Uganda's Best Kept Secret

It is still morning when we quietly make our way through the dense jungle. My eyes are on the ground, trying to take the exact same steps as the ranger in front of me. We are surrounded with the sounds of tropical birds and chirping crickets, and the fresh scent of rainforest. When a deep prolonged rumble blows through our ears – the rest of the jungle suddenly seems whisper-quiet. We are close. Close to a face-to-face meeting with another primate, but twice or thrice as heavy as most of us. The sound boosts our energy level and our excitement while we hike another 50 meters before the ranger turns his head around to stop us. There he is: a gentle giant, peacefully eating his bamboo breakfast while trying to find my gaze.

But first: 7 facts about Uganda gorilla safaris in Bwindi National Park

Let’s wind back a bit. Before starting off the hike we listened to a briefing about what to do and what not to do when you are in the natural habitat of gorillas. So, who are we meeting exactly? 

  • All together there are around 1060 mountain gorillas living in the wild, all in central and east Africa. Uganda, Democratic of Congo and Rwanda to be exact. 
  • The mountain gorilla is a subspecies of the eastern gorilla. The numbers of the mountain gorillas are increasing, but still endangered.
  • Mountain gorillas are the largest living primates on earth and are super closely related to us; humans. In fact, we share 98.3% of our DNA with gorillas and therefore you could just call them one of your closest cousins.
  • They are as social as we are and show similar emotions and behavior. Though, don’t try to communicate with them because the chance of starting a fight just by imitating their sound is one in 16; according to WWF, mountain gorillas have 16 types of calls. 
  • You also don’t want to fight them: an average male mountain gorilla can weigh 180kg and is only a little shorter than an average human male. The strongest male of every mountain gorilla family goes by the name ‘Silverback’, named after the grey patch of hair on his furry back.
  • But don’t worry, they also have their soft side – just like us. Mountain gorillas live in isolated groups and sleep cozily together in nests on the ground or in one of the countless trees around them. 
  • Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to more than half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. It is listed as an UNESCO heritage site because of the extensive natural landscape of rainforest and mountains. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of the most important forests in Africa and has over 200 types of trees; which is where we were lucky enough to set foot in.

I feel more comfortable with gorillas than people. I can anticipate what a gorilla's going to do, and they're purely motivated.

— Dian Fossey

The trip: from Kampala to Bwindi

There are various ways to get from Kampala to Bwindi National Park. We chose to go by car, so we could play our own tunes through the speakers, sing along and stop by the magical Lake Bunyonyi on the way. 

If you’re balling on a budget you could choose to take a bus from Kampala to Kabale. These busses can be extremely dangerous so be warned that this option is for the more adventurous at heart!

A pit stop in Lake Bunyonyi

Located about 15 minutes from Kabale Town, Lake Bunyonyi is by far the loveliest lake in Uganda. Believed to be the second deepest lake in Africa, Bunyonyi is croc and hippo free, making it a great place to swim. This is by far the perfect pitstop to replenish your batteries on the way to gorilla safaris in Bwindi Forest.

Book a room at Arcadia Lodges

Arcadia Lodge overlooks Lake Bunyonyi and the surrounding lush, green terraced hills. We arrived after an 8 hour drive, craving for fresh fish and an ice cold beer. The distance to our accommodation; Rushaga Gorilla Camp – located at the southern edge of Bwindi National Park – was still 55km. But hey, we got time: the only activity for the day was to mentally prepare ourselves for the trek that awaited us.

After winding off it was time to head to the final destination of the day: Rushaga Gorilla Camp. This camp offers a wide range of accommodation, from luxury tents to family cottages, & even camping grounds. Located only 15 minutes from the start of your trek, this is the perfect place to rest your head before an unforgettable adventure!

Book a room at Rushaga Gorilla Camp

"They [gorillas] are brave and loyal. They help each other. They rival elephants as parents and whales for gentleness. They play and have humor and they harm nothing. They are what we should be. I don't know if we'll ever get there."

— Pat Derby

Searching for the majestic giants

After a good night’s sleep, a briefing and breakfast overlooking Bwindi, we’re commencing our hike, around 3 to 4 hours after a different group of rangers started to track the gorillas at 5 AM. Hiking boots, a wooden stick to maintain our balance in the mud, a rain jacket in our backpacks, packed lunch – and off we go. The forest rapidly changed into a dense jungle where the ranger needed a panga to chop the overgrown trees and vines. Bwindi National Park is not only home to the gorillas, but also to 120 species of mammals including elephants, 214 species of birds and a whole bunch of butterfly species. The group of rangers that had tracked down the gorilla families, continuously communicated with our guide about the whereabouts of the primates. When we finally got the hang of the steep, muddy climbs, the anxiously anticipated moment arrived: we had found them. 

While scratching his butt he stares me straight in the eye, at just a few meters distance. The prime of the group: the strongest Silverback, dominating all the other males. As the ranger tells us to be very quiet, I’m holding my breath under the penetrating gaze of the majestic giant. The ranger tries to clear the path for a better view. The silverback shifts his attention back to his bamboo breakfast and chews it carelessly. The other members of the group are also focussed on their meal- except the youngest gorilla who playfully runs around. It feels human. Very human. Their hands, the way they look you in the eye, and the way they behave. They scream when they are frightened, giggle at funny things and hit their chests to intimidate an enemy. Though this last behavioural trait is a habit most of us humans have kicked by now, we understand each other by non-verbal communication. For an hour (feeling more like 10 minutes) we marvel at them moving around, eating, scratching and eating and scratching again. And again.

CSR: how gorilla safaris make a difference

The main threat to mountain gorillas is poaching and the degradation of their habitat. Therefore; in Uganda gorilla safaris do make a difference: it is part of their maintenance. It supports anti-poaching programs as well as conservation education which targets resident populations around the park. Gorillas move around, they eat maize, bananas and other crops that cause conflict with people who need to make a living. It works the other way around as well: people may enter the forest for water or firewood. This may put gorillas at a risk to contract human diseases. If the park isn’t well managed, it can impact the behaviour and health of the mountain gorillas. 

Besides that; in Uganda gorilla safaris are the only main asset which the country has compared to neighbouring countries. Kenya and Tanzania for example have popular safari parks with the big five hopping around or the white sandy beaches adjoining clear blue water. Mountain gorillas are part of the most important highlight that attracts tourists to Rwanda, Congo and Uganda.

Uganda gorilla safaris and the Covid-pandemic

The number of tourists allowed to track gorillas is limited by permits, to make sure that gorillas are not exposed to too many tourists at the same time. In 2004 the permit prices were 275USD per person, but in 2019 the price increased to 600USD because of the high interests of tourists. Around 75% of the price flows directly into conservation initiatives. If you are able to travel during the Covid-pandemic, it will save you 300USD. But keep in mind that  the Uganda Wildlife Authority has put strict measures in place for anyone who wishes to visit our hairy cousins while Corona roams around.

  • They offer a temporary discount of 300USD, resulting in a new price of 400USD for non-residents. Make sure you double check this before booking, prices change rapidly.
  • All visitors need to wear a facemask from the moment they enter the park. This means you’ll probably pant in your facemask continuously while hiking the hills. 
  • You need a good pair of ears to hear the ranger talk during the trek. Rangers also wear a facemask at all times – and they are super strict, so listen closely! 
  • Before the pandemic the closest you were allowed to get to the gorillas was seven meters.. Now, during the COVID era, the new mandatory distance contains 10 meters.
  • You will undergo a screening test. If you have symptoms like fever, dry cough, difficulty breathing, you are not allowed to trek. 
  • To enter Uganda you need to show a certificate of a negative PCR test taken not more than 120 hours before arrival (call the airport for the newest updates).

Being in the intimate presence of members of the troupe, from a curious baby to the proud alpha male, can turn your world upside down. The thrilling experience of being amidst primates will leave you questioning these ‘human emotions’ we like to think distinguish us from the animal kingdom. One could argue that mountain gorillas are but a mirror, to gaze into your own perspective of humanity. As Dian Fossey once said, “The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people.”

“You either get the point of Africa or you don't. What draws me back year after year is that it's like seeing the world with the lid off.”

— A.A. Gill

A magic experience

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a truly magical place that is not only one of the most important forests in Africa, but also home to some of the last mountain gorillas on earth. With their population rapidly declining, don’t snooze on the chance of an unforgettable face to face meeting with a mountain gorilla family in their natural habitat.