just simply observe them. We watch one very leisurely gorilla while they sit back and have a bite to eat – it’s mid morning so I guess elevenses are popular in the gorilla world too. Content that we have our money shot, we move along and find another – the second of two silverbacks in the group, but not the dominant one. He’s a more energetic eater – rearing up to pull down a massive branch of leaves as though it were a tiny twig. We make eye contact, but not too much. Often, people say this is the moment when the gorillas seem most “human”, and recognise you as a descendent. Personally, I found it with one of the last ones we saw – playful, full of character, lounging about in the trees, rolling onto his back. His gaze even followed mine briefly, until our ranger informed us our allotted hour with them was over and we had to head back.
Our group reluctantly started walking back, and on the way passed behind one of the silverbacks again – this lead to a second screaming outburst, and caught us just as off guard as the first one. After spending 60 minutes admiring how gentle, peaceful and even relaxing it could be to observe these great apes, for the briefest of split-seconds I was terrified again. Once we realised the outburst wasn’t meant to signal any real danger for us, I like to think it was the gorillas way of showing dismay that we had to leave. Perhaps they had been enjoying our company as much as we had been enjoying theirs…
How to get there
From a practical point of view, unless you’re travelling in the country for a while you’re best off doing a bit of forward planning. With a strict limit on the number of permits issued each day, you’d be taking a risk to leave it until you were in Uganda to sort out the permit. However, my efforts to buy the permit directly in the UK, from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, were completely fruitless. There are numerous large adventure travel companies that will sort it all out for you, but I preferred to use a local tour company and ended up with Amagara Tours, at the lower end of the price spectrum, based in nearby Kabale. An excellent bit of advice they gave me was to fly into Kigali (Rwanda) as the bus journey to Kabale (Uganda) is a more manageable 3 hours rather than the bumpy 8 hour journey from Kampala. Otherwise, you can contact the UWA in person in Kampala, or most of the hotels and hostels can put together a package for you. Despite the high cost of the permits you rarely hear of any complaints, and personally I doubt you’d ever regret it.
Please bear in mind that despite their immense strength, gorillas are susceptible to human illnesses (and have little to no immunity) so you shouldn’t go tracking if you have symptoms of cold or flu. You can also track gorillas in Rwanda (though the permits are currently US$250 more expensive) and the Democratic Republic of Congo, though the issues of infrastructure, safety and reliability of seeing the gorillas would need to be addressed before taking that option.