The day had finally arrived, it was time for our Gorilla Tracking experience. We had booked and paid for it 3 weeks ago while in Kampala, and had been talking about it ever since. Suffice to say we were more than a little excited!!!
After a hearty breakfast of sweet bread toast (this is the only bread you can get in rural Uganda), layered with lashing of Yum Yum peanut butter, all for added energy, we walked the short distance to the UWA office to check in with our permits (on a credit card type system) and of course our passports. This is to ensure that the person named on the permit is the person at the National Park. Its quite a slick operation.
A little about the Mountain Gorilla….. First of all, these are not the same gorilla species as you would have seen in a zoo, there are absolutely NO Mountain Gorilla’s in captivity anywhere in the world, if you have seen gorillas in captivity then these will have been either the Eastern Lowland Gorillas, or Western Lowland Gorillas. The main difference visually is that Mountain Gorillas are larger and more hairy than their Lowland cousins. They are much more endangered than the Lowland Gorillas, with only 880 left on Earth, a dire situation. All Mountain gorillas are located in a relatively small area in the historically troubled region of where the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC (Congo) all meet. We chose Uganda to track them as its a little cheaper than Rwanda ($600 as opposed to $750), obviously Uganda is English speaking, and it is politically more stable than the DRC, and we would have had to pay for accommodation and visa fees in the DRC (even though the permits here are “only” $450 each). So we now find our selves in Buhoma in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
We were told that we must have a walking staff and gloves with us, so we hired these from the community camp before we left, as the fees raised here go to the women’s group and the local orphanage. We also had a rucksack each, carrying waterproofs (this is the wet season here), 4.5 litres of water in a Camelback, and water bottle, two cameras, insect repellant, hats, and food for a packed lunch. We knew it could be a tough day, but equally it could be a breeze, it just depends what group (family) of gorillas you are assigned to and of course where they are located. Many people we had met had reached the group within an hour, and so were back at the base by lunchtime, whereas we heard of one group the day before not getting back until 6.30pm, as they couldn’t locate the group. We were hoping for a fairly easy day!
There are 3 groups of gorillas that can be visited from the base at Buhoma, the Habinyanja Group, the Rushegura Group and the Mubare Group, the first two are reached currently by using a vehicle and are generally easier and quicker to get to, the last group, the Mubare Group are currently accessed by hiking straight out of the back of the UWA head quarters and straight up and over the Mountain. With a maximum of 8 in each walking group, this means a maximum of 24 tourists per day.
Guess which one we were assigned to? Yup, the dreaded Mubare group!!! Our guide was Rita, and she proceeded to tell us and the six other paying trackers that were with us, what was expected of us. We were to expect a very hard day, and that at sometime it WILL rain, so we needed to be suitably equipped and prepared. We were also told to tuck the bottom of our trousers into our socks or boots as the rain forest is full of nasty bugs and especially the large number of “fire ants”. If these get onto your legs apparently you end up doing the fire ant dance!!
The last piece of advice from Rita was that we should employ a “Porter” from the village to carry our rucksack, he would also help to push, and pull you up and down the mountain. We had previously spoken about this and had decided that we wouldn’t need a “Porter” as we only had a small (32 litre) rucksack each. Now that we realised that we had been assigned the Mubare Group, we had to have a rethink. The cost of a Porter for the day was a minimum of 50,000 Ugandan Shillings (£11.36), but if you were impressed with him you could pay him extra. These Porters are just regular guys from the village that turn up at the UWA headquarters on a rotor system hoping to get a days work from the “Mzungu” tourists. Rita also reminded us that a 10kg rucksack will feel like a 30kg rucksack after the first hour of climbing the mountain. It was a no brainer…….. we took on the services of Jackson, but had to explain to him that we didn’t have any money with us, so he would have to return to the campsite with us at the end of the day to get paid. Two of the other couples also had a Porter.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest base at Buhoma is located at about 2,000 metres (roughly 6,600 feet) above sea level, so the air is thin, and it is hot and very humid, not a good combination for a long hike straight up a mountain, in dense bush, so with this in mind we put all the water, food, and heavier items into one rucksack and gave that to Jackson to carry, we are very caring tourists!
The cost of not making the climb was a return trip to the camp and of course no refund. There is an option of a pair of bearers with a stretcher carrying you the rest of the way at a cost of $300. We had heard of a young and fit Australian woman having to take this option only a few days before.
With an armed guard at the front of us, then Rita the guide, and then another armed guard at the rear we set off at about 8.30am.
Straight away, as soon as we crossed the bridge over the river, the steepness was quite severe, it was also slippery after the heavy rains from the night before, but we plodded along a reasonably defined path.
This is Jac with the rest of the group, taking a quick breather, its is still not raining, and as you can see the vegetation is very dense.
None of the Gorillas are collared or tagged, so to help locate the group, a team of trackers set off before dawn and try to find them before we arrive in the area, obviously the starting point is where they were last seen the day before. Mountain Gorillas do not move at night, and build “nests” to sleep in, in a different place each 24 hours. So after about two hours of climbing, Rita started to communicate on her radio with the trackers about the precise location of the group. In the meantime we had reached the summit of the mountain and were descending into the valley beyond. At this point we realised that Gorillas a) move around a lot and b) do not eat anywhere near a path!
Out came the machetes and we started cutting our way though the very dense jungle, this is not like you see on the TV, we were climbing over fallen logs, scaling huge rocks, and walking over things that could not be seen. Gloves were put on to protect your hands from thorns, nettles, ants, and any other little critter that takes a fancy to your pearly white skin, they also mean that you can grab branches, roots and rocks without having to inspect them too closely.
This was very very tough going, we were all sweating buckets, and it was here that Jackson started to seriously earn his money. He took up a position in front of Jac, and literally pulled her up and over obstacles, steadied her over streams, and generally assisted her at all times during this the hardest bit of the tracking. We were very slowly descending down and across the very steep bank, then after about 45 minutes of heading in this direction Rita got a message from the trackers up ahead that the gorillas had looped round and were now actually above us!!!! Bugger!!
So we then had to climb back up, but not using the path that we had taken as we needed to be further over, this was the toughest part of the day, and everyone in the group was exhausted.
This is Jac, just about visible ahead in the dense vegetation.
Eventually after 4.5 hours of really hard physical graft, we cut our way into a clearing and there were the three trackers that had been following the Mubare Group for the last few hours. We knew then that we were close to the Mountain gorillas and straight away all our aching limbs were forgotten about! We were given another pep talk by Rita that involved a few do’s and dont’s (though not many really), and were told to get our cameras out, leave our bags with the Porters, and to get ready for an amazing experience.
I was dreading being in this position, if it was pouring with rain, and not being able to use my camera, but amazingly it was still not raining, we just needed it to hold off for another hour. After a few minutes of cutting through the jungle, we were presented with a scene that we could only have dreamt about, the first thing we saw was a young gorilla playing in a tree, underneath the tree were two adult females, and another youngster, and incredibly sitting with his back to us only about 3 metres away was the huge Silverback male of the group.
We had over an hour in the company of these amazing primates, and there were at least two people in our group that definitely had a tears in their eyes during the first five minutes. The gorillas made us work during our time with them, as they were constantly moving along following the Silverback, so we had to cut our way through to try to get ahead of them a few times, but this really paid off. After hearing other peoples stories about their tracking day, I was expecting to get a few photos of gorillas in very dense vegetation, and hopefully see them occasionally, this hour or so was way beyond our wildest dreams as far as seeing the animals was concerned.
At one point the Silverback (weighing as much as 200kgs) walked straight towards me (I was at the end of the clearing, and the tracker had moved away to cut some vegetation), and passed so close to me I could have touched him!
I think we saw almost every member in the group (11 adults plus youngsters), apart from a female that had a two month old baby, but we were warned back at base that we would be unlikely to see the mother and baby. Then just to top a perfect day (it still wasn’t raining), she appeared with the baby on her breast!!!
We were very happy “Mzunga”!!
We definitely had over our maximum time of an hour with the Gorilla’s, but it seemed to pass in a flash, but we had to turn around and head back to the camp at Buhoma. En-route we stopped for a quick lunch stop, where I got stung by a particularly evil wasp/bee, but I think we all wanted to get back before the now dark and heavy sky decided to drop its load of water on us. Much easier than we expected we got down to the river crossing in about two hours, and it still wasn’t raining!! Again Jackson was a massive help to Jac as we scrabbled down the mountainside.
Back at the the headquarters, we were each given a certificate (a little tacky perhaps), and after being out in the rain forest for 7.5 hours, there were some seriously creaky bones! Jac organised everyone on our group to have a photo taken, including Jackson and Rita our guide.
After taking Jackson back to the nearby campsite we paid him a total of 80,000 Shillings (£18.00), this included a tip of 30,000 Shillings, he left a very happy man (he called round the next morning at 6.30am to say goodbye as we were warming up Colonel K). He was a genuinely nice guy, and Jac, says he was immensely strong.
Within 20 minutes of us getting back to the truck the heavens opened and it rained for hours! How lucky were we!!!!
Our clothes were absolutely minging with sweat, and a cold beer was needed, so after a quick shower, and a change of clothes we headed to the camp bar (obviously we were the only campers again), and spent the evening over dinner talking about the most amazing day that we had experienced.
Despite our bodies aching like made we decided that if it wasn’t raining in the morning (we had set our alarm for 6.00am), we would leave at first light and negotiate the dirt tracks over the mountain before the conditions got even worst.
Its about 80km from Buhoma back to the tarmac road, and the first 20km despite being the narrowest and least used track went well with no dramas, just stunning scenery.
Then it started to get really steep, and with that the mud started to get much more slippery, then on one steep up hill section we came across a recently installed culvert, and the mud over the top of the culvert was very soft. There was a quite severe camber on the track, and the truck just dug into the mud, and all four wheels were spinning on the slippery surface, but worst, the rear of the truck was sliding towards the edge and and so the long drop down into the valley below!!! Very scary.
We managed to extract ourselves from the mud by mostly using the weight of the truck to roll back down the hill, and straightening the truck up to have another go, no chance!!! We started digging out stones from the verges of the track and placing them into the deep mud, that by now was a real mess. We were in the middle of nowhere, with no other vehicles around (I think most go north from Buhoma) and no body to be seen. Then in true African style, locals appeared from nowhere, they were probably working in the fields nearby and heard Colonel K’s engine and spinning wheels. Next thing we knew we had several men and children, digging out mud, placing stones and generally getting stuck in. Jac and Myself were absolutely plastered in mud, with Jac up to here ankles in soft sticky goo. We tried again, and again the tyres just sank in deep and stopped forward motion. We decided to try our lovely bright orange Maxtrax sand ladders, the local’s looked at us as if we mad, but with a Maxtrax located in front of each wheel, we slowly but surely drove over the mud and up onto the top of the hill where I stopped and walked back to pick up a muddy set of Maxtrax, and a very muddy wife!
This is our Uganda Recovery team.
We had to use the Maxtrax two more times (on our own this time), on this track, it was slow going, especially on the steep descents but Jac has definitely got the hang of placing the boards under the tyres now! When we arrived at Ruhija Gate, which is near the highest point of the mountain, Jac jumped out of the cab to sort out the paperwork for exiting the National Park, and as she approached the rangers they all stood there and looked at her muddy feet! They then apologised for the fact that we had got stuck on Ugandan roads. Trying to control the descent of a 9 tonne Daf on these very slippery mountain routes was very demanding, and it was a journey that we will never forget. That 80km took us about 5 hours, and for the first 65km I think we only saw one other vehicle (a LandCruiser). In the dry season it would have been a breeze but in late September after heavy rains it was very different.
We are now in the border town of Kisoro, where we have spent the day carrying out the washing of our sweaty and muddy clothes, and our nice muddy Maxtrax. We have had an incredible last five days, and the memories of the Mountain Gorilla’s will definitely stay with us for ever.
Whilst in town today we were having a coffee outside a “cafe” when Jac spotted a couple that were Gorilla Tracking with us, they had another permit booked for the following day. They told us the experience on the second day was the complete opposite to the one we shared with them, this time they drove part of the way there, only walked for an hour to find them, the gorilla group were mostly inactive while they were with them (and mostly sleeping), and they were back at their lodge by lunchtime! How lucky were we?
Tomorrow we will cross yet another African land border, into Rwanda. I can honestly say we have had a fantastic time in Uganda, it really has so much to offer, its very diverse, and its people are super friendly and helpful, and you really can’t help but have an adventure here!!!!!!
Thanks for reading