Here’s my experience trekking mountain gorillas in the tropical rainforest jungles of Uganda, a small East African country sandwiched between giant African destinations. In Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the story goes:
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, and 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. It 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. I thoroughly 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 at snail-pace, and Batwa natives flourish on a kind of poverty that repels modern folk. After a brief stay to acclimate to the altitude, we embarked on our adventure onto the Bwindi forest floors.
We roamed the remote hills southwest of Kampala for the first three days—far from the crowds and civilization. We took trails where we never set sight of 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.
These kinds of raw experience that get me actively involved in the land and its inhabitants are what makes traveling worth the money I spend. When I look on the far horizon and see everything unfamiliar yet inviting, a new life blows into me, and I step forward.
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 a top-of-the-world football pitch, sharing the unspoken joy of friendly competition. A local shaman accompanied us, serving as a spiritual guide and performing sacred rituals to bless and cleanse our eager souls.
Finally, on day four, we set out to meet our protagonist deep into the mystical jungle of Bwindi Impenetrable forest. We glimpsed our destination through the 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 detour up to this point was worth the money and time we spent because it aligned our expectations with what the destination can offer so that we ultimately experience the gorilla trekking activity with a balanced mindset.
Seeing the jungle as we approached, the mist would clear for a spell, giving us a brief peek of the primeval forest before once again obscuring her from view.
Stepping into the jungle brought sunshine to my belly, offering a different African jungle mood. We explored the ancient rainforest with bright clarity, imagining the ancient inhabitants’ lives, the animals, flora, and fauna, and how, if not interrupted by human activity, we could survive and harbor 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.
What makes gorilla trekking worth the money is not just seeing the mountain gorillas, but the stretched hiking through a labyrinth of growth that you probably have never seen before. The long mind-wandering journeys, smells, seemingly dark trails, and occasional life springs up unexpectedly from the undergrowth.
“Hush everyone,” the jungle whispered. Or was it the ranger guide? I don’t remember. But all of a 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 uniforms cladding guns appeared to be seated in bushes around the gorilla trekking group.
Because we were earlier informed that there would be a group of rangers that protects the mountain gorilla family when we showed up, I was glad someone is here to watch my backpack and camera gear, and I waved at them with a nod to acknowledge their presence.
The two ranger groups: one with us and another that goes at the break of dawn to find the gorillas and direct our group to their location, making the gorilla trekking worth the money. That strategy makes sure everyone who has paid to trek into the jungle finds and sees the mountain gorillas.
Keeping the two groups well-motivated to accommodate us and protecting the creatures from poachers and trail them every day is a costly job. So the price of the permit for gorilla trekking is entirely worth the money, don’t you think?
With my 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 is worth more than any other animal encounter in the African animal kingdom for the first time.
Well, my first sight of this intimidating 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. One of the young juveniles came closer to inspect my unusual sweaty smell and belonging.
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 held and stopped me, and the Silverback also stopped within 10 feet.
As my heart explodes with fear and excitement, it’s explained that the Silverback (late Rafiki, killed in June 2020 by hunters) thought I was getting too familiar with his child. I had forgotten to keep the distance between us in my dopamine-filled photography moments. I think I peed my pants a little!
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. Another reason gorilla trekking is worth all the money I spend on getting this life-changing experience.
Although my reaction was way out of jungle character, every one of the other gorilla family members went on their business of feeding, grunting, farting, and the youngsters 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 interested in their communication, so I moved closer to the guide to catch his explanations. Females used touch to share affection, Wilber, the guide, explained. While one uses it to offer an invitation to the other, I noticed, as Wilber pointed out.
“It’s an obvious conversation, one goes over to the other and says ‘hi’ and then starts to move away, and the other says ‘no, don’t go.’ 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 say to each other is clear from the gestures; it’s non-verbal communication.”
The hour allotted to us passed by like a cold wind in the summer, and I wanted to stay some more when the Wilber gestured for us to pack up and get ready to leave. The gorilla trekking experience was worth all the money because, like my first kiss, it has stayed with me since I was last in that jungle three years ago.
Some of the readers may be interested in taking this trip and have some questions. These are some of the questions, with the help of my trip manager, I’m able to answer.
Get the best dose of gorilla trekking experience in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda, just north of the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. Bwindi protects more than half of the world’s mountain gorillas and has 19 gorilla groups habituated for tourism, making gorilla trekking worth all the money travelers spend on permits and accommodation.
The park has four trailheads spread over the eastern, northern, and southern entrances with stupendous accommodation options at all trailheads. 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 (southern sector), where we trekked the mountain gorillas.
One could also go gorilla trekking in neighboring Rwanda through the 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 as their dwelling place.
Getting up close to such a huge wild beast is terrifying. Contrary to common belief, you’re pretty much very safe to trek the Uganda jungles, get within 30 ft, and have your dose of gorilla trekking experience. 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 your protection.
– For Coronavirus protection, carry two masks, hand sanitizer & have your negative PCR COVID-19 test certificate with you. See entry requirements.
– Pack a decent waterproof jacket
– Long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and long socks
– A pair of outdoor gloves
– Trekking boots are your best friend
– Pack a tin of Insect repellent
– Biodegradable tissue or toilet paper
– Waterproof backpack and extra batteries
– Trekking poles or hiking staff
See detailed information on what to carry.
Uganda is open to international tourism since October 1, 2020, and anyone on presentation of a negative PCR COVID-19 test certificate (issued 72 hours prior) and a gorilla permit (USD 700) can be escorted into the gorilla jungle to see the mountain gorillas. Wearing a facemask is mandatory, and a safe distance of 10 meters away from the gorillas will be affected.
There’s an impressive amount of information on the internet from tour operators. If you’re planning a gorilla trip, make sure you book with a company that will care much more about your experience than the buck they’ll make from you.
You first have to buy a gorilla permit, the most essential 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 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 the hefty US $1,500 each). You can buy the license directly from UWA or your local tour operator. You’ll need your passport copy and preferred date to get one.
We traveled with Nkuringo Safaris (firstname.lastname@example.org), a woman-led local company that comes highly recommended. The MD, Lydia, kept in contact with us throughout the whole trip.
Your tour operator will most probably take care of your accommodation booking. There are excellent 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.
Although the gorilla trekking experience is regarded as a year-round activity, the best time to go for a gorilla trip is 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 in a life story that no one wants to listen to.
Yes, you can! Most tourists visiting to see gorillas are connecting overland from Kenya, Tanzania, or South Africa. Your tour operator can make this possible because there are flights connecting to Entebbe from Masai Mara or other destinations. Alternatively, Uganda offers some comparable savanna wildlife experiences in Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Parks. You can save the overland fees by making your whole safari trip in Uganda.
The best bush accommodation that will make your gorilla trekking adventure worth the money
Firstly, 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. A few travelers I know (who recommended I take this trip) have done either one of these two trips with the same company:
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, drove to Kisoro (the nearest town to Bwindi Park) in a standard 4×4 vehicle, and hiked through the local towns and villages up to our lodging 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 a walk, and it’s exhilarating.
Clothing, shoes, and everything else you will need.
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 picturesque emerald green are something to savor for 9 hours. We enjoyed all the vistas from the sky.
The cheapest is to take the Post Bus. According to our trip manager, 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 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. Still, 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.