Gorilla Trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Our drive from Lake Mburo took around 6 hours and is mostly due to the appalling state of the roads in most of rural Uganda. Some appear to have never been graded and most are deeply rutted and potholed. Even surfaced roads are covered in multiple speed bumps and allow little respite from bumps. (Ladies, a sports bra is a must, or you’ll spend most of your time clutching ‘the girls’ as they’re jolted mercilessly on your travels!)

Thankfully, our 4WD Landcruiser handled everything and our driver Baker was amazing at getting us everywhere safely.

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We checked into our fairly new hotel, Chameleon Hill on Lake Mutanda and immediately dubbed it the Cinque Terra of Uganda. It was an amazing place with million dollar views and attentive staff. Resident cat Tom2 made himself at home with us and the three dogs on site made sure we reached our rooms safely every night, Lucky even opting for a snooze in our villa one afternoon.

The Lake stretched below us, dotted with beautiful Islands, a pair of crested cranes wandered the edge through fields of climbing beans and the three beautiful Virunga Mountains that border Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo framed our view. It was breathtakingly lovely.

However, we were here for the Mountain gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and that’s where we headed early the next morning. Our briefing advised us to tuck our pants firmly into our socks to avoid the bites of the Mission Ants. Apparently, it’s their mission to get into your pants, and we didn’t need ‘ants in our pants’ on this trek.

We were a group of four girls and were joined by other couples from around the world, and were allocated the Bweza (meaning most handsome) family at the South entrance of Bwindi. We chose to hire the porters for USD$15 a day to carry our gear and assist our trek and I cannot begin to tell you what a fabulous idea this is. (The porters all wear gumboots so you may even find this a better idea than hiking boots, but both work.)

I was allocated the lovely Bright, whom I instantly fell in love with. He’s 23 and local to the area, and is a softly spoken, beautiful soul who held my hand for most of the journey, pulled me up mountains, made footholds where there were none to be found and encouraged me along when I was gasping for air in the high altitude after scaling steep mountainsides, and I honestly didn’t think I could manage another step.

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It took us two hours to find the Bweza family and the first hour lulled me into a false sense of security that this walk may just be doable… How wrong was I? Not being in the greatest physical shape, (unless round is a shape?) I had hoped to be one of the lucky ones who found the gorillas within the first half hour… But, no.

We’d admired the amazing terrace farms that line the sides of the mountains along the way, filled with cabbages to climbing beans and wondered how they managed to farm such steep surfaces. Well, we found out firsthand! Much of our early trek was done through these very fields on almost vertical slopes.

Once we’d located the gorillas however, we were definitely in a valley in the heart of the forest. The gorilla families have been ‘habituated’ for two years to human presence before tourists are allowed to follow them around, and mostly by this stage they treat us with the contempt we rightfully deserve for invading their space.

Just in case we come across non-habituated gorillas or mountain climbing elephants (who knew?) a guard follows the group with an AK47 to fire warning shots to scare them off. He told me he only needs to fire this about once a month, and we were spared the drama on this trek.

Sighting a gorilla for the first time tho was amazing and we were all silent and spellbound. Climbing down more steep inclines we ended at the bottom and saw even more of these amazing gorillas. Photo opportunities abounded but there’s also plenty of time to put the camera away and just ‘be’ with these incredible creatures.

At one stage we accidentally blocked the path the way the Second in charge of the group, as he decided to move to fresher leaves. We all rapidly moved to clear him a path while he stopped about a metre from us to give us the once over and ponder his next move. Clearly he hadn’t heard the 7 metre rule at the briefing. I was the last in line and got a light shoulder barge to the knees on his way past just to let us know we were a slight inconvenience. Nearly peed my pants excited!

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One young guy had stretched out in a hammock of leaves in the trees and vines til he ate an important structural piece of the bed and he dropped to the forest floor leaving us all in giggles.

Watching the family go about their business so closely was almost an indescribable experience. The males consume up to 20kgs of vegetation a day, the females 18kgs. Stuffing in the vines, leaves and twigs, we got a great glimpse of their teeth that still manage to incite a bit of a tremble. Their constantly distended stomachs make it difficult to tell if there’s going to be new additions to the family.

After staying with the family for around an hour, and the ubiquitous gorillas flies that constantly hang around, it was time to head back… and the only way was up… and by that I mean straight up. Machetes cleared a path and footholds were hard to find. A friend in front of me lost her footing and slid down the steep surface before being grabbed by the arms by the porters at the last minute and helped back up. This is not for the faint hearted.

If you’re planning this trip, put your stair master on the highest incline for hours on end and you’ll be in a better position to make this an easier trek. It took us three hours to climb the mountains necessary to get ourselves out, with a short rest with the local Batwa (pygmies) who although forcibly removed from their forest homes, still pitch their humpy like structures on the top of the hills surrounding Bwindi.

I must confess that it took nearly everything I had to complete the trek and I did contemplate calling for the stretcher bearers who’ll cart your sorry ass back to the cars for USD $300. By the time I got the top, I confess I did sob like a baby with relief but am going to blame the 2000m altitude for the tears.

You do get awarded a Certificate at the end of the trek and I’m sure if I feel I earned that more than studying for my Masters.

This would truly have to take the cake for adventures that I’ve had and if you ever get the opportunity to do this trip, do go. And I’ll feel really ripped off for you if you get the easy gig and see them in the first half hour.

And don’t worry, you’ll be able to walk again without assistance, Deep Heat, Voltaren and gin after the next couple of days…

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