One of those once in a lifetime, pinch me moments. Nothing has been more special than going gorilla trekking to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. Fun fact – there are no Mountain Gorillas in zoos anywhere in the world, so the only way to see this species is to hike through the rainforests.
It is now estimated that there are just over 1000 Mountain Gorillas in the wild. A survey is conducted every 5 years. The last was in 2011, when there were 860 and they are in the middle of conducting a new one now. Half of these gorillas live in the Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, which is where I headed.
Full disclosure – I was very nervous about embarking on the Gorilla Trek. People I had spoken to had said how difficult it was and even the name ‘the Impenetrable Forest’ evokes thoughts of having to hack your way through. Being told to bring gardening gloves for the hike, you know it’s not going to be an easy one. This feeling of nervousness only intensified when our group was told the story of a couple who had to be stretchered out of the rainforest as it was too hard going.
However, I want to put your mind at rest. If I can do it, you can do it. I am not the fittest person by a long stretch, my exercise regime is minimal at best and I have an unhealthy addiction to chocolate. And I managed it. I didn’t even find it as hard as when I hiked up a sand dune in Mongolia (read the struggle here).
What to wear for gorilla trekking
Proper hiking boots are essential, with a good grip on the bottom.
Long socks so you can tuck your trousers into them. It is a good look I assure you.
Wear a lightweight top but definitely make sure it has long sleeves.
The garden gloves actually did come in useful, often for gripping trees as I slipped down a hill.
You don’t need to bring walking poles, you are supplied with a wooden stick for the trek. I got very attached to mine and there may have been some impressions of Gandalf.
Bring a rain Mac, it can start raining at a moments notice.
Backpack for your camera and water. Ideally put camera in a waterproof bag.
The Gorilla Trek
Up to 8 people can go gorilla trekking to visit each family of gorillas and there are 11 different families which you can spend time with. Each in different locations of the forest, depending on where they have wandered to.
There is no real way to guess the distance of the hike, as it depends on the location of the gorillas. I was told it can be up to a 4 hour hike each way.
The trackers start out earlier and pick up the trail from where they were left the day before. A little later you set off with your guide and armed guard who are constantly talking to the trackers to find the location.
We started off gambling through farms and fields and it was fairly straight forward, albeit a little muddy. Sometimes the path went nearly vertically upwards and it was tricky not to slip back down, but manageable.
We then headed into the forest itself, again on a path. As we entered we saw where the family we were tracking had nested the day before. Right by the entrance, would have been an incredibly easy trek!
But no, it was not to be that easy. Soon we veered off the path and into the, wall like, jungle mass. Our guide, and the trackers earlier on, had cut (ish) a path through the undergrowth. At this point the path was heading steadily down the hill and therein lay the challenge. While I wasn’t exhausted, staying upright was a difficulty. We all fell over at least once, and I lost count of how many times I fell by about the 4th fall.
It is not a dignified entrance and I was covered in mud. But actually I loved it! Here is where the gloves came in handy, for gripping trees as I fell. Thank goodness for my provided staff, who knows how many times I would have fallen with out it.
We were gorilla trekking for about an hour and a half to two hours before we found the family we were following.
After the allotted hour with the gorillas it was time for the trek back. Having laughed my way down the hill it suddenly dawned on me, this meant it was going to be uphill on the way back.
More challenging I will admit. All the trackers had also left the gorillas and came back with us, so they were leading the way. These guys spend all of their days hiking through this forest (in welly boots no less) and so set off at quite the pace.
It wasn’t long before I needed a pause, not for too long though and I was off again. It was just as slippy getting back up. I did get showered in mud at one point as the person in front of me pirouetted trying to keep his balance.
We paused a couple of times before we made it back to the flat (ish) path. It was hard work climbing back out of the forest, but as I said, if I can do it you can do it. When you have one of those magical experiences the effort seems more than worth it.
After the gorilla trekking You get to spend one hour with the family once you find them, and they mean exactly one hour.
We stopped and heard a call from the tracker, which meant we were just out of sight of the family. Suddenly I looked up to see a young male swinging in the trees above us.
A little further in and we were greeted with a mother and her young. In the tree above them was the silver back himself.
We had visited the Busingye family, a family of 15, who are apparently very friendly! The rangers briefed us what to do if one of the gorillas, and in particular the silver back, approached. Stay still, look down and act submissive. The gorillas have been habitualised to humans but they are still wild animals. Luckily we didn’t have any problems.
Soon the silver back gambled down the tree, quite effortlessly for someone of his size and proceeded to continue his meal on the ground. One of the young gorillas was staying close to him, and as a reward had his fruit stolen. Guess it was clear who was boss.
The highlight was when a particularly friendly female walked right by me with her 4 month old baby. We were able to see the baby, as the mother was incredibly relaxed. This would not have happened with many mothers, who are usually much more protective of their infant.
It’s hard to describe just how special it was seeing the family in real life. They all had such characters and such beautiful faces. I still feel quite emotional when I think about my time with them.
It felt like no time at all when the ranger said we had 2 minutes left.
I left knowing that with gorilla trekking I had experienced one of the most stunning moments of my life.