Tracking mountain gorillas through East Africa’s great forests is the ultimate wildlife experience. Head to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in southwestern Uganda for a close encounter with the world’s greatest ape.
Almost half of the world’s wild gorillas live in the dense jungle of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. A vast, protected area of rolling, tree-covered mountains, this remote park remains one of Africa’s last outposts for mountain gorilla conservation. Over the last decade, Bwindi has become one of the best places in which to track gorillas. Observing these majestic apes in their natural surroundings is a truly unforgettable experience. In fact, nothing else really comes close.
The day begins bright and early with a briefing at Rushaga, where the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s (UWA) headquarters is located. Those tracking as part of a tour will have all transport taken care of. Those who’ve arranged it independently will need to make their own way there.
Before setting off into the forest, visitors are given a short explanation about the gorillas, what to expect and how to behave around them by the head ranger. The key points to remember are; keeping a distance of at least 7m (23ft) is paramount; avoid direct eye contact; and remain quiet throughout the experience. Another thing to bear in mind is that if visitors are ill (particularly with a virus), they may not be able to take part. Gorillas are susceptible to many of the same diseases as humans, and there are too few left in the world to risk it.
Once the briefing is over, people are split off into smaller groups and assigned a ranger. Gorilla tracking is intimate, and only eight permits are given out per gorilla family. A single party shouldn’t be much larger than 11 people, including trackers and a ranger. The locations are dependent upon which family is being tracked – Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga or Nkuringo – with each trek starting at one of these.
After a few minutes walking into Bwindi, it becomes obvious why they call it impenetrable: every step feels like a battle with the forest. Wading through a truly wild, overgrown wall of dangling vines, towering trees and dense bush, the hike to the gorillas could take anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours. But no matter how far the walk, the distance is always worth it because the end result will be life-changing.
Mountain gorillas are incredibly sociable animals, living in groups of between 10 to 20 gorillas and one large silverback at the head of the family. They spend most of the day looking for food, consuming up to 20kg (44lbs) of bamboo, leaves and fruit. This is most likely how they’ll be found: sitting, almost in solemn reflection, endlessly shovelling vegetation into their mouths.
That first moment, standing a few feet from this enormous wild animal is frightening. But the fear eventually turns to awe. Sharing close to 98% of our DNA, the experience is an overwhelmingly familiar one. From their facial expressions and intelligent eyes to their subtle mannerisms, the likeness is startling.
Enjoy their company for one hour – anything more could distress them – before slipping off back into the forest, leaving these majestic animals in peace once more.
With just over 1,000 left in the wild, the mountain gorilla is one of the rarest apes in the world. For the most part, gorilla survival makes for grim reading: years of mass deforestation, war and human encroachment have placed the species on the endangered list.
Thankfully, things are beginning to improve. In the last ten years, the gorilla population in the Bwindi-Sarambwe ecosystem (a vast protected area combining Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Sarambwe Nature Reserve), has grown from 400 to 459 gorillas. That might sound small, but for an animal some feared might not survive the 20th century, it’s a big sign of progress.
Combined with the Virunga Massif, which is the only other place on Earth where mountain gorillas are found in the wild, this brings the total to 1,063 worldwide. The funds raised by gorilla tracking play a huge part in this ongoing conservation effort.
Anyone hoping to join the groups needs to secure a permit from the UWA. There are three ways to book one: at the UWA head office in Kampala, as part of a package with a reputable tour agency or through one of the many lodges in the area around the park.
For the sake of ease most people go for the last two options. Booking directly with UWA is the cheapest option (lodges and operators will likely add a booking fee of around US$50 onto your permit), but it’s far less straightforward – the UWA is notoriously bad at responding to emails. And chances are if you leave it until you arrive in the country, you’ll likely miss out on the desired dates.
At US$700 the permits aren’t cheap, but this does include the park entrance, guide fee and a community development contribution. A limited number of permits are available for each day, so booking in advance is recommended. Permits can be booked several months in advance, though a specific date is required as they’re only valid for one day.
Bwindi is no country walk, and the conditions are tough. You could be out for most of the day, and it all depends on where the gorillas are in the park. Tracking can be slow because of the dense vegetation, and guides often use machetes to clear a pathway. Wear sturdy walking boots and long pants tucked into socks. The forest floor is full of ants that bite, so this will help keep them at bay. Carry a lightweight waterproof jacket in a small backpack along with a packed lunch and at least a couple litres of water. For a little extra support, walking poles are also a good idea. Wooden sticks are also available at the briefing if you forget. If you think you might struggle carrying the water, it’s worth considering hiring a porter.
Tracking gorillas is a year-round activity thanks to Uganda’s climate. That said, the country does have two dry seasons when chances of rain are lower. The dry (or peak) seasons run between December and February and again from June to August. Not surprisingly, this is the busiest time to visit, so accommodation will be more costly.
Alternatively, March to May and October to November are the wettest months. While it’s not impossible to track during these times of year, it can make trekking all the more difficult and visibility may be reduced – gorillas in the mist may sound dramatic, but most people prefer a sunny day.
Bwindi lies in the far southwest of Uganda, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The park covers 321 sq km (124 sq mi) of densely forested mountains, its perimeters fringed with remote villages and rural farms. The nearest major town is Kabale, a two-hour drive away. Buses from Kampala (eight to ten hours) run daily during high season. Depending on where you’re staying in Bwindi, a taxi (known locally as ‘private hires’) could cost around US$50 from Kabale.
With your own vehicle, it’s possible to make the drive between Kampala and Bwindi in around nine hours. Be warned, many of the mountain roads leading up to the park are not paved, and any rain can make driving conditions extremely difficult.