Our home for the next three night was Rafiki’s Guesthouse in Kisoro, where Samba the owner greeted us with a rundown of activities on offer and what to expect of the gorilla trekking. With his booming voice and total confidence he could easily run for president. The guesthouse put on a buffet dinner for us every night, where goat stew was served with huge portions of rice, potatoes, casava root, ugali, chapatis, vegetables and a great big smile. With a 5:30am start tomorrow we hit the sack early in our separate male/female dorm rooms. Along with Ruth, Frank, Alex and Laura from the truck, we were picked up at 6am by our driver Dennis, and whisked up through the nearby mountains. You soon come to realise why the famous book by gorilla researcher Diane Fossey is called ‘Gorillas in the mist’, as the slowly rises in a peach sky and illuminates the mist shrouded valleys and terraced hillsides.
Driving through the small village of Rubuguri small children dressed in spotless green, blue, red and purple school uniforms waved, clutching their notebooks and pencils like they’re sacred. At the briefing station we joined all of the other hikers for a briefing and overview of the conservation efforts being made to save the gorillas, and thankfully the numbers have been increasing. We were also informed that if you became too tired, broke an ankle or suffered from the altitude, they’d happily help you down…for a minimum fee of USD$350.
Found only in the Virunga range of extinct volcanoes on the Congo/Rwanda/Ugandan border and our location, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, it’s estimated there are only 880 left in the wild (up from 620 in 1989). We were assigned the Kahungye group, the second largest group in the region consisting of 22 gorillas including three silverbacks, and introduced to our team consisting of two guides, a police escort with a rifle (to scare away any elephants on the path) and a porter to assist one of the hikers (this is optional though they are very helpful if you’re not a great hiker). Heading off, the path was initially a little steep though easy and soon flattened into an easy incline. This didn’t last long.
Gorillas are wild animals, and as such, they’re unpredictable. Sometimes they move a lot, sometimes hardly at all. Sometimes, like one group, it takes 30 minutes to find your group, sometimes it takes a lot longer, and sometime you don’t find the group at all. With a couple of trackers heading out prior to us, they still hadn’t tracked our group. After about an hour, we finally get the call that they’d found the nesting site from the night before and were on the trail, though they’d moved a fair distance away. So our guides veered off the comfortable path to a barely distinguishable, steep, slippery one, taking a shortcut through a valley.
Occasional bursts of radio contact let us know we’re heading in the right direction. After a couple of hours we take another turn, this time where there’s actually no path at all. Our guides just start hacking one. The pace slows a little but as you’re all given a walking stick at the start of the trek, it’s not that tough. Traversing across a steep, pathless mess of jungle foliage, the radio crackles to life as we hear the trackers calling in the distance, the sign we’d all been waiting for. We’d found our group.
Finding ourselves back on a clear path, we were told to squat and wait quietly as the gorillas were moving in our direction. Suddenly a huge silverback male appears out of nowhere, sits down and starts to strip leaves all the while keeping one eye on our group. Once he seems comfortable the guides take us down into the jungle to search for the rest of the group. When one of the guides beckons Matt and I to follow him around a tree, suddenly one of the silverbacks charges at him with a high pitched scream, banging his hands on the ground and sending the guard sprawling back in our direction and us crouching to the ground, fighting the instinct to do what we’ve been told not to do…run!
He eventually calms down and we recover ourselves from the fact a massive silverback gorilla just shouted at us from about 10ft away. An exhilarating experience that also brings you close to shitting your pants. The rest of the hour or so we spend with the group goes pretty smoothly with only a few minor tantrums from the big guys. We watch as a female climbs a tree branch to feed in the sun, see mothers sneak past with tiny inquisitive babies on their backs and sit watching the adults feed, scratch and grunt in peace. Their hands and actions are so human like and when you make eye contact with them it’s a pretty crazy feeling.
The hike up took us around 3.5hrs and we were glad that having paid all that money we’d got a full days worth of hiking in. Though don’t be fooled…this time of year it’s hot, sweaty, humid work, there was no mist in sight. With our time up we said goodbye, moved a short way away and ate our own lunch, then headed straight down through the jungle, eventually finding a narrow path which led to a more established path and our way out. Reunited with our driver 1.5hrs later in a totally different place to where we started, we were awarded certificates in an awkward little ceremony. Back at the hostel we met the nine new guys (six Kiwis, an Aussie, a Swiss and a Swedish) who were joining the truck and joined them in some card games in the sun.
The next day we’d organised to meet a guide for a visit to a local orphanage, Potter’s Village. All of the children being looked after here are between 1 day and 2 years old and the aim is to eventually reunite them with their families. They’ve either ended up here when their mothers became pregnant while still in school, has died in childbirth and the father is unable to look after the newborn or have simply been abandoned due to rape or similar such circumstances. The orphanage will look after the children until such time as the father is more able to look after them, the mother finishes school or they are able to locate family members of an abandoned baby.
One happy ending occurred when a mans wife died during childbirth and he did not know how to look after the newborn baby. After a year of being cared for at the orphanage, the man remarried and along with his new wife came to bring the baby home to care for it again. The babies are provided with vaccinations and medical care, and the medical centre on site also provides the community with access to incubators for premature babies, vaccinations and medical care. They will assist local families to purchase a single goat or cow in order for them to become self sufficient in the long term. Meeting a couple of the babies being looked after, we left a donation towards some immunisations and headed back to town for lunch. Walking back from the orphanage, a group of young kids on their way home from school follow us, and Sarah ends up with one girl holding her hand and dancing, singing and smiling the whole way down the street. Her habit of saying ‘yes’ to everything we asked led us all to nickname her ‘Jess’.
Having been recommended the Coffee Pot Café, we take a seat and place our order. 30 minutes later, the waitress returns to advise that even though three of us had ordered the chill con carne, there was only enough for one person. With Matt having ordered first he won, and the others reordered. Over an hour later the food finally arrives, though the menu does warn to expect a wait as all food is freshly prepared. No complaints about quality though, as Matt devours his massive servicing of chille, guacamole, rice and chapati.
Hunting out a souvenir shop in town was a little tricky, with a few hard to find places scattered around. With the locals aware how much people are willing to fork out for a gorilla trek permit, we found prices quite inflated, with some places asking over USD$70 for a small carved wooden mask. Settling for a small carved wooden gorilla to add to our Christmas tree decorations, we called it an early night, ready for the border crossing into Rwanda tomorrow.
If you want more photos of Uganda and the mountain gorillas go to our Flickr page!
We’d like to thank our Gorilla trek guides, porter and police escort for doing their best to track down our group and making sure we all had a safe and memorable experience with this amazing animals:
- Ngabirano Omesmus (Guide)
- Olwor Ronald (Police escort)
- Asasira Philemon (Guide)
- Dominic Rafaire (Porter for Ruth)
- Byomuhangi Denis (Driver)
Tips for gorilla trekking
- While the hiking isn’t technical, it can be tough going and isn’t always over flat distinguishable pathways. You will most likely spend time hiking/traversing across steep fresh paths through the jungle. If you have reasonable fitness and hiking experience you should be fine, if you’re unfit and have little rough hiking experience, it’s worth hiring a porter. You’ll be supporting the local community and they have experience in the terrain. They’ll help carry your backpack, support you down steep slippery slopes and ensure you don’t spend more time on your arse than necessary.
- Listen to your guides, they’re there to protect you. Having a full sized angry silverback gorilla charge at your is pretty f*&king scary. Having a guide with a machete between you and the gorilla made it a little less so. Do as you’re told.