It’s a long, rewarding journey from Kampala to Kisoro district, home to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and more than half the world’s population of Mountain Gorillas. Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi had been on my Bucket List for a while and so when the opportunity to finally do it presented itself, I seized it with both hands.
I travelled with my friend Carina, who was visiting from Germany at the time. We took an early morning, 5:30am bus from Kisenyi Bus Terminal, downtown Kampala to Kabale district. The bus cost us UGX 30,000 (approximately USD 8) each. Setting off early, the weather was cool and we slept most of the way. We arrived in Kabale district at 2:30pm and then took a cab that drove us right up to Gorilla CloseUp Lodge in Kisoro, finally arriving, completely exhausted, at 4:30pm (11 hours later).
Despite our fatigue, the rolling landscapes as we drove from Kabale to Kisoro kept us awake. Winding narrow roads completely surrounded by views of lush hills, tea plantations and grazing cows kept getting better and better as we ascended. Because of the rains, the road was murky at some point and we had to get out of the cab as the driver navigated the terrain. It was at this point that I remembered to pull out my camera and capture the moment, a glimpse of the beauty that is etched in my memory.
Gorilla Tracking Day
We were up early and excited as we had been warned that the Gorilla Tracking experience is quite unpredictable and different for everyone. I was interested to know how long the hike would take but this is very difficult to predict as it all depends on where the Gorilla Family one is tracking happens to be that morning. Gorillas live in families (just like most humans) and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park currently has 15 inhabited families living in the park. The section of the park that we visited (Rushaga) holds 6 inhabited families/ Gorilla groups.
At the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) registration point, we were divided into tracking groups and each assigned a tracking guide and a specific family to track. Saidi was our designated guide and he was very knowledgeable and informative throughout the trip. Aside from Saidi, we were escorted by official trackers (who went ahead of us and helped us locate the Gorilla family). These professionals are able to track the Gorillas by following their dung, leftover food, footprints and bent grass. We also had security escorts with us that carried riffles, because the park also inhabits elephants and solitary male Gorillas that may become aggressive. In case of danger, the security escorts are able to fire warning shots in the air to scare away any threat. Since we didn’t know how long the hike would take, most of us supported the local community and hired porters that helped carry our backpacks filled with water, snacks and packed lunch.
We visited the Mucunguzi Gorilla family.
It was a one hour steep climb to the entrance of the forest. We had a chance to take in the Kisoro landscapes once again, this time on foot. We got to a point that’s referred to as heaven’s tower. It’s the highest point before entering the park, approximately 2500m above sea level! At heaven’s tower, we were briefed once more before we made our way into the park.
Navigating the park was exhilarating. One hour into the park, we were informed that the Gorillas were close by. This meant that we got off the narrow trail as the professional trackers ahead of us used panga knives to clear the thicket. We followed closely. Almost out of nowhere, we spotted the Silverback (the dominant male Gorilla). I couldn’t believe how grand he looked in person and I imagined his fur felt like pressed silk. What was so amazing though was how completely unbothered he was by us, almost as if he was expecting us. He sat peacefully as we clicked away with our cameras, pulling at nearby shrubs. And then, as if to say enough with the pictures, he turned his back to us and thudded his knuckles a few meters away. That’s when we spotted the female Gorilla with her little ones. The Mucunguzi Gorilla family was complete.
Tracking Gorillas involves following them closely as they go about their business. We are permitted one hour with them, keeping a 7 meter distance so as not to overwhelm them. We were so close! Carina mentioned that it felt like if she stretched out her hand and the Silverback stretched out his, fingers would touch. As we quietly followed the Silverback, we were astonished to witness a mating session with the Silverback and the female Gorilla. Our guide was excited as he assured us that very few people get to witness this. He also joked that if we returned in eight and a half months (the Gorilla gestation period), we would find a brand new baby Gorilla. What an experience!
PS: I took videos of the mating session which can be found on my Instagram story highlights on my Instagram profile here.
Important things to know before Gorilla Tracking
- Mountain Gorillas are only found in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo and Uganda has more than half the population. Uganda also offers the most affordable Gorilla Tracking permits.
- Pay for your tracking permit ahead of time from the UWA offices in Kampala. Permits cost UGX 250,000 for Ugandans and USD 600 for foreign nonresidents.
- Make sure you are fit and in good health (people suffering from colds, flu and some other ailments are not allowed near the Gorillas).
- Wear comfortable clothing, preferably something long sleeved to prevent scratches from the thicket as well as long socks and hiking shoes/ gumboots. Carry a raincoat.
- The Gorillas are inhabited and are used to humans. There is no need to be scared. It is a very very calm experience and they behave a lot like us.
When our one hour with the Gorillas was up, we returned to the park entrance and picnicked for lunch on open ground, overlooking the park and Kisoro views. We each received certificates from our guide and had a mini celebration/certificate giving ceremony as we reminisced the experience we had just shared.
Where we stayed
We stayed at Gorilla CloseUp Lodge, which is a mid-range and luxury lodge located on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The lodge has amazing views. The next morning, as we enjoyed our breakfast, it was surreal to overlook the very forest we had explored and shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the day before.
Read more about Gorilla CloseUp lodge and their rates here.
Have you been Gorilla Tracking before? Where from? Would you try it? Let me know in the comments below. Xx