Our Gorilla Trekking Adventure
For our true Gorilla Trekking adventure, we needed to get from Lake Mburo to Bwindi National Park. After another delicious breakfast at Leopard Rest Camp, we headed out at around 8.30am. As it’s quite a drive to Bwindi, we wanted to break it up by adding a stop at BirdNest Resort in Bunyonyi. It took us a little less than 4 hours, so we arrived just in time for lunch.
Birdnest Resort, Bunyonyi
Birdnest Resort is a luxurious hotel complex in an idyllic location. Looking out over the lake, it’s the perfect place to have a drink and relax for a moment. They also have a pool and you can go for a canoe trip on the lake.
Of course we wanted to go for a canoe trip with just the two of us, so we could go at our own pace and take as many pictures as we wanted. When asking the guys at the docks about it, it was like we were saying something funny. Apparently they didn’t think we were able to manage. Wouldn’t we take a driver with us? Apparently they didn’t know who they were dealing with. Confidently, we got into the canoe and maneuvered our way out, without much hassle. We only spent about 1/2 hour on the lake, as the sky was turning dark again, thunder was rolling and lightening struck a few times. You should have seen the look on their faces when we made it back in one piece with an almost perfect “stationing” of the canoe at the docks. Did we prove ‘m wrong!
If you go for lunch at Birdnest, the Birdnest double hamburger is certainly a must! The meat is so tender and has a distinct taste… never had anything like it, but was soooo good.
Oh, and there’s Wi-Fi that works pretty well – in Uganda we’ve learned that’s not a given, so worthwhile to mention.
Arriving at the Bwindi National Park
From BirdNest Resort it took us another 2 hours to get to the National Park entrance. The first big part of the road is very easy – all paved and without any potholes. Only the last part is dirt road. But the way up there has magnificent views, as you climb about 1.200 meters. You can also clearly see where the “gorilla territory” starts – there’s a clear cut line between the farm ground and the actual forest.
Once entered the park, we had to drive another 12km up to the Park’s HQ’s. It’s actually not clear that this is the HQ’s – if we hadn’t put the coordinates into our GPS, not sure we would have spotted it (it’s a lot clearer coming from opposite direction). A friendly guy welcomed us and confirmed practical arrangements for the trekking the next day.
From the Park’s HQ’s, the last 4km brought us to Gift of Nature Lodge, where we would stay for 2 nights.
Between the park’s entrance and our lodge, we’ve seen 3 of the 4 monkey species that are habituated there: L’Hoist’s monkey, Black and white colobus monkey and Blue monkey. We read that the Black and white colobus monkey is commonly seen on the main road – and indeed, we saw plenty of them! The Blue monkey is the hardest one to catch on camera – they move all over the place, jumping from tree branch to tree branch.
Surprised that we saw that much monkey business already during the short time we were in the park, we couldn’t wait for the real deal the next day – Gorillas, here we come!
5:45am – Rise & shine! Although we hadn’t had the best night, we were excited to start the day and finally meet the gorillas.
Judging from the sounds at night, it looked like it had been pouring rain non-stop. I was anxious about the conditions of the trail and whether the rain would pick up again. Luckily it didn’t.
We got into our gear (rainproof jacket, rainproof pants, walking shoes and our backpack filled with our cameras, bottles of water (they advise 2 liters), lunch and snacks (you never know). After a decent breakfast, we headed up to the meeting point, where we arrived at 7am sharp, as they told us to.
Of course, we were early – we saw the staff heading up to the center on our way over there. All other hikers only arrived about 25 minutes later. Oh well – we didn’t have a queue for registering.
After registration, they guided us to the back of the building where benches were set out in front of what looked like a podium. Shortly after, about 20 tribe members were heading our way – singing, dancing and clapping their hands. They were chanting a welcome song. Most of them were of age, clearly – but that didn’t stop them to show their moves! With smiles all over their faces and moving so easily to the rhythm, it was very catchy and immediately brought a positive vibe. They each took their turns in performing in front of the group, still chanting and dancing the same moves. After about 4 songs, they ended their performance with a goodbye song, thanking everyone for their contribution (and the additional tip) as they formed a line going back.
Right after, one of the head rangers did the briefing, providing some general information about the national park, the gorillas and the practicalities about the trekking. Then it was time for everyone to go to their groups. They make distinction between short, medium and long trekking. We wanted to do the long one and ended up with Augustin, the head ranger who would be leading our group. Another American family of four joined us – super friendly folks from New York.
We made sure our pants were stuck in our socks, we got a walking stick and an extra bottle of water. As the other family all had gloves and as Augustin seemed to advise on this as well, we felt like it wouldn’t be wise to not rent any gloves, so we did. Would turn out not to be necessary at all, but anyway – another contribution to a good cause (10 USD each), we thought.
Apparently you can take a porter with you – one of the locals to help you carry your bags and help you up and down the hills. It’s only 15 USD, but we always like to try out these things on our own. Plus, I also don’t feel comfortable having someone to carry my stuff for me. So we didn’t take any.
After having met everyone, including the porters for the other family, we were ready to go.
The condition of the trail up to the gorillas was a whole lot better than we had anticipated. Sure, you’re going up and down (400m total elevation gain) and some parts are steep and slippery, but that’s what you expect in a rainforest. I’d thought it would have been a lot more climbing. Ok, I slipped one time, going down, landing with my entire back side on the muddy narrow track, but aside from that it was pretty easy. My husband had the backpack – of course – but also confirmed to have had expected a lot more strenuous hike.
It also took us a lot less time than we thought. About 80 minutes to the gorillas. So, given the hour we spent with the gorillas and then the same 80 minutes back, the whole trip was a little more than 3,5 hours long. A tiny bit disappointed actually that it didn’t take us longer. But the reward at the end of the trail was overwhelming…
Our Gorilla Encounter
Suddenly, we saw “the trackers”, i.e. the rangers who’re actually doing the gorilla tracking. They start from the point they’ve last seen the gorilla group the day before and search for their tracks to locate them for the new visitors coming in the next day. This group of trackers had located our gorilla group, being the Mukiza (named after the silverback of the group). It has 12 members, most of them our infants or juveniles – so young, playful and 200% cuteness!
Now was the time – they were really close. Everyone had to take their last sips of water or anything they wanted to eat and leave the backpacks and the walking sticks behind. All cameras in hand and off we went.
Two of the four trackers led the way. My husband in front, then the family of four and then myself. Our guide behind us. I could feel the excitement growing and the tension building up, as we were getting closer and closer. As always, I was in charge of the video camera and my husband had the photo camera and GoPro. I switched the video camera on, making sure that I got the first glimpse of gorilla as soon as I could.
The first one I saw was a little one, in one of the trees upfront. And just a meter or so further another one (turned out to be his sister). They started playing around. At the bottom of that tree the mother was sitting and eating. Only after a bit, I saw another bigger and smaller one just in front of me, at the bottom of another tree, in the bushes, eating away. It was quite overwhelming. All this black fur, so close to us. Sometimes our eyes crossed – chilling.
Later on I heard that another bigger gorilla was laying asleep right next to my husband. He could literally touch it. Of course he didn’t – obviously you’re not allowed to touch them as they’re wildlife and very fragile for human-borne diseases.
A little later one of the trackers pointed behind me. I had heard leaves ruffling, but hadn’t seen anything yet. Now there was another mother with a baby eating. The mother got further into the thicker bush, the baby – at ease – staying behind (in sight) and picking the leaves he preferred, one by one. After a while he went further into the bush – following his mother – but then popped out again at the top of the bush, playing on the branches.
It was really difficult to keep focus and knowing where to look at. Certainly the younger ones are all over the place. And each time you discover something new about them. Like one of the little ones has a white spot on his arm. And the fingertips of the younger ones are pink.
That’s how I almost managed to miss one of the baby gorillas to pass me – literally 10 cm away from my feet. He had made his way from the branches on which he was playing to the other side, eating his preferred leaves.
A lot of pictures and video shots later, the guide asked if we wanted to see the silverback (i.e. the leader of the group). Didn’t have to ask that twice! I was already wondering where he was and was hoping to catch a sight of him too. So we went up a little and there he was – laying on his side in the bushes in all his glory. His head facing us, but only looking at us for a split second – no, we ‘re not that interesting. One of the females laying next to him – also 100% relaxed. After a while he turned, showing his silver back and fell even deeper asleep.
After an hour (which definitely didn’t feel like it), it was time to head back. Bye, big black furry creatures! We thanked the trackers (tip is highly appreciated) and headed back, to arrive back at the HQ’s right in time for lunch. To close the deal, we had a little ceremony in which we got our certificates for having finished the tracking and that was the end of a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
If you have time to spare…
If you would do the trekking and would find yourselves back to the HQ’s sooner, what we recommend to do is walk the main road (between the HQ’s and the lodge – there’s a lot of lodges just before the Gift of Nature lodge, so chances our high that you’re in either one of those or the Gift of Nature lodge that we were in). That’s about 4 km one way, so easy to do up and back. If you start at around 3.30 – 4pm, you get to see a lot of monkeys. We saw the blue monkey again (but this time much clearer) and the L’Hoist’s monkey – there were 4 of them just walking across the road as we headed up. Ideal to get pictures!