Trekking to see the mountain gorillas was an ambition I finally realised earlier this year. I went to Uganda and Rwanda to both check out the changes and upgrading of accommodation in the country and to visit the famous gorilla parks. To keep me company I managed to persuade two good friends to come with me as guinea pigs and paying clients.
We started the trip west of Kampala in Kibale which is home to chimpanzees, black and white colobus monkeys as well as fifty different species of butterfly. From here we drove south to Queen Elizabeth National Park where we were initially kept busy exploring foul smelling caves occupied by thousands of fruit bats – not for the squeamish. On an extensive afternoon game drive we saw elephant, eleven lion stalking a buffalo and a pair of eagle owls.
From Queen Elizabeth we moved further south to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. We stayed here in a simple but comfortable tented camp perched on a hillside looking directly over the rainforest canopy. Seeing the mist drift off the treetops and not being able to see the forest floor because of the density of the vegetation made us realise that hiking to see the gorillas the following day was not to be under-estimated. We went to bed early and sober.
We were lucky. It took only about 2-3 hours before our trackers found the gorillas. It was amazing. Having witnessed so many wonderful sights all over Africa I was not sure that seeing the gorillas would live up to all my expectations. I was wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for being so close to a 440lb male, known in gorilla parlance as a ‘silverback’. As an inquisitive tiny baby came to within a metre of me, I tried to move away as our guide had instructed us earlier to avoid the chance of infection to the gorillas. I was not
fast enough. The mother stormed up to me, snatched the baby and bared her teeth at me. I avoided eye contact and waited for the pain. Luckily it never came.
The hour with the gorillas felt like ten minutes. It was a real privilege to have seen them. I was at times scared, excited, awe struck. That night we went to bed late and a lot less sober.
The next morning we headed further south. On arrival at Mount Gahinga Rest Camp we were told there had been a mix up with our permits and that we were going to cross the border into Rwanda to see the gorillas instead. The Virunga Mountains are dissected into three by country borders. The Parc des Virungas (Djomba) is in the Congo. The Parc National des Volcans is in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is in Uganda. A little concerned that travelling to Rwanda had not been our original plan and we’d done no research, a few alarm bells started ringing. However, we spoke to our driver John Mugabwa, plus some clients in camp who had just returned from there about our concerns, and did some reading. We discovered that the park has been open since July 1999, having been closed during the civil war. The area was stable and the Park was under protection from poaching and land hungry locals. Unanimously we decided to go.
It was one of the best decisions we made. The habituated gorillas in Rwanda are the very ones studied by Diane Fosse and made famous in her book and the film about her life ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. Our guide Francis has worked with the four habituated gorilla families for over twenty years, and he worked with Diane Fosse for most of her time in Rwanda. The hike to the gorillas here is a lot easier than in Bwindi, usually taking only forty minutes to an hour. The vegetation is thinner, which makes viewing and the chance to take excellent photos much easier. It was a pleasure when two of the babies starting just rolling around in front of us playing in the sunlight. Between the group over 180 plus frames of film were run off in three minutes. Seeing the gorillas for a second time, in such a different location is something I would recommend to all potential visitors.
With only 600 mountain gorillas left in the world and with so few visitor permits issued daily, I feel incredibly privileged and fortunate to have seen them. Although seeing the gorillas is likely to be the highlight of any trip to Uganda, the country definitely has much more to offer. With snow-capped mountains and crater lakes cloaked in lush vegetation, it is an African country like no other.