Do you ever think back on memorable experiences from past travels and they simultaneously feel as though they happened just yesterday AND forever ago? That is exactly how I feel when I think back on my experience high in the rainforest mountains of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It was one of the highlights of my 14-day Masai Mara & Gorillas tour with Nomad Adventure Tours – something I’d been dreaming of doing since I first set off travelling the world.
When you go Mountain Gorilla trekking you are not only getting the opportunity to get up close and personal with fascinating wild animals, but you’re helping with conservation efforts. In the last number of years mountain gorilla populations have actually increased, and in the Central African region – including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda – there are now close to 1000 mountain gorillas in the wild. Nearly half of these gorillas can be found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park! The mountain gorillas live in families ranging in size from 7 to 36 members. Only a select few number of families have been habituated – meaning they are used to people coming around and being in fairly close proximity to them. This makes mountain gorilla trekking fairly safe – although one must be smart when it comes to encountering any wild animal – give them the utmost respect.
You need a Permit
If you’re like me and travelling to Uganda with a tour company chances are the company will either include your permit in the price of your tour, or they will point you in the direction of how to obtain it. My permit was a separate cost for me, but Nomad Adventure Tours did assist me in obtaining it. Current prices, as of September 2015 for the mountain gorilla trekking permit are between $500 and $600 USD. Keep in mind, you can sometimes get permits for a lower price if you go in the off season.
Choose your clothing accordingly. It can get quite steamy in the rainforest, so keep that in mind. I suggest moisture wicking clothing and light fabrics. A light rain jacket may also be smart to bring along. I didn’t have hiking boots – but rather a sturdy pair of hiking shoes (that don’t go up the ankle). Make sure you have a sturdy pair of shoes. One girl showed up wearing a pair of Converse sneakers and they nearly didn’t let her participate– I’d recommend you leave those, and your flip flops back at camp. Bring a small daypack that will carry your water, camera, a small first aid kit, and any snacks/lunch.
Work on your fitness
While mountain gorilla trekking isn’t quite on the same activity level as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, or hiking the Inca Trail, it can still be a gruesome trek. The conditions up the mountainside can be quite slippery and steep. I am the first to admit I’m not the fittest of travellers -I’m an asthmatic and I hadn’t exactly been practicing by working out on the Stairmaster before my trip – but I, along with some older (grandparent age) travellers were still able to do this hike without any incidents. We hiked up the mountain for 3 hours, but another group that were trekking a separate family that day hiked for nearly 6 hours before they got the opportunity to sit with the gorillas. It’s luck of the draw, be prepared to climb all day if need be. [NOTE: This being said – it is not IMPERATIVE to be in the best of health/ fitness, but rather a helpful suggestion. The Uganda Wildlife Authority has made it possible for elderly and disabled people to do the trek, with the help from porters who are willing to literally carry you to see the gorillas.]
To hire a porter, or to not hire a porter
When I started looking into the trek itself, I came across many blogs that mentioned porters. Porters are locals who you pay to carry your bags, so you can be unencumbered while you trek up a mountain in likely less than favourable conditions. The cost of a porter’s assistance in 2013 was $5-10 USD. I had absolutely no qualms with handing over the cash to Abel, the young man who kindly carried my bags, made sure I didn’t slip down the wet mountainside and literally helped me make it to the top. If not for anything else – it’s nice to know that you’re able to directly help the local economy.
Don’t get a cold
Seriously, if you’re even mildly sick, you may be turned away from trekking with the gorillas, as they can be susceptible to human illnesses. Just to be sure, load up on some natural preventative remedies and immune system boosters! I’m glad I got malaria after my gorilla trekking experience, rather than before.
Don’t mind the Machetes & Machine Guns
Your group of 8 (or less) will be accompanied by a lead guide, any hired porters, and two scouts. You will know who the scouts are because they should be carrying AK47s. The machine guns aren’t to kill any animals, but rather, in case of any large or dangerous animals getting too close, they can fire a warning shot to scare them away. Your group will eventually meet up with the trackers – they will be wielding machetes. Don’t worry – it’s just to get rid of the pesky underbrush that can get in the way when you’re trying to see the gorillas.
Know your Camera
It should come without saying, but be sure you know how to use your camera before you set out on this endeavour. It is not the time to figure out what an aperture’s purpose is while you’re sitting in the bushes watching some of the world’s most beautiful animals interact in their native and natural habitat. On that note, make sure your memory cards have sufficient room, or even better use empty memory cards. Also make sure your battery is fully charged and you have a spare packed away in your daypack.
It is recommended that you bring at minimum 2L of water for your trek. As I mentioned above, it is a physically demanding activity and not to be taken lightly. Be sure you are taking the time to hydrate during your hike.
Respect the Gorillas
This should go without saying, but remember that you are a guest in their home. Give them sufficient space to move about unfettered. Don’t get too close, don’t make too much noise, and for the love of god, do NOT use your flash. Remember gorillas have 10 to 20 times the strength of an average human, and while they haven’t been known to tear tourists apart limb from limb, you certainly don’t want to be the first one to give that experience a go.
After finally getting to cross this item off of my bucket list back in 2013, I can confidently say I wouldn’t traded this experience for anything else. Not only did my group get to encounter these magnificent creatures up close in their natural habitat, but it was the sense of accomplishment we all felt when we finally returned to the bottom of the mountain that we all managed to complete the trek without incident. I highly recommend it to anybody with even the slightest inkling to do it – you won’t regret it!
Have you ever been mountain gorilla trekking or have any desire to go? What other tips do you have?