Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Mandy journeyed to East Africa, visiting Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in September 2019
In September my husband and I took a journey to Africa, East Africa to be precise. Our first stop was Uganda and a trek to visit the endangered Mountain Gorillas.
We arrived in Entebbe, Uganda, stopping overnight at The Protea Hotel, located on the shore of Lake Victoria. With a surface area of approximately 59,947 square kilometres Lake Victoria is the world's second largest freshwater lake by surface area after Lake Superior in North America. (we couldn’t see the other side) 45 percent of the lake is in Uganda, with the rest shared between Kenya and Tanzania. They tell me that the Hippos and Crocodiles don’t venture to this part of the lake… still not going for a swim!
From the moment we arrived at Entebbe airport I felt like we were still in the seventies. Reminders of the Air France hijacking of 1976 was on my mind as the airport we arrived in still looks like the airport of from then. If you are like me and watched the movie, Entebbe released last year about the hijacking and the 90-minute war you will understand how I felt. These terrible times of Idi Amin. You will be pleased to know that a new terminal is in the process of being built, when you see the infamous terminal that still stands.
We flew from Entebbe to Kisoro airstrip near the southern border of Uganda. We were met by our ranger, Jo who loaded our 15kg each of gear into the back of the Land Rover drove for 2 hours on mostly dirt roads and up into the Mountains.
Arriving at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge was extremely welcoming and a incredible surprise after driving through village after village of extreme poverty. With this country having had more than its share of external and internal conflict, which still goes on, it’s terrible history of genocide, it’s sad rate of deaths by HIV and outbreaks of Ebola, leaving thousands of orphans, it was a pleasure to stay at this lovely Lodge that has 95% of its staff coming from local villages. Not only that, the 14 local villages have a committee that was formed as part of a partnership in the Lodge that is built on their land. The committee receives a percentage of the Lodges return every year and it is then used for projects that benefit all the villages.
“Set on a forested ridge near the entrance to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge boasts eight spacious cottages built from volcanic stone. Spectacular views stretch all the way to the Virunga Volcanoes of Rwanda, as well as across the border into the Congo, where the glow of Nyiragongo Volcano can be seen on a clear night. Warm and welcoming, each cottage features a bedroom, ensuite bathroom with walk-in shower and separate lounge. Comfortable chairs on the outdoor verandas provide the perfect vantage point to admire the unforgettable vistas of the forest below. Blazing fireplaces create a cozy glow as evening falls. Meals are prepared using the freshest local ingredients and served in front of a roaring fire in the dining area or in the privacy of your stone cottage.“
After settling into our cottage, which was a walk up into the forest close by and looked out over the misty mountains of Rwanda, we enjoyed a walk into the little village close by. We were escorted back in to the forest to meet some of the local Batwa people.
The Batwa are Pygmies and once lived in small family groups in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest until they were moved by the government in 1991 to protect the Mountain Gorillas. Not only did internal conflict cause many Mountain Gorilla deaths, but the Batwa people are hunters and gathers and the mountain forest was their home. Unfortunately, they were in the way of conserving the Mountain Gorillas and the major source of income for the country, Gorilla Trekking. We were given an entertaining display of their culture. These fun and loving indigenous people are also endangered. The have been moved to a settlement on the edge of the forest, trying to live a completely different life of farming.
The next morning was our Trek day. After arriving at the Rangers base entrance to the forest we were put into 8 different groups of 8 people only, as this is the number of habituated Gorilla families and also the legal number of visitors. We were well catered for as I am not the fittest of people, so I let it be well known that I required the easy trek. Luckily some trackers had been out overnight keeping any eye on a family who were very close by. We chose a porter each to help us on the journey and yes even the fittest required help, as you do a tremendous amount of climbing and some of it was very steep.
We trekked for possibly 2 hours and met up with the trackers. Our Ranger got us all together and asked us to keep very quiet, put our gloves on to protect our hands and to follow him closely. He used a machete to cut through thick undergrowth and we slowly walked behind him slipping and sliding. My first contact with the Mountain Gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was wonderful, we looked up in a small tree in front of us and there was a young male. I smiled and laughed from that moment on. He entertained us for some time until we followed him through the forest to his family. Meeting the rest of the family was a surprise and a special moment. The Silverback was mating one of his females, while the others lay around and the babies climbed over him. The family were the Nshongi, a family of 11. We were lucky enough to meet 8 of them.
The Silverback was impressive. He spent the hour we had with the family surrounded by his females and babies, being pampered, eating and resting. A very content Silverback. He was happy for us to be very close to him, screeching when the trackers got too close and thumping his chest when he wanted his females to clean him. Surprisingly when he hit his chest it sounded like loud coconuts banging together. A truly incredible experience.
The encounter with the Gorillas is only 1 hour and the Ranger was very strict with his timing. The hour we spent with this family was incredible. Mountain Gorillas don’t survive in Zoos. The Gorillas we see in the zoo are lowland. With only 1000 Mountain Gorillas left in the world the Ugandans are doing an amazing conservation job protecting them.
We only did one trek and me, the most unfit found that enough, but my husband felt he would have liked to do another day. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen as the days are booked well in advance and weren’t any no shows. You must put this experience on your top ‘to do’ list.
Departing from Uganda we then journeys to Kenya. Story coming soon.....