A once in a lifetime experience and the absolute highlight of Uganda’s tourist attractions is Gorilla Tracking. In this post, I will document the process for how to track Gorillas in Uganda and my death-defying experience.
How to Track Gorillas in Uganda
- Choose your location
- Buy Permits
- Book Transport and Accommodation
Note, that by far the majority of foreign tourists book everything on an organised tour. If pushed for time and money is no option, this is probably the best choice. It is not mandatory, however, and in this post, I will detail how to avoid expensive tours where everthing is done for you.
Where to find Gorillas in Uganda
Mountain Gorillas are incredibly rare and only to be found in one corner of the world on the border of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorillas can be tracked in each of these three countries, but the cost of the permit varies considerably, from $1500 USD in Rwanda to $700 USD and $400 USD in Uganda and DRC at the time of writing.
In Uganda, gorillas can be found in the Bwindi impenetrable forest, a primeval park in the south west of Uganda. Note, it is not called the impenetrable forest for nothing and a minimum level of fitness is required to navigate steep and treacherous terrain.
Note, there is a second location in location in Uganda called Mgahinga, south of the BIF near the border with Rwanda. This location has only one family, however. The gorillas are in a normal woodland forest, which some people find inauthentic. Usually guides opt only for Mgahinga when other better locations are booked out.
So, that leaves a number of locations within Bwindi itself; each location with up to eight families. There is a maxiumum of eight people allowed per family per day. It pays to research quite carefully which location is best for you based onthe following three critieria:
- Level of difficulty. Some locations have many families, some of which are not far from the entrance gate, but the hiking is very steep and these locations should be avoided by those suffering from a medical condition or the elderly and infirm.
- Distance from your accommodation. This is quite critical, because you want to avoid having to get up at some ungodly hour in the middle of the night to drive for hours across potentially difficult terrain (note to self – next time avoid the rainy season!). Or in my case, risk missing out altogether for foolishly selecting a lodge nowhere near the park entrance! I found out only later from other guests staying at my lodge near the lake, that the recommended way is to stay in a lodge as close as possible to the gate the night before, thus removing any stress of having to get up early or risk missing the briefing. They then used the day after the tracking to chill by the lake! Duh! Note also that unlike at the Chimpanzees, there is only one briefing per day, at 8am. Because of the longer distances to get from the gate to the park and back, you do not have the luxury of choosing morning or afternoon tracking. So, you don’t want to miss that briefing at 8am.
- Number of families. Also important, as the more families, the higher the probability of seeing gorillas. Plus, you have more options and aren’t (necessarily) forced into traversing hours of steep jungle terrain in search of the only family.
How to get permits
For the privelege of seeing mountain gorillas close up in their natural habitat, you must purchase a permit in advance. At the time of writing, the permit is $700 USD and must be purchased from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority office in Kampala or online from their website.
Note that once purchased, dates cannot be changed without incurring some kind of penalty and permits are 100% non-refundable if cancelled within one month of date of travel. Luckily, however, it is possible to change the location if you make a mistake or change your mind (depending on availability of course). I indeed had to do this, as my lovely driver Salim recommended a location nowhere near the lodge I had booked. I had booked a lodge on the banks of Lake Mutanda, on the recommendation of my friend Sven (whose family had recently been out from Germany and for whom Sven had handily put together an itinerary).
The lodge kindly offered to refund my money had I wanted to rebook at another lodge near my location. Instead, I opted to change the location by going in person into the UWA office in Kampala. There is no charge for changing the location. It was simply inconvenient and a little bit stressful to be changing things around at the last minute. Luckily, only a few days before we were due to head to the mountains, I had bumped into a travel guide in Kampala. She alerted me to my error, allowing me to make the change in time!
Where to stay and how to get there
In a lodge and with a 4×4.
As in other tourist destinations in Uganda and in Africa in general, there is very limited budget accommodation. Most tourists are wealthly Europeans, many of them families, who want to travel in comfort and safety. I stayed in the Mutanda Lake Resort on the banks of Lake Mutanda, a stunning lake set against the backdrop of three volcanoes. The resort is located on a peninsula from which you get a 180 degree view of the lake. The standard of accommodation was very high and good value for money with full board. As mentioned in my post on Chimpanzee tracking, one aspect of tourism in Uganda which I didn’t really dig was the separation of guests and drivers in the lodges. Some kind of tradition apparently, but it does give one the rather uncomfortable feeling of separation between colonial overload and servant. At the Mutanda Lake Resort, the drivers aren’t allowed to dine with guests, but did at least have a side area near the bar where they could chill together and play backgammon. To be fair, the drivers do use the opportunity to get vital information from other drivers who were just arrived back from a trekking expedition and to get some peace from their pesky clients and their non-stop questioning.
It is, of course, possible to do a self-drive. There are many rental companies in Kampala offering 4×4 vehicles. My friend Sven kindly offered me his Toyota Prado and the services of his driver Salim. The roads to Kisoro district, where the park is located are actually quite good. The roads to get to the park gates, however, are quite steep and can get easily washed out or very muddy in the rainy season. For that reason alone, I would recommend hiring a driver unless you are already familiar with the local conditions and experienced with 4WD.
My hair-raising Gorilla tracking experience
I had some bad fortune prior to embarking on my stay in Uganda – I did my back in. I had to engage a masseuse in a local physiotherapist to pummel me back into at least manageable physical condition before setting off on my adventure. I therefore postponed my trip to the Chimpanzees and Gorillas to the very last minute. It would have been a shame to have travelled all that way and gone to all that expense only to have been forced out with injury!
That very same tour guide I happened to run into also revealed to me an insider tip for how to see the gorillas and not come out permanently damaged. I was to get to the gate really early and speak to the head ranger. I was to request that I be allocated to the group of invalids, geriatrics and other immobile people. This group would be taken to the nearest family, a mere 30 minute stroll into the jungle! Note, that although the families do move around a bit every day looking for tasty leaves to eat, they generally stay in roughly the same area and the guides are familiar with their territory.
Salim and I got up really freaking early to make to allow plenty of time to get to entrance in case of rain. Luckily, it had not rained overnight and we opted for the “shortcut”. I was a bit scared as the other guests at the lodge had put the shits up me the previous day telling me how hair raisingly steep the road to the entrance was. Salim managed to skilfully negotiate the road in the dark and we duly arrived way too early. I made straight for the head ranger and explained to him in great detail about my incapacitation.
So, what happens? Only 7 other tourists turned up that day, so of course we were all put in the same group. We set off with a ranger and a supporting cast, including some porters. I opted for the porter to have the luxury of someone to carry your day pack and I heard also to hold my hand in case I slipped. The porters work for tips and it is a valuable source of income for the local community. Thank God I did because this guy literally saved my life!
It all started off ok. It was a bit steep and the train was a bit thin at times, but I managed ok, my dodgy back holding up. It was dry and the sun was shining through the forest canopy as we reached a plateau and hiked for hour or so into the jungle. Some rangers had already gone ahead and found the family and there was great anticipation in the group as we got nearer and started whispering our delight! Then, suddenly there were gorillas! Real wild ones in the jungle! How amazing! Luckily, I was at the front of the group and got a lot of photos of the dominant male, the so-called Silverback (sonamed due to the distinct silver stripe on its back). So far so good.
Until, our ranger decided he would get really close to the Silverback. The problem is, you see. The tourists, they paid a lot of money and they want good photos. If they don’t get good photos, they will complain and get the ranger into trouble. Each group has a maximum of one hour with the family.
I should mention at this stage, that the family were just going about their daily business which seemed to consist of eating leaves, then eating some more leaves. They seemed completely unperturbed by our presence, which gave me the impression that they were quite used to tourists. That said, they are potentially dangerous wild animals and you should keep your distance and avoid disturbing them wherever possible. Despite knowing better, our guide in his infinite wisdom decided to get up really close to the Silverback to draw back branches with his machete – the branches that were obsurcing the Silverback’s face and preventing us from getting decent shots – I mean, how inconsiderate!
You can guess what happens next. Of course, he gets to close, spooks them and they take off down this sharp ravine. This was freaking scary. When the Silverback took off down this gully, it literally flattened everything in its wake. A complete panic breaks out in our group as our guide takes off down after the family and everyone forces to follow. My back is now really starting to pack up and I am already looking up in the air for the rescue helicopter. Alas it’s in vain and I have to dig deep and tough it out.
We catch up with the family who are now calmly enjoying some more tasty leaves. Again obsured by bushes. This time, the ranger encourages me to get as close as possible to the Silverback, now hiding in a bush. I was literally one meter away from this magnificent creature. It was surreal. Then suddenly it races off down the ravine again and again we follow in hot pursuit.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse it starts to suddenly piss down. Like really pissing it down. It’s a freaking rain forest. This time, the family is taking shelter from the rain. They don’t like rain apparently. Again our moronic ranger attempts to get too close, but this time is met with an earth-shattering roar from the Silverback and he jumps back and this time keeps his distance.
Then suddenly the rain eased for a few minutes. This fortuitous break in the weather allowed us to get some good shots of the rest of the family. One cute and curious baby was lying on its back, looking at us upside down. This moment of magic had made all the previous effort worth it.
So an hour was up and it was time to head back. But how? Continuing on would have taken us in the wrong direction and deeper into the forest. Not to fear, our genius guide came up with the brilliant idea of taking a “shortcut” across the ravine, thus saving time and effort. There we were, inching across a cliff face. To a sheer drop covered in mud. I would go to grab hold of a plant to get my balance and my porter would say, “don’t touch that one!” All the porters had gloves. Did I forget to mention? Bring gloves. To say we were lucky no-one in the group slipped and injured themselves or worse was an understatement!
Finally after 6 and a half brutal hours we made it safely back to civilization. Our ranger then made a speech thanking us for being fit! I thought he must be taking the piss surely. Then he said: “Usually when we visit that family, we have to carry people out!!” Wtf?! I suddenly realized they had deliberately taken us to the farthest family! If they don’t make it at least a bit hard, then the tourists can’t tell a story about how they trekked deep into the mountains to find real wild gorillas. Not like the ones in the zoo.
Click on the thumbnails to enlarge the images: