Day 7 of my Nomad Adventure Tours Masai Mara and Gorillas tour started at the obscenely early hour of 5:00am – when my alarm woke both me and Lisa (my Australian tentmate) from our respective slumbers. We excitedly sprung up from our thin camping mattresses and got ready for our trekking adventure as quickly as we could. Once prepared for the day –we joined the others for a cup of coffee and a not-so-hearty breakfast of the usual bread and cereal. As we finished washing up our dishes the three vans arrived to take us to Uganda’s famous Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
At dinner, the previous night, we had been told our trekking groups – as determined by the Uganda Wildlife Authorities (the people who you pay the big bucks to in order to receive a trekking permit). After ensuring everyone who was supposed to be there was in fact present and ready to go on our gorilla trekking adventure, we split into our predetermined groups and made ourselves comfortable in the vans that would transport us to Bwindi. It was to be a 2 -3 hour drive from our campsite to the protected national park, and for whatever chance of bad luck, I was sitting next to the window that overlooked the sharp drop down the mountain. As our driver careened around the narrow road I watched nervously as I could see that our wheel was mere inches from the drop off. I giggled nervously. Trying to focus on anything else, I looked straight ahead. Which would have been a good idea, had the windscreen not been fogging up to the point of making it nearly impossible to see through.
“That’s it… I’m a goner. There’s no way we’re going to make it to the gorillas. The driver can’t even see. Crack a window, buddy, CRACK A WINDOW! OH MY GOD… We’re gonna crash down the mountainside. Ohhhhh goooooddddddddd.” These thoughts ran through my head on repeat. I finally decided to put my head down in my lap and try to fall asleep and block out the thoughts of my impending doom.
Surprisingly it worked. The first good sign was feeling the road beneath the van’s tires – it was smooth. Unlike the mountainside road, which was covered in gravel and home to more potholes than a Toronto highway after winter. I opened my eyes and noticed it had lightened up significantly. My telepathic powers must’ve worked because the driver had cracked the window beside him and a cool breeze was filtering through the van.
We eventually turned off the smooth road and back onto a bumpy mountainside one – but thankfully this one was a lot wider and could comfortably accommodate our vehicles. As I gazed out the window I was in awe of the mist that rose out of the forested valleys. It truly looked like something you’d see in a movie.
“Just follow the path and turn left and then follow that path to the hut – you will see the UWA people there. We will be here when you finish to bring you back to Lake Bunyoni.” Our driver told us.
We all excitedly piled out of the van and followed the instructions given. Surprisingly, we were all huffing and puffing by the time we’d reached the point where we had to turn left. This wasn’t a good sign!
We eventually met up with the UWA people, and after a quick briefing explaining the dos and don’ts, we split into our groups. My group consisted of Lisa, Millie, Carstin, Sonia, Verena, Claudia, Arndt and myself – along with our guide Herbert, two guards armed with AK-47s and a machete, and a small group of porters who would help us by carrying our bags and push or pull us along as we navigated our way up the mountain. We’d been told that we would eventually meet up with three trackers who had been in the forest since about 6am that morning trying to find where the Nshongi gorilla family was located.
Admittedly I felt very guilty handing over my bag to Abel – my porter, a young local who made a living by carrying the bags of tourists, as he climbed alongside. But he assured me it was fine and that he’d done this before.
Without further ado, we took off up the mountain, in search of the Nshongi family. After 10minutes of hiking up the well-worn path, I was breathing heavy, and my legs were aching. I pushed along for another 20minutes down the path, over fallen logs and under trees barely standing upright. We finally took a short water break, where Herbert informed us what the protocol was for bathroom breaks – that being that we basically had to be escorted to a safe area and pee with a guide, porter or guard standing by us. Thank goodness I’d taken the opportunity to use the disgusting long drop at the starting point. I sipped my water – hoping I’d be able to conserve the 2L I brought with me for the entirety of our trek.
“Ready? Let’s go… we don’t know how far they may be – but we don’t want to be trekking for 6hrs to find them.” Herbert said to the group as we handed our bags back to our porters and I took two puffs of my inhaler, just in case my asthma decided to be a problem.
And with that, our hike continued. We navigated off the usual path and onto a much slicker path that was covered in vines. The guard in the front of our group chopped away at the overgrowth that blocked our path. It was a tough hike. Whoever said it was a casual trek up the mountain must have been part mountain goat, because it was one of the more difficult hikes I’ve ever done. We were lucky that it was an overcast day, but one without rain. The ground, however, was still slippery beneath our hiking boots and there were many times when I nearly lost my footing and required Abel’s guiding hand to help steady myself. After about 2 hours of hiking hundreds of meters in elevation, we stopped while Herbert listened to some jabbering on the radio. After a few minutes it went silent and our trusty guide informed us that we were getting very close.
By the time we’d reached 2300m above sea level we met up with our trackers. We were told to take a brief washroom break as well as take the time to have a bit of our packed lunches- to tie us over for the next hour that we would be following the Nshongi family of mountain gorillas. After I returned from sneaking off to use the bush toilet, I gave Abel my bag and hiking stick – as directed by Herbert- took a last couple of swigs of water, and double checked how much battery life and room on my memory cards I had left.
And there it was.
Our first gorilla! A young female that sat cheekily in the bushes about 10m away. We cautiously watched her as she feasted on her mid-morning snack of vines and branches. Before I could even wonder if she knew that we were there – she got up and repositioned herself in a clearing the bushes a mere 4meters away. She looked us directly in the eye – and continued eating- not taking her eyes off us for a second. It seemed she was just as curious about us as we were of her.
“Ooooohhh ooohhhh ooooooohhh” A booming sound came from the left of us – and unbeknownst to most of us, there was the silverback gorilla of the group!
As if he seemingly understood the message from our tracker, the silverback grunted and then contentedly returned to his own personal feast of vines and branches.
Not to be outdone, the young female sitting 4m in front of us, promptly stood up and beat her chest and approached us quickly – only veering off to the left at the last second where she snatched more vines, and then quickly returned to her original spot 4m away from us. She didn’t once take her eyes off us for what seemed like 10minutes, and as quickly as she made herself visible to us, she was off, back into the thicket of vines and bushes.
We continued on – towards the sound of more gorillas making noises in the bushes- and this time we came across two young females and a 7month old baby. The three were playing amongst themselves – wrestling, falling off their platform of vines, and seemingly having a tickle-fight. We laughed as the 7month old kept falling down and picking himself back up to get back into the action with his elder family members.
I was absolutely astonished at how “humanlike” they were in their interactions with each other, and curiosity for us. For an entire hour we followed the gorillas through the dense bushes down the mountainside. By the time our guide and porters joined up with us, we were all on natural highs from checking off a big bucket list item.
Thankfully during our time with the gorillas, they had led us down the mountain a fair bit – meaning our walk back to the initial meeting place wouldn’t be so long. By the end of it, however, it took a great amount of effort simply to put one foot in front of the other. It was truly an exhausting hike – but very much worth it for that single hour of one on one time with the gorillas.
Upon returning to the base camp, we were each presented with a certificate indicating we had successfully trekked with the mountain gorillas – something I’m pretty sure we were all well aware of, if not thanks to the incredible photographs and memories engrained in our minds, then surely because our aching muscles that had long since built up with lactic acid.
We took a group photo and then returned to the parking lot area and happily met our driver from the morning. We each took our seats,fastened our seatbelts and I can’t speak for anyone else – but I promptly passed out as soon as the van started moving.
By 4:30pm we’d returned to Lake Bunyoni Overland Resort – Nyika, Noah and Sandile were eager to hear our stories and see some photographs. My group had gotten lucky, as we were the first group back, followed not long after another group of four Nomads. By the time dinnertime rolled around at 6:30, the final van had not yet arrived. We started to get worried, as it was starting to get dark. But hunger definitely took precedence in our priority list. We quickly devoured our fried chicken, tarragon roasted potatoes and coleslaw giggling over the fact that many of those in the remaining van had actually been in the van that broke down on the way to the Masai Mara on the first day. We joked that one of them had to be the keeper of the bad luck and vowed to not ride in a vehicle (besides Junior) with whoever that one may be!
Exhaustion eventually took over and most of the group turned in to their tents very early – before the remaining vehicle had even arrived back at camp. Around 9 o’clock I decided to turn in, but thankfully just as I was leaving the common area where we had taken over for our mealtime, I saw a van pull into the Resort compound. Exhausted, but still on their high from seeing the gorillas – Mogens, Lise, Helena and Emilie piled out of the truck, excitedly chatting about their experience with not only the gorillas, but their second vehicle breakdown in a week!
Happy to see that they were all back safe and sound, I took that as my cue to finally turn in for the night. I joined Lisa in our large 2-man canvas tent, slipped quietly into my sleeping bag – and fell asleep before my head even touched the pillow.
Start reading about my experience on the Masai Mara & Gorillas tour from the beginning! Click HERE for Day 1
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**DISCLAIMER: While Nomad Adventure Tours asked me to partake in this tour and did provide me with a discounted tour price, all expressed thoughts, opinions and experiences remain my own.**
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