Mountain Gorilla Trekking!

Trip Start Feb 01, 2005
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350
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Trip End Dec 31, 2018


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Flag of Uganda  ,
Wednesday, August 31, 2011

With pounding hearts we quietly eased our way down the last few vine tangled steep banks and there right in front of us was the large silver-back gorilla, Mishaya - just 3 metres away through the thick grass and foliage. He looked quite annoyed that he had company. Our hearts were pounding for 2 reasons. It has taken us an exhausting almost 3 hours of climbing, slipping, sliding and bumping our limbs in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to get to this point, but our hearts were also pounding in excitement for the chance to be amongst the relatively few people who get to see the endangered gorillas. There are only just over 500 left in the whole world, although there is hope that a new census to be undertaken shortly will reveal an increase in Gorilla numbers.

Avan had his camera focused right on a small gorilla next to Mishaya, the Silver-back but to his chagrin just as he clicked the shutter one of the rangers stepped in front of his lens and the moment was gone. It felt like that instead of THE perfect national geographic shot he was left with a photo of the rangers head! Mishya and the small one moved away and under the cover of foliage for a moment.  

To our left, 2 young gorillas scampered away out of sight, then the small one reappeared and climbed a nearby tree and peeped out at us. The Silver-back tossed his head, grunted, then, as quick as a flash, raced past us coming almost within touching distance. We were amazed at his sheer bulk and with the ease in which he moved his bulk!  Within seconds he had reached 2/3rds of the way up a nearby tree and wedged himself in a fork, then firmly turned his back on us. A cracking and crashing of branches signaled the movement of more gorillas from the group moving away and further down the deep gully.

Over the next hour, the silver-back broke off branches and feasted on the leaves and let off almighty farts every so often. A few times he shifted position and had a good look down at us as if to say "For heavens sake you've had your look at me now move on!".

Our group of 7 snapped off photos and video but mostly just watched "our" silver-back and the young visible gorilla eating their fill. The ranger explained the young gorilla's mother actually was with another group of gorilla's but the young one for some reason changed camps, and always stayed close to the silver-back.

Later, we climbed deeper into the gully where the ranger could hear the others from the group but they did not want to be found. I glimpsed one other female and then to Avan's complete surprise he spotted the silver-back following US! He had come down from his tree when we left and, we surmised, was curious to see where we were going. Avan was able to get one more photo of him before the gorilla realised he had been spotted! Scrambling back up the deep and very steep gully was a nightmare and then we were reunited with our walking sticks, porters and drinking water from which we had been away from for 2 and 1/2 hours. 

Our trekking group consisted of 2 other Aussies, Wayne and Julie from Sydney, and three Italians making us 7 trekkers plus one machine gun armed guard, two guides and 4 porters. We all had hiking sticks to assist and the porters, as well as carrying our water, lunch and rain coats, also assisted us by pulling, pushing and dragging us (well ME mostly, Avan did really well) up the steep inclines. We chatted to one of the porters Wilbur who wistfully told us HE has never seen a gorilla himself in his life. Despite the hardship of the trek we were all in good spirits and grateful that we didn't get any rain to add a much greater degree of difficulty.  

In all we hiked for 7 &1/2 hours and it was almost as tough on our not-so-young bodies as climbing Mt. Kinabalu - well worth it though!

We had had a few dramas getting our trekking permit and sorting out what we were going to do in Uganda. We arrived to Entebee airport on a Saturday afternoon and had an airport pickup from Banda Inns Guest House to take us the well over an hour of rough road into the capital of Kampala. Everything was shut the next day being Sunday, including the Uganda Parks Authority and all tour companies, so we had an enforced rest day. It pelted down with rain and other than a short walk late in the afternoon we stayed in. Banda Inns Guest house has excellent and affordable on-site dining available and so we chose to eat in that night as we did all the nights we stayed.

Monday morning. our Hostess Asteria was on the phone to find out if any permits had come available but the Wildlife office's computers were down. Everybody who wants to go Gorilla Trekking must purchase a permit at the huge cost of $500 each and these should be purchased months in advance. We had heard from others that you can often get them on short notice because tour operators  buy up extras in the hope of selling a tour and then these can be purchased if they are surplus. We had not committed to a tour as we did not want to do the standard tour (or pay the price!) being offered by well known companies and we wanted to include a visit to the Rwenzori mountains. Now it looked like it was not happening for us!

Eventually in the afternoon, Asteria said that the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) had advised they had 2 permits for Wednesday but we had to negotiate the sale with the company that had purchased them and now couldn't use them. This was good news!

James, Banda Inns driver, raced us into the city based office of UWA where a staff member phoned the permit holder then handed the phone to me. They would only sell for cash US$ and only if we committed to accommodation at their own Gorilla Camp. Next we had to go to Barclay's Bank to get $1,000US cash and the plan was that a representative of the company was to hand over the permits at an agreed meeting place later in the afternoon. It was not until 6pm that we finally met the representative and found that the permits were photocopies and the actual ones were at the camp 12 hours drive away!

By now we were quite alarmed.

We did not want to get scammed out of $1,000 AND the chance to see the gorillas. Eventually after a phone conversation with Robert, the business owner who was on-site at the Gorilla camp, we agreed to pay $500 only and $500 when we have the actual permits.

So after all this stress we now had to make a plan to leave at 6.30am the next morning for the 12 hour drive to the campsite near to where we would trek the Gorillas the following day. We negotiated a price to have a 4 wheel drive and the driver, James, from Banda Inns for 4 days.

It was a long hard day driving to Bwindi but with a notable highlight of stopping at the equator where we witnessed the flow of the water in each hemisphere and the equator. It is true - toilets really do flush the opposite way in the hemispheres! Right on the equator it just goes straight down.

Arriving at Nyuringo Gorilla Camp just on dusk, we were met by Robert who allayed our fears about the permits and showed us our wonderful tent accommodation for the next 2 nights perched on a hill with views right over the misty mountains to Rwanda and Congo.  

A drawback was that our permits were for a group of gorillas that were further around the mountain requiring a full hours drive, before we even got to the briefing and then after the briefing we had to drive another 1/2 hour back to the start of the trekking.

But it was all worth it.

As we arrived back at camp after our gorilla trek, the staff had a cup of tea ready for us and hot water for the bush shower, then a superb meal with red wine to celebrate. Another couple, from the Cayman islands had arrived during the day, and were trekking the next day so we enthused about our day and swapped travel stories, before dragging our poor tired bodies up the hill to our tent and a well earned sleep.
  
Footnote: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is UNESCO World Heritage listed.

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