I was heading to one of the very few places in the world where mountain gorillas survive in the wild. Gorilla Trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Nation Park Rainforest sits in the South West of Uganda. I was going to have an encounter of a lifetime, with not just one mountain gorilla family, but 2, over the course of 2 days.
Walking through magical rainforest, hearing and seeing things I may never see again, but to encounter wild gorillas, up close, in their own habitat, was to be an experience that will never ever forget.
No matter how many photos I had looked at prior to travelling here, nothing compared in the slightest to actually being there, within it. Feeling it, seeing it, smelling it with my own senses.
You must remember that these few mountain gorillas in the wild are all there are left on the planet. They do not survive in zoos, at all! No matter how hard some malicious zookeepers tried in the 70s and 80s. They literally die in zoos. Be it susceptibility to illness and viruses and a very unique rainforest diet they have that cannot be duplicated. It is great that all these animals are wild. If you want to see them, come to their habitat, and controlled habitat where it is carefully managed.
If you ever see a gorilla in a zoo, it will be a lowland gorilla not a mountain one.
How Does Gorilla Trekking Work?
Gorilla Trekking is not something you can go do on a whim or by yourself. Thankfully they are very protected as there are literally only around 800 mountain gorillas left in the wild. Spread around in this small rainforest covered part of the world between Rwanda, DRC and here at Bwindi in Uganda.
Even then, the park rangers have spent a very long and patient time getting only a select few families habituated. That is getting them used to humans being around them.
The contact for those gorilla families with humans is also very controlled. No group bigger than 8 and for no more than one hour when you find them
In the morning before you set off you get a full briefing. There is so much to think about. What to do when the huge, yes huge Silverback charges at you? What to do when a baby gorilla gets curious and comes close to you. The briefing is for the care of you and the gorillas. Incidentally both these things happened to me on this trip as you shall read later.
Whilst you are having the briefing, 2 rangers set off with radios looking for your allocated gorilla family. All they have perhaps is the location from the day before. Gorilla families are constantly on the move. They could be miles away from where last seen.
This is where you need to be aware before taking on a trip like this, you could be hiking through dense rainforest for up to 7 to 9 nine hours. Mountain Gorillas don’t stick to paths.
You and your group of 8 with 3 more rangers will follow on after the briefing and the scouts will radio once they are spotted and you head in that direction.
A Charging Silverback
These are wild animals and you are entering their territory. What you must know and the briefings will amplify this, is that a charging silverback is very normal. In fact it is all part of the great experience if you ask me.
Take the the one in the photo above. That is Makara who I met on the second day with the Habinyanja family. He is over 6 feet tall and weighs over 200kg!
As soon as he sees you, he wants to just let you know he is boss. That is his natural instinct, and rightfully so if you are on his land around his family.
He charged us. Racing towards us at full speed, tearing grasses and plants out of the ground on the way. Gulp.
Remember the briefing. If he charges, stand very still. very very still. Do not make eye contact with him, bow your head in a submissive pose, and above all do not run!
Believe me it works! He charges, sees you bow to him, he stops before you, snarls and snorts in satisfaction and sits back watching you carefully around his family.
Hi will watch you whilst caring and protecting his family. He just wants respect and if you move slowly around them all he will be fine.
The Curious Children
One of the extra special things about seeing mountain gorillas in the wild was seeing the babies and children playing. It is a joy that can only be experienced by seeing it with your own eyes.
Like all children, mountain gorillas are no different in that they are curious. They come toward you as if you are something to be explored.
Again remember the briefing. If a gorilla comes near you, step back or away very slowly. Easier said than done when you have a one year old running around you tugging at your trousers.
You are on a trip of a lifetime. Seeing something most people will never see in their lives. Of course you want to capture the moment.
You have wild mountain gorillas wandering and playing all around you, no fences, no walls. You have only 1 hour with them. I personally, as you know, take many many photos on my travels but truly this was one of those times were I took some, naturally, but wanted to savour the moment rather than looking through a lens.
The Mubare Family
Day one, I was allocated to the group trekking to the Mubare family.
It was a small group with just 3 of us and with the coincidence of us all being experience hikers, we made super progress. Straight up the first mountain, views within the forest amazing at every step. Chimpanzees could be heard calling not far away (very shy, and hardly seen).
The odd monkey was swinging above, too high and fast to get camera ready. It was magical to just take in each step actually, amongst the green canopies rather than spend all day looking down a lens.
In 3 hours we levelled out a little, the humid heat causing a good sweat though. The forest around us was getting thicker and thicker, as I said, wild animals do not follow paths. It carried on getting thicker and thicker and as the guide was using his big knife to cut branches away in front you could sense he knew we were getting close.
Another hour on or so…. and… There! I glimpsed through the thick of green branches ahead, the dark shape of a mother gorilla carrying a baby on her back.
We had found them, and I cannot tell you exactly how that felt or the emotion it brought out.
It is too hard to explain, the elation, the wonder of the true wild, this was a group of wild mountain gorillas, in their own habitat, no bars or glass, they were doing what they wanted to do.
Gulp, this was real, and it was amazing. We only had 1 hour maximum in their vicinity. Not a moment in your life to just take photos, it was a time to experience, watch, marvel. In fact you need to keep your wits about you too, where is the Silverback? Ah there he is, watching all you do around his family, very very closely!
This Silverback is called Kanyonyi and as he was happy with our small group, getting, not too close, so, for the most part, he was calm.
Time was flying fast! I was able to get a few short clips of special moments. Shows just how close they got plus a baby banging his chest in play.
The Silverback is in charge of the family completely and when he says move, they all move. So I can definitely say that once you have tracked them you simply stand still and watch. You follow them more than stand.
They are still on the move and cutting through the forest. Every now and then they stop for a few minutes, parents taking a chance to have a small nap or rest.
That is, if their children will let them move. Jumping on top of their mothers in play.
The hour goes so fast. Before you know it, it is time to say goodbye. One of the most memorable hours you will spend in your life I can assure you.
I have done some experiences in my life as you know from the pages on this site. But it will take a lot to come close to this. Bye bye Mubare family.
The euphoria was high and so much so you didn’t even think of the miles back down through the rainforest, off the mountains to the base. In any case the nature was to be enjoyed!
The Habinyanja Family
It was my second day and a new direction to head in with a new mountain gorilla family to trek to. I was so very much looking forward to meeting another group today.
Having that previous day’s experience allows me now to relax more and look on and see deeper into these truly wonderful wild animals.
The Habinyanja group are named from how they were first discovered, ‘Nyanja’ means a place with water, as they were first found near a swamp.
Yesterday we trekked for a few hours to find the family. Today we were luckier, we actually found the Habinyanja Family within an hour, it is not always so, as I say these animals go where they want.
That same feeling as yesterday came out, seeing the Gorillas appear amongst the thick dense green all around. Impossible to describe fully! Emotion overwhelms. As I had the experience the day before, I took more time today truly observing them with my own eyes instead of using all moments with my camera.
I found this particular scene truly wonderful. A mother nursing her baby!
As I mentioned earlier the silverback of this family was more wild and he kept charging to remind us he was there. Respect them and they will respect you.
This family also had a different character, it had a stroppy, Blackback. A Blackback is a male that has not taken over and grown its silver back, although it would like to for sure. Whenever I got glimpses of him he was always away from the group, always seemingly in a huff, though still, whenever the Silverback says move, the whole group moves, the blackback seemed to push it and stay behind or away, just enough.
Of course, the babies and youngsters always steal the show. In the moments the parents stop to eat or rest, they take the opportunity to play or be cheeky. The whole dynamic is a joy to watch. Something you would never ever get in any captivity at all!
As I was enjoying these special moments in my life I was taken back to the briefing. Some people may think we should leave them completely alone but the reason their number has ‘grown’ to 800 is partly because of managed tourism like this.
Half of those total number live here in Bwindi and it is thanks to the area being designated a National Park, education of the people, and money from tourism that their number has grown to this number. Having seen them, met them, and how the park is run, this number is sure to rise even more.
Alas, the hour was up. Time to leave these animals in peace. I watch them wander and disappear into the green of the rainforest……
Goodbye Habinyanja family, thank you for memories that will stay with me for ever!
Goodbyes and Thank Yous
It was time to say goodbye to the mountain gorillas and the rainforest but I must say thank you to the people that make this place special not only to the gorillas but also the people that keep them safe and make experiences like this available on our planet still.
Gad, above, is a superb head guide who is never short of humour. He really is passionate about the gorillas, the rainforest, the people and the area. He puts everyone at ease as well as knows the answer to any question you have.
Plus of course the guides, porters and rangers who work tirelessly to make sure you are safe, are able to get the experience you wished for and more.
If you ever get the chance or desire to go see these remarkable creatures in their own habitat, then go, take on the experience of a lifetime. Remember you are helping their conservation too as it is very controlled. The journey to Bwindi via Entebbe and inland caravan flight is remarkable to in itself too.
I shall never forget looking into their eyes and life as long as I shall live.