The beautiful hills of Uganda are home to the famous mountain gorillas. There are around 850 wild mountain gorillas left in the world, habituating forestry between the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Awareness and conservation for these incredible animals was made famous in the 70’s and 80’s through much of Dian Fossey’s work, the pinnacle perhaps being her book ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, an account of her thirteen years living in the rain forest with them.
Recently the cost of gorilla permits have gone up in all locations and Uganda is now cheaper than Rwanda to do the famous gorilla trek. DRC remains the cheapest but after the recent murder of both rangers and tourists in the area (2018), is not recommended.
There are two areas within Uganda to see the gorillas, the famous Bwindi national park and the lesser known but equally as beautiful Mgahinga national park, in South Western Uganda. This is where we did our gorilla tracking.
Mgahinga national park is the smallest in Uganda, covering the northern slopes of three volcanoes and bordering two national parks in Rwanda and the DRC. The setting is spectacular. At the base of the volcano is the town of Kisoro, the closest border town to the DRC.
It’s impossible to go to the border town and not see hundreds of refugees who are making their way into Uganda, a country with an open-doors policy to refugees. Mainly children, they wait near the border until they are transported to UN run camps. The poverty of some of these children is extreme and their health poor. The little boy trying to rub his face against me definitely had either oral herpes or a severe bacterial infection but I loved how happy they were to meet a friendly stranger.
To track the gorillas you need to set off early and we stayed right at the base of the national park. The guesthouse had only just opened and it was beautiful. Half way up the volcano, the views across the country were stunning.
The next morning we set off early to walk the remaining distance from the guesthouse to the rangers huts where we met the others in our group. The biggest advantage of choosing Mgahinga over Bwindi is the groups sizes are generally smaller. Although they only give a limited number of permits a day you can still have a group size of up to 8. At Mgahinga we were lucky enough to have just 4 in our group; another volunteer from my lodge, an Australian couple and myself.
It was a fairly steep climb from when we set off. The trackers leave at first light to where they left the gorillas the night before and begin their tracking. By the time you set off with the rangers, generally the trackers have either located the gorillas or aren’t far away. It can take any length of time but most commonly between 1-4 hours.
We were lucky that we only had just over two hours of trekking until we found them. Although this is actually more than many, the walk is stunning and having spent the majority of the previous day travelling in the car, welcomed the exercise. For anyone thinking this sounds a struggle, the first sightings of the gorillas is worth the effort.
Nothing can really prepare you for the first encounter. It is absolutely fantastic. The sheer size and elegance of these animals renders you practically speechless.
It shows how well habituated they are they walk right past you without even acknowledging your presence. In order for tourists to be able to visit the gorilla families, they first need at least three years of habituation by the trackers. This means that everyday for 3 years they are monitored, observed and slowly exposed to humans. Allowing tourists to visit ensures that the revenue comes in to protect the forests and the gorillas from poaching and deforestation. As mentioned earlier there are only 850 mountain gorillas left in the world and tourism is vital to maintain their species. To cause the least disruption to their normal behaviour the group sizes and time spent with the animals is always limited, as well as prohibiting any consumption of food and drink.
The infants are undoubtedly the sweetest and spend their time scampering around in the trees with unlimited energy. It is incredible. It is also incredible just how the trackers can find them. Often the gorillas come out to a clearing during the day but even so the forests are so densely covered it seems near-impossible to find them. For our sighting they weren’t in a clearing but instead dispersed around the trees, in the picture below. The fact that the rangers achieve finding the gorillas daily, in these conditions, is truly commendable.
For anyone wanting a truly unique, once in a lifetime experience, this has to be it. Tourism is still slow in Uganda and it is the most incredible country, rich in beauty and kindness, with so much on offer. Tourism is important not just to protect these incredible animals but also those all over the country, including the incredible [Queen Elizabeth Park] and the captivating [chimpanzees]. If anyone is still looking for a reason to visit, the fascinating life of Dian Fossey (my namesake) would inspire even the least adventurous and last but not least, the Disney film Tarzan arguably has one of the most underrated soundtracks!