Like Mowgli, I took a deep breath, pushed the misty branch of leaves aside and carried my heavy foot forward pushing my excited self into the thick mystical African jungle. An oceanic feeling swept over me like a six foot wave over a smooth rock at the beach. It felt like I was getting the absolute maximum out of life at that moment.
I put my second foot forward and another to tap into the heartbeat of the jungle, I had to get up close and personal with it. This isn’t the kind of experience you can glean from a car or bus window as the scenery rushes past you. No, to really dig into a place, there’s nothing so intimate as a thoughtful walking pace.
Meandering along at a footstep’s speed of the other hikers in front of me, I absorbed the emerald sights, smells, and sounds of the two million year old jungle and fully imbibed the spirit of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and its inhabitants.
Our gorilla trekking group set out from the charming mountain town of Nkuringo, where life slows down to snail pace and Batwa natives flourish on a kind of poverty the modern folk would be repelled. After a brief stay to acclimate to altitude, we embarked on our adventure through the Bwindi.
For the first three days, we roamed the remote hills southwest of Kampala—far from the crowds and civilization. We took trails where we never set sight on another Muzungu or trekking group. The trail was ours alone to share with the drifting jungle breeze and hardy farming folk who eke out their survival amidst the steep hillsides and high valleys of this bewitching mountain land.
We tested our stamina, hiking many hours a day and traversing mountain passes to hidden sights in the park, all while taking in sweeping vistas of grassy hinterland surrounded by tantalizing misty ridges.
As our muscles grew strong, we also strengthened our spirits in a way that comes from being outside and exploring new lands. Far from cell and Internet range, we were forced to live entirely in the present, fully absorbing our surroundings.
Every day brought a torrent of mind-blowing experiences that took us out of our comfort zone and opened our hearts and minds to a new view on life. We slaughtered a pig for a village feast. We had our futures read in some kind of mysterious leaves. We helped repair a remote school. We played soccer with local children on top-of-the-world football pitch, sharing the unspoken joy of friendly competition. A local shaman accompanied us, serving as spiritual guide and performing sacred rituals to bless and cleanse our eager souls.
Finally, on day four, we set out to meet our antagonists deep into the mystical jungle of Bwindi Impenetrable forest. We glimpsed our destination through mystical fog that drifted up the rugged ridge walls, lapping at the trees like dragon’s breath, as we hiked down to the entry point. The mist would clear for a spell, giving us a brief peek of the emerald forest before once again obscuring her from view.
Stepping into the jungle brought sunshine in my belly, offering a different African jungle mood. With bright clarity, we explored the ancient rainforest, imagining the life of the inhabitants, the animals, flora, fauna and how, if not interrupted by human activity, can survive and hobor mystical life for millions of years beyond man’s existence.
A labyrinth of ferns and trees, enveloped us in green and the damp undergrowth under my soaked hiking shoes compelled me to increase my pace and catch up with the rest of the trekking group.
“Hush everyone”, the jungle jungle whispered. Or was it the ranger guide? I don’t remember. But all the sudden everyone stopped in their tracks. The ranger whispered in the walkie-talkie and moments later asked the gorilla trekking group to place their bags where they were standing and only stay with cameras with shutters in silence. That’s when I noticed that we had company. Three rangers in camouflage uniform cladding guns appeared to be seated in bushes around the gorilla trekking group.
Because we were earlier informed of a group that protects the mountain gorillas and would be there when we showed up, I was glad someone is here to protect my backpack and camera gear. I waved at them with a nod to acknowledge their presence.
With my very trusted image maker in my hands, I stepped forward like a hunter careful not to scare my prey. And there he was, 480 pounds (219kg) of flesh, amber-eyed patriarch stoically sitting by himself. They’ve said that seeing a mountain gorilla for the first time cannot be matched by any animal in the African animal kingdom. Well, my first sight of this massive silverback seated before me teleported me out of human consciousness and for a moment he and I existed in the same realm of time and space.
Then, out of the blue, he stands up bipedally and does a rapid chest beat vibrating the whole jungle in deep drum sounds. You would think the Jungle tribe was coming down on the gorilla trekking group for trespassing. This is when I instinctively take those two forbidden steps — or three — to bolt. The ranger who had seen this coming holds and stops me. The silverback also stops, within 10 feet.
It’s explained, as my heart explodes with fear and excitement, that the Silverback (who’s name I’ve forgotten) thought I was getting too close. In my dopamine filled photography moments, I had forgotten to keep the distance between us.
My reaction to the silverback’s dramatic display proves that nothing prepares you for the intensity of encountering a mountain gorilla in its natural setting.
Despite my reaction was way out of jungle character, everyone of the other gorilla family members was going on their business of feeding, grunting, farting and the youngstars darting around the elders. They expected everything to normalize in a few seconds. And of course it did.
With all the gorilla family members spread over a 50 meter open forest space, munching away at every plant near them, mothers watching over their young ones while the juveniles tested their muscle strength jumping off soft branches, we were all engrossed in the moment’s passing.
I was so much interested in the communication between them, so I moved closer to the guide to catch his explanations. Females used touch to share affection, while one uses it to offer an invitation to the other, I noticed as the guide explained.
It’s a very clear conversation, one goes over to the other and says ‘hi’ and then starts to move away and the other one says ‘no don’t go’ and the first one says ‘well I’m going but why don’t you come with me’, not necessarily in those words but the gestures and the expressions of desire show it all. I don’t think it’s anthropomorphism to read that intent, what they’re saying to each other is perfectly clear from the gestures; it’s non-verbal communication.
The hour allotted to us passed by like a cold wind in the summer. I wanted to stay some more when the guide gestured for us to pack up and get ready to leave. The gorilla trekking experience will stay with me for the rest of my life and it was worth every single penny I spent.
Some of the readers may be interested in taking this trip and have some questions. These are some of the questions I’ve been asked.
Bellow is the trip we took.
Where can anyone go to get the gorilla trekking experience?
Get the best dose of gorilla trekking experience in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the southwestern of Uganda, just north of the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. The park has eastern, northern and southern entrances with stupendous accommodation options at all trail heads. We stayed in the northern Buhoma section on our first day and hiked 10 kilometers (6 miles) across the rainforest the next day to Nkuringo where we trekked the mountain gorillas.
One could also go gorilla trekking in the neighboring Rwanda through Kigali capital. I would recommend Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park for the less savvy hikers and want a simple, quick experience. Congo next door is way beyond my experience. The country has been unstable for decades and militia rebels have the jungle into their dwelling place.
Is gorilla trekking safe?
The idea of getting up close to such a huge wild animal is terrifying. The $700 fee you pay for a gorilla trekking permit pays for the three (or more) years of habituating a gorilla family (getting them used to human presence), their health and armed game rangers 24/7 for protection. So, you’re pretty much very safe to trek the African jungles and get your dose of gorilla trekking experience.
How do I book a gorilla trekking trip?
There’s an impressive amount of information on the internet from tour operators but make sure you book with a company that will care much more about your experience than the buck they’ll make from you. I have a dedicated safari team ready to replicate for you my experience, send them a note.
The first thing you have to do is buy a gorilla permit, the most important part of this trip. Due to the small number of travelers allowed per day to trek the gorillas, the permits are sold out months in advance. To secure your gorilla trekking experience, make sure yours is bought and paid for as soon as your interest in is aroused.
Permits are sold by no one else but the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) for USD $700 each at face value (Rwanda sells the gorilla permit for a hefty US $1,500 each). You can buy the permit directly from UWA or through your tour operator. You’ll need your passport copy and preferred date to get one.
Your tour operator will most probably take care of your accommodation booking. There are great facilities around the park ranging from exotic jungle cottages with impressive forest views to budget bandas for backpackers. From US $50 to $1000 per night, you can’t fail to get where to stay. Most lodges in bwindi offer activities around the park like cultural visits, hiking and nature walks. So it’s not just about the gorillas but a real Africa safari experience.
When is the best time to go?
Although the gorilla trekking experience is regarded as a year-round activity, the best times to go are from June to August and December to February. At these times, the forest trails are drier and therefore less slippery. Also, your chance of a dry gorilla viewing experience is higher during these months. This might result in a better experience and photography will be easier. I’d recommend avoiding a Uganda safari entirely during the heavy rains of April and May, the roads may be impassable and your experience may result into your life’s story that no one wants to listen to.
How do I get to the gorilla park?
First you have to think about getting to Uganda. Uganda is found in the Eastern Africa region next to Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. Several flights from around the world land at Entebbe International Airport including Turkish Airlines (TK), KLM (KL), Qatar Airways (QR), Emirates Emirates (EK, )Ethiopian Airlines (ET), Royal Air Maroc (AT), Brussels Airlines (SN), Fly Dubai (FZ), EgyptAir (MS) and Kenya Airways (KQ). So take your pick.
Also, fly into Bwindi from Masai Mara or Serengeti, the most popular Africa Safari destinations in Africa. You can get your dose of wildlife safari next door and add gorilla trekking to your bucket list. Many travellers I know have done that.
From Entebbe, fly into Kihihi (local airstrip one hour outside Bwindi Impenetrable NP) with AeroLink, which costs a standard $236 each way. From Kihihi, your booked lodge will most probably pick you up in a 4×4 safari truck. Our gorilla trekking group landed at Kihihi at 08:00 and hiked through the towns and villages to our facility. We wanted to experience the whole African atmosphere, meet the local people, taste the food and learn a few words. You might want to take the walk, it’s exhilarating.
You could have your tour operator drive you from Entebbe to Bwindi, 8-9 hours all the way. Or rent a car and drive yourself. They say the western Uganda drive is like driving through switzerland. The rolling hills and picturesques emerald green is something to savor for 9 hours.
The cheapest is to take the Post Bus, the safest bus company in Uganda, to either Kihihi or Kabale, depending on a north or south entry, and take a car, local minibus (called a ‘taxi’), or boda boda (motorbike taxi), from there. They should all cost less than 100k shilling. Bring cash to pay, as ATMs are far away and many of the more affordable lodges only accept cash.
Bwindi impenetrable National Park is neighbored by savanna wildlife parks like Lake Mburo NP, Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth NP. They may not match the Serengeti NP in Tanzania or Masai Mara in Kenya or Krugar NP in South Africa, but after such a gorilla jungle experience, I find them a great alternative. Besides, you don’t have to spend on flights across borders and they have the BIG FIVE game animals to match them.
So just go! The gorilla trekking experience is worth every penny you’ll spend. Here are some gorilla safari trips you can book including the one we so much experienced;