From the Savannah to the Mountains
Today we leave the savannah for the mountains for the most anticipated highlight of this trip to Uganda and the reason why many people come to Uganda… trekking the Bwindi Mountain Gorillas to see them in their natural habitat. It was a long day of driving from Queen Elizabeth National Park, not because of distance but due to road conditions being less than ideal. Roads can have major potholes and unevenness as many are dirt and erosion takes its toll. The scenery was breathtaking as many lakes, volcanoes, and farmland came into view. The lake below has three volcanoes in its background and represents the border between Rwanda and Uganda… the Democratic Republic of the Congo is close by too. We were now in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
When we first saw the sign for the Chameleon Hill Lodge from the main road, I was pleasantly surprised that we had arrived much earlier than our guide had said we would. It turned out to be just the beginning of an off road adventure to get to the lodge that took another hour. Like I mentioned, the scenery was awesome and we now experienced some rain which was welcomed. The lodge was quite colorful and an eco-lodge, which meant it was solar-powered and limited hours with the power on. It wasn’t much of an inconvenience and showed how eco-friendly our lodge was. Below is a picture of the main lodge, our room with a view of the lake, and flowers in the area.
The next morning we departed our lodge at 6:30 am to arrive at the guidepost by 7:30 am. Our group had to be divided into two groups of five due to how the permits were purchased and what was available at the time of purchase. Trekking groups are limited to no more than eight people. Each group treks a specific family so not to overwhelm the gorillas with human presence. Once you find the gorilla family, you are limited to a one hour observation for pictures and appreciating this endangered specie in its natural habitat.
Based on the ranger orientation, it is estimated there are about 700 Bwindi mountain gorillas in the wild, of which half are located in Uganda. These are not the same gorillas you will find in your local zoo. The gorillas have never been able to live in captivity which makes their livelihood even more important to protect them from poachers. Uganda understands the gorillas’ importance to nature and its tourism industry and is protective of their gorilla families.
As you begin the trek, all of the groups meeting at this point start together and begin to take different paths along the way to the respective gorilla families’ last known presence. As part of our tour cost, we were provided with a porter to carry our daypack and assist us as needed on the trail. The cost of a porter is $15 for the day (be sure to tip). I would definitely recommend hiring a porter as the trek is not easy and the warning in brochures stating a high level of fitness should not be underestimated. The first half of the trek was mostly going down to the lowlands while accommodating the local people’s daily life of herding cows, gathering bananas, and fetching water. The path down was a bit treacherous with loose rock and soil with a pretty steep decline. Wearing the right hiking shoes is paramount to keeping your footing on this trail.
We took sufficient breaks and were able to appreciate the lush green landscape surrounding us and see the locals’ way of life going on. Once we made it to the bottom, we heard from our guides that the gorillas had been found and we would be there in about 30 minutes. The adventure really kicked into high gear as we followed our guide with a machete as he thrashed the thick vegetation so we could make it through. Our footing was unstable much of the time as you weren’t sure if you were walking on elevated vegetation or ground. You had to be careful what you grabbed onto as many plants had thorns (recommend wearing leather gloves). Luckily there wasn’t much of an insect issue but the vegetation was difficult to traverse and it never seemed to end. We finally got to the point where the gorillas had been found… it was not an ideal location as the gorillas were deep in the bush or thicket and not easy to see. This required our guides to cut back the vegetation so we could see the gorillas. The gorillas didn’t seem to mind our activity and continued on with their day as if we weren’t there.
Once the gorillas had been found and we were close, we had to put away all water and food and take out whatever we needed from our backpacks carried by our porters. In my case, it was time to bring out the big camera. The guides began to claw back the vegetation so we could see the family of gorillas. This family had about 12 members including two silverbacks, one primary and the other secondary. The gorillas were quite playful and went about their day grazing on the vegetation. These gorillas were mesmerizing and so interesting to make eye contact with. During orientation, we had been told to stay about 5 meters away but because of their location in the thicket, we were extremely close to the gorillas, about 1 to 2 meters. I never felt unsafe and sensed no aggravation or aggression by the gorillas, even the silverbacks. It was a great experience once I calmed down from the hike through the thick vegetation and the gorillas were found. The experience can be intense and you must be ready for whatever nature throws at you.
The silverback we saw was very docile and not phased by us humans. Everything about him was large… hands, feet, head, back. You could tell how strong he must have been. I waited awhile to get the photo of him looking right back at me. It was a very gentle exchange, no aggression sensed. As he moved around, the last photo of him is sitting behind the brush staring at us. In terms of proximity to him, I was about 10 feet away.
Once our hour with the gorillas was over, we found some shade and had lunch that we had packed in. Boy was I hungry… Having had breakfast at 6:00 am that morning, I was starving by the time we had lunch at 1:30 pm. I would highly recommend bringing snacks to tide you over as you don’t know when you’ll get to eat lunch.
So remember we had hiked down the mountain to see the gorillas… now we had to hike back up. It was quite warm this day and we had been in full sun for about 5 hours at this point. The hike back up looked daunting and it was very much straight up. Normally you would see some nice gentle switchbacks to ease the difficulty but that was not the case. I think the rest of my group would agree that this hike was difficult and the impact of the sun made it even more difficult. We finally made it up after about 3 hours, an elevation climb of about 1,800 feet. We were so thrilled to finally make it and just wanted to get back to the lodge for a refreshing shower. Upon reaching the guidepost, I decided to leave my hiking boots behind to our guide… those boots deserved to stay at Bwindi and the guide was thrilled to take them off my hands (that’s why I have sandals on below). My group was amazing and pushed through and we all leaned on each other to motivate one another.
- Bring plenty of water. Use a camelback or bring at least 4 to 5 bottles of water.
- Bring snacks and electrolytes to maintain your energy levels.
- Bring leather gloves in case you have to trek through the thicket.
- Wear a long-sleeve shirt and pants.
- Tuck your pants into your hiking socks to avoid fire ants.
- Wear good hiking boots with ankle support.
- Wear hiking socks that are wool.
- Wear sunscreen and a hat.
- Train for the hike before you get there. The hike is not easy and a high level of fitness is needed.
- Assume it will take 3 to 4 hours to find the gorillas. You’ll hear people say they found them in 30 minutes… perhaps they did but assume it will take longer to control your expectations.
- Take as many breaks as you need. The group will wait.
- Consider wearing one of those cold towels around your neck to alleviate the heat.
- Be prepared to walk through thick vegetation that has thorns and loose footing.
- Hire a porter to take your day pack and help along the way.
- Take the walking stick offered to you. There are some big step ups and downs and loose footing along the path. You can also use it to push away vegetation from you.
After the gorilla trek, we were all excited to get back to the lodge to clean up, have our final dinner together, and share stories about the day of gorilla trekking. At that moment, there were many of us that were not very thrilled about the experience, including me. Having had time to reflect on it, it was great to see the gorillas and it was an experience I will never forget. I think had I followed my travel tips above, it would have been a better experience with more realistic expectations.
The next morning after breakfast we headed to the airport at Kitara, about a one hour drive from the lodge. We were about 12 driving hours from Entebbe and so we had a commuter plane fly us back to Entebbe. These planes are pretty typical in Africa and help to get around to remote places. The runways may or may not be paved and in Kitara, they actually shut down the main road like a railway crossing because the runway crosses the main road. The views from above were remarkable and you can see how green and lush the landscape is of Uganda. It’s such a beautiful country.
Having arrived back in Entebbe, we were all escorted to the Protea (Marriott) hotel near the airport to use until our flights went out that evening. I have to say I was so happy to be in air condition again and lay on a nice comfy bed. The hotel is right on Lake Victoria with spectacular views. The group got together one last time at the hotel restaurant for lunch and we said our goodbyes. We had a great tour group and I enjoyed learning about each of them and their travels. This group was very well-traveled.
Trekking the gorillas was a once in a lifetime experience. Although the day can be a bit difficult physically, it is well worth the time and effort to see the Bwindi Mountain Gorilla in their natural habitat. It’s the only way to see them. These gorillas are so close to us when it comes to DNA and when you look a gorilla in the eye, you just feel a connection. Pay attention to the travel tips above and your experience will be great.
I must say at the beginning of this trip to Uganda, I thought where in the world am I and why am I here. I longed for “first world” luxuries (e.g., air conditioning) but as time went on, I realized how progressive this “third world” country is… energy conservation, solar-powered businesses, banning of plastic grocery bags… Uganda has a bright future ahead of it. The differentiator to achieve more will be the higher education of both men and women and becoming aware of their potential.
At the same time, the people are very proud of their traditions and way of life and that’s what makes Uganda so special. My biggest takeaway from this trip is that my way of life in America where we can have it all and it’s up to each of us to choose our path is not the only way to be live happily in this world and it takes a whole lot less to achieve the same feeling. Family and traditions bring much happiness to the Ugandan people.