Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
My time volunteering in Arusha came to a close right before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. After a day back in Arusha to gather my things and rest a bit, it was time to begin the next leg of my journey-travelling through Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and back to Tanzania to the island of Zanzibar. I was lucky enough to be travelling with 2 other volunteers, Nacho and Laura from Chile. Their volunteering stint ended with mine, and they had a similar route in mind, with gorilla trekking in Uganda at the top of our lists.
After a mishap and a lost iphone at the Arusha bus station, we spent a week in Rwanda (more later) before making our way to the town of Kisoro, Uganda, the base point for gorilla trekking.
The mountain gorillas are an extremely endangered species, now only found in the mountains of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In order to raise awareness and support for these wonderful species, several groups have been habituated to humans and are able to be visited for 1 hour a day (so as to not disturb them too much). There are only about 12-15 groups that are habituated, and a maximum of 8 people are allowed to visit a group. Thus, permits to visit them can be hard to get, sometimes booked months in advance. As November is the low season due to the short rainy season, permits are half price in Uganda, making it much more affordable.
The park which we visited was called Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Here there is only one gorilla group that has been habituated, the Nyakagezi family. This family consisted of 10 members: 5 silverbacks, 2 adult females, a female and male juvenile, and a 2 year old baby. We were very excited to be able to see these magnificent creatures up close and had trouble sleeping the night before.
We woke up a little after 6, and got a ride to the park, a little less than an hour away, as trekking was to begin promptly at 8am. There were 4 other visitors making the trek with us along with the 2 park rangers- a newlywed couple from Australia, and 2 Ugandans from Kampala. During our briefing, they warned us of the possibility of coming across buffalo or elephant on the mountain the the proper precautions. We were to keep a minimum distance of 7 meters from the gorillas, as not to make them nervous. It is forbidden to touch the gorillas, but they are allowed to touch you if they choose, which has happened a few times in the past. If a silverback were to charge at us, we were instructed to maintain our ground, but avoid eye contact, as they charge mainly to just show bravado, and wouldn’t actually physically harm us.
The park itself was beautiful, very lush and green with a mist in the air. After hiking Mt Kilimanjaro just a week prior, I found this hike to be much easier comparably, only having to hike about an hour and a half until we reached their current nesting area. We soon spotted the first one, the male juvenile, named Myuyekure. He was munching on some bamboo, but then disappeared in the brush a few minutes later. Our guide told us that the others would be close by.
Next we came across one of the silverbacks, Mafia. Careful to remain our distance, we watched him, fascinated by this great creature. Mafia, however, seemed disinterested in us, and decided to turn his back, exposing his silver fur. Another silverback, Rukundo, was close by. He was lying on his stomach and appeared to be asleep, so we moved on to not disturb him.
We continued to search the area until we came across the dominant silverback, Mark. He was humongous! He lingered for a few minutes before moving on through the brush.
But just our treat, the silverback, Ndungutse was right around the corner. He was sitting very calmly and watched us intently. Our guide said it was ok to get a little closer than the 7 meters for a few pictures. He then pulled apart the hair on one of his arms to shows us a cut he had on his arm, as if to elicit sympathy. He next proceeded to groom himself for a bit, before crossing his arms, as if upset. We stayed with him for at least 15 minutes, before the baby, Mutagamba, was spotted.
Near Mutagamba were 4 of the other gorillas, who moved away when they saw us, but we followed them for a bit when they resumed eating.
Soon, our hour was up. The guard said that we could stay with them for a few minutes longer, but as if on cue, the gorillas all got up and disappeared in the bush. And just like that, our experience with the gorillas was worth. it. It was truly a great experience, well worth the money, especially since the money goes back towards replenishing the population.
For anybody interested in learning more about these fascinating creatures, I suggest watching the movie “Gorillas in the Mist”, which is a (mostly) true story about Dian Fossey’s efforts to save the mountain gorillas, or reading one of the many books written about her valiant efforts (including her own book, “Gorillas in the Mist”), as she dedicated her lives to these magnificent creatures.