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  • Writer's pictureMike Sutherland

Gorilla Trekking Safaris

A decade ago, long before the Covid-19 pandemic transformed the way we travel, Uganda had a thriving economy that revolved around mountain gorillas. It is said that local communities benefitted to the sum of over USD 700 000 from proceeds earned through gorilla trekking permits, which guests purchase to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat.

In 1981, as few as 250 mountain gorillas roamed the world, but through dedication to conservation, their numbers have soared to over 1000 individuals. This is one of Africas greatest success stories and is only possible through the continued desire for guests to visit these areas to view mountain gorillas.

Along a range of dormant volcanoes that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the dense, impenetrable forests of Bwindi lies one of Africa’s greatest gifts to the world, the mountain gorilla. The world's population of mountain gorillas is split into two population, due to human settlement and the degradation of indigenous forests in the Virunga Massif.

In Uganda, mountain gorillas are present in 2 distinct areas in the southwestern region of the country, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. The aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to over half of the world's population of mountain gorillas and is one of the most popular trekking destinations.

The Escape Safari Co. team recently went on an adventure to Uganda and our journey began in a far-away land. We travelled halfway up the length of Africa on a long haul flight, floating over the great Lake Victoria as we descended into the city of Entebbe.

Most Gorilla trekking adventures begin in the slightly quieter city of Entebbe, before making your way southwest to the forests of Bwindi. This journey can be done via an 8-hour transfer from Entebbe to Bwindi or a short, 1-hour flight from Entebbe to Kihihi followed by a 2-hour transfer to the forest.

Along the way, you are exposed to the rolling hills of this lush, rich country. Through tea, banana and coffee plantations and many small villages where locals make way for the vehicle and wave with huge welcoming smiles on their faces. With every moment that passes you are one step closer to your first gorilla trek.

After your flight and transfer, arriving at the lodge fills most with a sense of satisfaction and awe. Our favourite lodge, Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp is nestled in the lush forest of Bwindi, one of only 2 lodges within its boundaries. Guests settle in, enjoy a cold refreshment and can always opt for an afternoon birding hike into the forest or visit the stunning Munyaga River falls.

The following day, the dawn light trickles through the forest as guests ready themselves for their first trek into these impenetrable hills. A comfy pair of walking shoes is imperative and guests often opt to bring along ankle protectors (gaitors) to make the experience a little more comfortable when in the forest. Lunch packs are provided for by the lodges and you are set to go.

Guests meet at the park headquarters at 8 am for a gorilla briefing before meeting your guide and being introduced, through stories, to the gorilla family you will be trekking. The region is home to multiple gorilla families, of which 19 are open for tourists. Some families are wild and unhabituated while others are in the process of being habituated to human presence. A process that takes more than 2 years.

Your gorilla trek could take anything from 1 hour to 5 or 6 hours until you find the family. These are wild creatures that move to their own beat and this means that each trek is different, which is a huge part of the appeal. Trekking can be strenuous, Bwindi is set at high altitudes and the terrain is undulating.

However, guides take it slow to ensure each guest is comfortable and we always encourage guests to take along a porter, who will not only carry your gear but assist you along the route. (The porter system supplies additional employment to the surrounding communities, who also act as advocates for the protection of the forests and those who dwell within them.)

As you move through the forest, birds call all around you. The humidity levels begin to rise and you will feel the sweat fall down your cheeks. But your efforts are not in vain and before you know it, your guide indicates that the gorillas are close by. The group gets together to cover the last few trekking guidelines, making note of the importance of wearing of masks, which is now compulsory in Uganda and maintaining a distance of 10m from the gorillas at all times. The porters remain behind with your gear and walking sticks and you take slow steps toward the family.

Before long, you are in the presence of these creatures you have travelled so far to see in person. It is difficult to explain the feeling of being face to face with a family of wild gorillas. They move within the forest with ease, they are one with it. Feeding, grooming and playing with the young ones. The resemblance to our own family structure is uncanny.

98 percent human. Gorillas share roughly 98.4% of their DNA with us and when you are with them, it is very evident that this is the case. The way they move, when they make eye contact with you, their hazel eyes stare as if they are trying to figure you out. There is a similarity of gestures and mannerisms that will have you intrigued and in awe. This is why you have come.

Thanks to the increased interest in the conservation of gorillas in the '80s and '90s and the further interest for guests to see the gorillas, there is a direct correlation between ecotourism and the saving of a species.

Their future and the success of their species lies in the hands of us alone. How we look after their habitat, how we protect their home ranges and how we support the growing human population surrounding these vital areas. Conservation is a multifaceted model whose success will always revolve around land, wildlife and people.

These mist-covered hillsides are sheltered by ancient, towering trees and within these forests, a journey awaits. A journey that will culminate in an encounter that will move and reconnect you to the natural world around you.

If there is ever a time for you to fill your bucket list, then it is now! Uganda, the gorillas and its people need the continued support of visitors and we are waiting to plan your next Escape.

Come Escape with us.

Important notes for visiting Uganda and the gorillas during the global pandemic:

Entering Uganda during the global pandemic requires guests to present a negative PCR test on arrival and, if you are vaccinated you are free to continue your journey, if not, a second PCR test is taken on arrival, and once the results are returned (2-4hours), you can continue your adventure. The Escape Safari Co. team has introduced measures to ensure that all logistics run smoothly for all onward travel plans into Uganda.

When gorilla trekking, guests are required to wear a surgical face mask when in the presence of any gorilla family and the distance between guests and gorillas has now been increased to 10m from the original 7m rule.

Every day, guides, staff, porters and guests undergo Covid-19 protocols including social distancing, mask-wearing, temperature checks and sanitization.

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