This is the seventh in a series of nine posts covering our 13-day tour around Uganda with Mountain Gorilla Coffee Tours (“MGCT”).
After leaving Queen Elizabeth National Park, our next stop was the small town Kisoro, in the far southwestern section of Uganda. Our plan for Kisoro was to spend two nights with a local family in a homestay and visit the wonderfully named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to track the mountain gorillas.
The drive to Kisoro was beautiful, with countryside covered in a patchwork of fields and populated by Uganda’s national bird, the remarkable grey-crowned crane.
We arrived at the homestay mid-afternoon. Our host put out hot water for tea, and we sat on the small front patio reading and relaxing, saving our energy for the next day’s trekking.
Later in the afternoon, a downpour began. Without warning, rain started coming down in sheets. The goat tied up in the far corner of the yard began complaining, and the chickens scattered, searching for cover. One small chick raced up onto the patio and huddled under Marc’s chair.
The following morning, we got up early to track the mountain gorillas. As we have mentioned, the ability to see the gorillas was one of the main reasons we decided to go on a group tour in Uganda – because we had waited so late to make arrangements during Uganda’s high season for travel, joining a group tour was one of the only ways we could ensure securing gorilla permits.
After an hour and a half drive, we arrived at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where almost half of the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas reside, just in time for the briefing. There can be some serious hiking involved to reach the mountain gorillas, and it is completely unpredictable – you might hike for an hour, or seven, before you reach the gorillas, or you might not find them at all.
During the briefing, the ranger went over the options in case you found the hiking to be too strenuous and the costs associated with them: (i) if you found the hike to be too difficult and decided to turn back before seeing the gorillas, a guide would accompany you and there would be no refund; (ii) if you found the hike to be too demanding but wanted to continue, you could hire someone to race up the mountain and then carry you on something like a stretcher (this option was crazy expensive); and (iii) if you decided to hire a porter to carry your bag for you, this was more moderately priced and the porter could also “majestically push you” up hills, if needed.1
After the briefing, we were divided into groups. Our group included us, the Italians, and four older Australians. After hearing the ranger’s cautions about challenging nature of the terrain (as well as stories from our friends who had tracked the gorillas in Bwindi before us), I was concerned about our Australian companions’ ability to handle the hike, but their stamina was truly impressive. I can only hope that I’m as spry as them when I reach their age! (Also, they had these fantastic walking sticks that were topped with small gorillas.)
Our group was assigned the Busingye Group, which resides in the southern section of the park.
From the meeting point, we got back into our private vehicles and drove for about twenty minutes before we began hiking up a hill. Shortly after beginning the hike, our guide instructed us to climb in the bed of an Uganda Wildlife Authority pick-up truck, which then began driving us up the hill – but, just as we came to a steep, sharp curve, our truck had to brake for a group of passing sheep, and the truck lost its momentum.
Our driver kept trying to climb the hill, spinning the truck’s wheels on the gravel, and the rest of us, standing in the bed, started shouting that we wanted to get out and walk. We walked partway up the rest of the hill before we tried the pick-up truck again; this time it was more successful.
From where the pick-up truck dropped us off, we had to walk along a narrow path with an amazing view of the surrounding countryside and Virunga chain of volcanoes (including Mount Nyiragongo, the volcano in the DRC that we had glimpsed in Gisenyi). The path opened onto a field, where we took a water break before finally diving into the forest.
We then hiked through the forest for two hours before the trackers (who had departed much earlier in the morning, so that they could find the gorillas just as they left their nests2 and help us locate them) alerted us that we were close.
At that point, we left the footpath and began scrambling up (and then later down) a vine-choked mountain until we reached the gorillas. The forest was so dense that, at some points, the only reason I remained upright was because I was so tangled in vines that I literally couldn’t fall down.
We met various other folks along our journey who had gone gorilla tracking in both Uganda and Rwanda, and the gorillas they visited had sat sedately for them in one location. On the morning that we went trekking, however, our group of gorillas were feeling active, and we spent nearly the entire time following them through the forest while they foraged for food. Just as our trackers would use their machetes to clear a view of the gorillas, they would lumber away.
The experience was much more exciting than if they had remained put in one place, but it meant that we didn’t get very many clear pictures to share.
The exception is the young gorillas – they were fond of climbing in the trees, and so we got some nice shots of them:
Once a group finds the gorillas, they get one hour with them. However, since the gorillas were so active during our visit, the guides allowed us to have ninety minutes with them. Being constantly on the move and striving for a glimpse of the gorillas through the dense forest wasn’t what we had in mind when we booked our gorilla tracking adventure, but seeing the gorillas move naturally around their habitat was an incredible experience that can’t be replicated.
1 Unsurprisingly, “majestically push” has become one of our favorite phrases.
2 I love the imagery of gorillas in a “nest.”