Mountain gorilla

When we woke up on the day of our gorilla trek in Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest, we had an intense feeling of anticipation and excitement. The air was crisp and there was a heavy mist hanging over the mountains. We spoke in quiet whispers as we ate breakfast, as if anything louder would disturb the mystical serenity of our incredibly beautiful location.

We were served a delicious local breakfast in the lodge’s restaurant and were then picked up by our guide, Abraham from Gorilla Holidays. As recommended, we wore several layers topped by a light waterproof jacket as there was a definite morning chill and a dampness in the air.

mountain gorilla trekking!

Abraham drove us through the mountain to the meeting point in the rainforest. We joined about 35 other people in a little hut to receive our orientation advice from the ranger. I noticed that I was probably the only person wearing makeup in the group although I was very practically dressed with my Kathmandu gear and strong walking shoes. In Rwanda, there were many glamorous young walkers with their designer clothes and immaculately styled hair – clearly we were with the serious walkers in Uganda!

Once our orientation was complete, we left the hut and Abraham told us he would go and sort out our passes for us. As we waited, he was negotiating the best group for us – long enough for a great trek but not so long that we would be too tired for our golden monkey trek in Rwanda on the next day. As it turned out, the length and difficulty of our trek was perfect.

As soon as Abraham had our permits, we were off on our drive up the mountain to our starting point. It was a tough, steep drive but Abraham’s car made it easily; another group came in a very old sedan and it seriously struggled to get there. We were starting at a significantly high altitude – 2,500 metres above sea level.

We waited at the top for the rest of our group and eventually were joined by seven others, making our group a nice, intimate number of ten plus our porters, rangers, guide and trackers. We had read that it is important to engage porters as it provides work for the local community so, even though our bags weren’t heavy, we each had a porter of our own.

trekking through dense rainforest

As we started on our trek, the terrain wasn’t hard as the early part of the trek had paths. Very soon however, we made our way into the rainforest and had to start climbing through the dense undergrowth as the trackers tried to locate our gorilla family. They cut through branches and vines with their machetes so that we could climb through and on many occasions that meant wading through streams and deep mud. The fallen tree trunks were my biggest obstacle as it was quite difficult at 5 foot tall to climb over them but no-one else had that problem and my porter was always on hand to help.

We walked for several hours as we got deeper into the forest. It didn’t feel like a hard trek on our legs but the altitude took a toll on Karl’s and my breathing. The elevation of the park is from 1,190 to 2,607 metres above sea level and we were in one of the higher regions. The air was thin and at times, we were struggling to get enough oxygen. On the way back, it was worse in an area where we had quite an intense uphill trek and the ranger kindly stopped everyone for me to get my breathing back on track.

The rangers were great at keeping an eye on the fitness of the walkers and put the slower walkers first so that we all walked at no faster than their pace. They put Karl at the front at one point much to Sam’s amusement but generally, we were all quite compatible – when I mentioned my breathing issue later, a few other walkers also admitted to having the same problem. I went through a fitness program for several months before our trek so felt quite fit but would recommend altitude training if you have a facility near you.

a magnificent silverback and family

As we trekked deeper into the forest, we started to speak in very hushed tones as we realised that the trackers were closing in on our gorilla family. The trackers and rangers note where they leave the gorillas the night before and in the morning, look for signs of their presence such as discarded food, marks in the ground and overturned logs. They are also experts at listening for signs such as rustling leaves so we had to be quiet so that they could hear – and of course, we didn’t want to startle the gorillas with our noise.

It was exquisitely exciting as we realised that we were really going to see mountain gorillas in the wild! Even though walkers rarely miss seeing the gorillas, it is a possibility that we are all made aware of as we go off on our trek. No-one is guaranteed a sighting so there was a huge relief to realise that we were not going to miss out!

All of a sudden, the rangers started to usher us through to a clearing in the dense bush and there, sitting in a small opening, was a huge silverback!

They directed us quietly down to around 7 metres from this magnificent creature as he turned coolly and calmly round to face us. He stared straight into our eyes as we respectfully averted our gaze as we had previously been told to do because staring in the eyes of a gorilla is taken as a threat. Sam didn’t avert his gaze and got charged by the silverback as a result once he turned his back to take a selfie – a scary moment but the rangers were in full control and quickly moved Sam out of the way.

Mountain gorillas are critically endangered as they can only exist in the wild and much of their habitat has been destroyed but numbers have increased over recent years due to the excellent conservation efforts in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The full cost of permits in each country goes towards conservation efforts – $700 US in Uganda, $1500 US in Rwanda and $400 US in the Congo. It might sound expensive but the number of trekker permits authorised each day is restricted and all of the money goes towards saving this important species that shares 98.3% of our own DNA.

Today, there are around 880 mountain gorillas left in the wild, around 459 of which are located in Uganda. They live in family groups and the rangers and trackers know them well by name; they care for the gorillas and are trusted by them in return which is why we are able to get so close.

Our mountain gorilla family consisted of 18 gorillas with our 27 year old silverback as their leader. They were scattered through the forest, some playing high in the trees, others lying low with babies in the undergrowth. They weren’t as easy to see as they are supposed to be in Rwanda because they are deep in uncleared land rather than in made-made openings but that made it more authentic. We excitedly followed our tracker as he explored further into the forest, finding other family members along the way.

At one point, our group moved between the silverback and two playful juveniles who had between swinging through the trees. Unintentionally, we had separated the silverback from the young ones as we went down a narrow track and the silverback was most upset.

He roared, beat his chest and raced around in the thick undergrowth to get back to the babies. Thankfully he didn’t charge through us! It became clear very quickly just how powerful these creatures can be if they feel in danger. Sam really was playing with fire staring down this gigantic beast!

After an hour of trekking through the forest discovering gorillas close up along the way, it was time to leave these wonderful animals in peace. It had been far more exhilarating than I had even imagined as I thought we would simply be sitting still with the family for the allocated hour instead of trekking through to find them. I was certainly glad to have chosen the harder terrain of Bwindi instead of the more popular Rwandan trek but I would imagine either option would be incredible.

There was a fair amount of uphill trekking on the way back, some of which was challenging but when we finally made it back to the car, we were elated. Overall, our trek took around 5.5 hours which was perfect for us. It was hard work but it felt like such an achievement to have made it to the end.

The locals put on a short show and displayed their crafts and souvenirs near our cars and we took into account Abraham’s previous advice on the needs of the locals. We bought tee shirts, caps, craft and other small gifts, all of which were of a good quality and were not really expensive when you consider how much a few purchases can benefit the local community.

After remembering to tip each porter, guide, ranger and trekker, we were taken by Abraham back to our lodge to freshen up and collect our cases before our journey back to Rwanda. We were going to stay near the Volcanoes National Park for the night before our early morning golden monkey trek the next day. We got a little lost along the way as I had chosen a lodge that wasn’t familiar to Abraham but we arrived shortly after dark. 

a beautiful eco-lodge

I was glad that I had done my homework on our accommodation options because without fail, each place we stayed in on our trip was excellent. In Rwanda, I had chosen Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, an eco-lodge in the Musanze district and, other than the crazy shower, it was lovely. 

After signing us in, the staff took our incredibly muddy shoes off to be washed and showed us to our comfortable, spacious room. We laughingly wrote off our expensive trekking shoes, just hoping they would come back in a fit enough state for our golden monkey trek but other than being slightly damp, they came back as good as new! It was unbelievable given the deep mud we had been trekking through in the rainforest.

As we settled in the beautiful bar, resting our weary bodies over a few well-earned drinks, we reflected on our amazing day and all agreed it was an experience that we would remember forever.