Apart from the chimpanzee and orangutan, the only other great ape whose genome is closely related to humans in the Mountain gorilla. The mountain gorilla can only survive in the wild, and not any wild, but a small volcanic region in East Africa. So trekking into their native forests is your only chance to catch a peek.
Sitting on the edge of fear and excitement in total silence on the cold ground of an African rainforest for 60 minutes might be one of your unrevealed life’s greatest privileges. Matter of fact, there are just about 1000 mountain gorillas that exist only in the small tropical mountain of East Africa, and gorilla trekking is the only African safari activity that provides a rare opportunity to observe the everyday interactions of these gentle, mysterious giants.
Found only in East Africa and not anywhere else in the world, Mountain gorillas live in the dense jungles of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and along the the virunga massif that stretches from southwestern Uganda, northwestern Rwanda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo covering Mgahinga National Park, Volcanoes National Park and Virunga National Park in Uganda, Rwanda and DRC respectively.
Historically, gorilla trekking dates back in 1902 when Robert Von Beringe a Germany captain and the first European observed the Mountain Gorillas on the Sabinyo Volcano. Later the Gorilla was named Gorilla gorilla Beringei by Matschie in 1903. In 1963 Dian Fossey began her study on the creatures and their habituation. Later in 1988 an adaptation of her life was released in a movie “Gorillas in The Mist” that exposed gorilla trekking to the world. The BBC’s 1978 “Life on Earth” TV series featuring David Attenborough’s encounter with the mountain gorillas (Ep. 12) brought the whole plight of saving these mighty primates to a craze, bringing thousands of travellers to this part of the world just to spend a few moments with our cousins. Stories told about the encounter differ only in telling, but the experience is generally one to cherish forever.
Since the early 80’s, environmentalists and governments have been jealously protecting the mountain gorillas with numbers going up from 254 in 1981 to 1,000 in the recent 2018 census, thanks to these efforts anyone can go see them. Since these critically endangered creatures can’t survive in captivity, the only way to see them is by trekking up to their natural habitat: misty cloud forests that can reach altitudes of 14,763 feet (4,500 meters).
Going to spend some tiny moment with the mighty gorilla is an arduous trip and not cheap at that. For that reason, we’ve put together six great reasons why you should book that flight ticket, get us to arrange your all-inclusive gorilla safari and have you tick that off your bucket list with less hustle. Here are my 6 reasons:
Compared to Rwanda and DRC (not recommended for its never ending insecurity), Uganda, (the only other country Gorillas flourish) has has lead on having more numbers of gorilla families. Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park alone protects more than 400 gorillas. In addition to that, Uganda has a second gorilla home, Mgahinga National Park that shares borders with DRC and Rwanda’s Virunga and Volcanoes National Parks respectively. Now, gorillas don’t pay mind to political borders, so populations within the Virungas are relatively fluid giving Uganda and edge. Therefore mountain gorilla sight can be guaranteed upto 98% in Uganda than anywhere else.
Spanning an expanse of 331 sq km (128 sq mi), Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of the continent’s oldest forests dating back to the ice ages era. Species diversity is a feature of the park, and that’s why it’s listed as a UNESCO heritage site. That is because it provides habitat for 120 species of mammals, 348 species of birds, 220 species of butterflies, 27 species of frogs, chameleons, geckos, and many endangered species. Floristically, the park is among the most diverse forests in East Africa, with more than 1,000 flowering plant species, including 163 species of trees and 104 species of ferns. The northern (low elevation) sector has many species of Guineo-Congolian flora, including two endangered species, the brown mahogany and Brazzeia longipedicellata. In particular, the area shares in the high levels of endemisms of the Albertine Rift.
The park is a sanctuary for colobus monkeys, chimpanzees, and many birds such as hornbills and turacos. And of course it’s most notable for the more than 400 endangered mountain gorillas that find sanctuary in Bwindi Forests. 14 gorilla groups (of upto 30 members) are habituated and open to tourism in four different sectors of Buhoma, Ruhijja, Rushaga and the Nkuringo in the Districts of Kanungu, Kabale and Kisoro respectively all under the management of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
22 kilometers away from Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is another notable 33 sq km (13 sq mi) gorilla home, Mgahinga National Park that forms part of the Virungas shared between the three countries. Hikers would love to know that the park also features three of the eight major Virunga peaks: Mount Gahinga (3,474 meters), Mount Muhabura (4,127 meters) and Mount Sabyinyo (3,645 meters) that are very popular with hikers. Imagine that—meet the gorilla and hike up four thousand meters to take a 360 degree view of the stunningly beautiful Uganda. That is what I call an African adventure!
“The primary threat to mountain gorillas comes from forest clearance and degradation, as the region’s growing human population struggles to eke out a living.” Says the International Gorilla Conservation Program.
Conversion of land for agriculture and competition for limited natural resources such as firewood lead to varying degrees of deforestation. The only way to maintain gorilla habitat is to develop alternative economic activities that allow people to meet their daily needs, so that they see gorillas not as competitors, but as a means of improving their own situation.
Over the last decade Uganda has been a great beneficiary to tourism growth, seeing a number of locals benefiting generously from gorilla trekking safaris with over 20,000 coming to see gorillas annually. But you could make it more than just a number and help out the number of very low income communities that live around the gorilla national parks.
Well, you can hire a porter for one. A local porter will carry your bag for you or even put you on his back if your body energy is used up. The park’s terrain can sometimes be steep and unlevelled, making it really difficult to hike for unseasoned trekkers; a local porter will help you navigate the terrain, cross rivers, pull/carry you up steep slopes and muddy inclines.
How about signup for a Batwa trail hike. The Batwa are the native forest inhabitants that were later relocated and given land outside the park. So the elders occasionally have these trips with tourists through the forest enacting their old ways of survival through the golden years in the forest. For US$100 (solo, less in group), you would relive the Batwa forest history and travel with a cause.
You can also talk to your travel operator and visit some local schools and women groups in the area if you have time on your itinerary. You know, teach a class, hand out gifts or learn a few things for your story telling back home. Either way, leave a piece of you in Africa, don’t just take!
A gorilla permit is invariably expensive to acquire and this is generally because it takes great effort and money to jealously protect the gorillas from poachers, keep them healthy and making sure they flourish in their natural habitat. The gorilla trekking permit is the best option to that cause.
The main competition to Uganda’s gorilla permit is Rwanda. We can arguably rule out DRC for their never unresolved conflicts in the region. That leaves Rwanda charging a hefty US$1,500 per person. Now if you’re comfortable with spending that high, go for it, Rwanda shows off some luxury comfort and has great reasons for charging that. On the flipside, Uganda charges less than half of that, US$600 for each gorilla permit. That price is set to increase by $100 (US$700) starting July 1, 2020 according to UWA’s latest tariff guide.
However, if you’re sensitive on price, Uganda should be your choice for gorilla trekking. With the price also comes more than 4 choices of gorilla trekking starting points (trail-heads). Bwindi alone gives you 4 starting points that determine the terrain and difficulty of trekking to the gorillas. This comes as a bonus for seasoned trekkers that want to explore different parts of the forest.
Driving through the unending winding roads, rolling slopes and terraced hills for hours ot get to the gorilla haven and the shear beauty alone can’t keep you from the thought that trekking that altitude to reach the mountain gorillas is not going to be that simple but a challenge. An adventure of your life that requires you to tick off your list. And an adventure it is.
It’s challenging to reach these gentle giants. Sometimes it may require you to hike upwards or downwards depending on your chosen tracking sector and safari accommodation. You’ll led through thick jungle shrubs, tangles of vines, hundreds of year old fat trees, roots and a damp forest floor. I promise you, this territory is untouched.
There are no paths, signs or direction and that’s why you’ll have a tracker with a machete creating a path and an armed guard to protect you from the unplanned eventualities. But the reward of hiking through the jungle with the fear creamed with with the excitement of meeting the Silverback male mountain gorilla anytime, is something I can’t write about in these lines. You just have to get out of your city comfort and come experience it yourself.
One other primate that draws crowds to Uganda is the chimpanzee. Primates flourish in this tiny country and most of the research done in the wild has taken place in this primate haven. Kibale Forest National Park for one issues out 72 chimpanzee permits per day. You could easily add Kibale to your gorilla trekking itinerary and spend some time with your cousins.
One gorilla home you most likely to meet another habituated fella is Mgahinga National Park. Hiking in Mgahinga, minding your business, trying to get to the gorillas and bang! One of those comical Golden Monkey may cross your path. These little shiny endangered primates live high up in the bamboo zones and tracking them is another activity done in Mgahinga National Park.
L’hoest monkeys, gray-cheeked mangabeys, blue monkeys, Patas monkeys roam around Murchison Falls National Park, chimpanzees and the red-tailed monkey jump high up in the treetops of Queen Elizabeth National Parks Kyambura Gorge. If it’s primates that tickle your joys, Uganda does not disappoint.
Forget the gorilla trekking experience, that give you strictly 60 minutes with a mountain gorilla family when found. If you’re an adventure *insert word here* like me, you would want to spend more time with the cousins, right?! That’s what gorilla habituation experience is for.
Remember, mountain gorillas a wild animals. Though commonly known as gentle giants, the wild is something humans abandoned 70,000 years ago and probably the gorillas are right to assume we are aliens. It can take researchers, doctors, rangers and trackers up-to 5 years to habituate a discovered gorilla group to a point where humans can come spend time with them. Everyday is a different one for five years and even after getting habituated, you’re only allowed one hour with them to avoid getting the wild out of them.
If you can take the excitement for four exciting hours with the wild unhabituated mountain gorilla deep into its territory, well why not! For the price US$1500, UWA will issue a gorilla habituation experience permit for you to let your emotions go wild in the Jungles of Bwindi Impenetrable forest.
Yes! Six great reasons why you go gorilla trekking in Uganda. Not Rwanda or the Amazon, No! Uganda is your next destination and I have just the company to take you there. Adyeri Creations that operates the Gorilla Tracking website are a perfect operator for an all inclusive gorilla tour to Uganda. No third parties, no hidden fees but a great selection of great accommodation, travel in a comfortable 4×4 cruiser and eat what surprise only your mind but leaves your belly smiling. Hit this link to start planning your gorilla tour right away.