Gorilla tracking in Uganda's Bwindi Park is a satisfying test of endurance

A mountain gorilla resting at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Southwestern Uganda. PHOTO | JAMES KAHONGEH | NMG

From erratic weather to impossibly coarse terrain and aggression from wild animals, tracking mountain gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in south-western Uganda is a breath-taking travel experience, but also a test of endurance.

The landscape here is as dramatic as it is perilous, what with steep hills, rocks and high cliffs. In this area characterised by soft, clay-loam soil and heavy rain that falls virtually all year long, landslides are a common occurrence, sometimes with catastrophic results.

Our expedition started at 7am from Four Gorillas Lodge, an eco-lodge in Rushaga, cutting through muddy tracks on a misty, cold morning to the park. It had rained heavily on the previous night. As we navigated the sharp bends up to the camp, we encountered several mudslides, some too frightfully close to human habitat.

A miscalculation by the driver would plunge the vehicle into either a river or down the cliff, a possibility that made the experience all the more nerve-racking.

Gorilla tracking at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Rushaga, southwestern Uganda. PHOTO | JAMES KAHONGEH | NMG

The jungle of Bwindi is christened ‘‘Impenetrable’’ for a reason. The vegetation here is dense, the undergrowth even more compact with twigs and tendrils running every which way. Vision is limited to only a few metres while movement along the undulating paths is as labourious as a forest excursion can get.

If the decidedly wet and slippery ground hampers mobility, crossing streams that run throughout the forest is the ultimate challenge. While they are relatively shallow, these are muddy, the tracks made even more treacherous by wild animals that water here.

On this excursion, our party of eight people was accompanied by four guides, two of them armed with loaded firearms. ‘‘These are for scaring aggressive animals,’’ one ranger explained as we set off for the nature trail.

There are elephants, buffaloes and hippos in this wild as we soon found out, with heaps of dung and giant footprints lining the paths. He added: ‘‘We do not have many hunters here owing to the coarse terrain. Lions and other carnivores prefer a flat landscape for ease of spotting and hunting down prey.’’

Spotting mountain gorillas is never a certainty. Sometimes a day in this jungle ends in futility, especially when it rains and the gorillas retreat to the deepest reaches of the forest.

Ordinarily, the tracking exercise lasts between three hours and the whole day. Those who successfully track the primates are awarded a certificate. For my team and I, it was a lucky day.

After hours of braving harsh weather, slips and falls, stings from wild plants and a scare from a swarm of wasps, we finally found at midday, a family of seven, comprising a silverback, four mature females and their babies.

They were resting among brushes in a steep area of the forest after a morning of feeding. ‘‘You must keep your mask on at all times when watching the gorillas,’’ one of the rangers reminded us.

Gorillas share 96 percent DNA with human beings, making it highly possible to pass viruses and other pathogens between the two animal species.

We would spend the better part of the afternoon following the mammals, as the babies suckled and played in the trees, watched closely by their mothers. Meanwhile, the silverback sat scratching fleas off his coat, and would occasionally produce a low growl in a show of power before dozing off.

On arrival at the park, guests are welcomed with a series of traditional dances by the Batwa, an indigenous community of pigmies that were the original dwellers of the ecosystem, according to Ronald Tindyebwa, the senior warden in charge of tourism at the park.

Then follows a briefing from wardens, including the history of the forest that was gazetted in 1991 and recognised as a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1984.

World population

At 460 gorillas in Bwindi alone as of 2021, and another population found in Mhahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda accounts for nearly 50 percent of the about 1,100 of all mountain gorillas in the world.

The rest of the population is found in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

‘‘The Batwa lived in the forest as hunters and gatherers, coexisting with the animals before they were relocated by Uganda Wildlife Authority as part of conservation efforts,’’ said Tindyebwa.

Before we left the lodge, the staff had packed water and lunch for us and lent to the team trekking poles, raincoats and gloves. ‘‘You cannot track gorillas on an empty stomach,’’ Vincent, an attendant at Four Gorillas Lodge, had warned us.

Gorilla tracking at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Rushaga, southwestern Uganda. PHOTO | JAMES KAHONGEH | NMG

Bwindi has four different trekking routes, namely Rushaga, Buhoma, Ruhija, and Nkuringo. Each of these treks leads to a different section of the forest where gorillas can be spotted. A maximum of eight visitors is allowed per trek.

Any person aged 15 or older can do gorilla tracking in Uganda. A permit for gorilla watching costs $700 (Sh84,000) for foreign non-residents and $70 (Sh8,400) for East African residents.

Bwindi is accessible from Kampala by road, a journey that takes about 12 hours. There are also small chartered flights via Kisoro Airfield.

With some eco-lodges within the ecosystem charging $500 (Sh60,000) for accommodation per person per night, a traveller from East Africa would spend about $1,200 (Sh145,000) for hotel, transport and transfers and a permit to watch gorillas in Bwindi.

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