Bwindi National Park is approximately 331km2, with the altitude ranging from about 1,160m- 2607m above sea level. The park is located in South Western Uganda and the park has several hills all covered by the impenetrable forest. It takes about 8 – 9 hours to drive from Kampala or Entebbe to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park taking into account of lunch stopovers and toilet brakes along the way. It is approximately 550km by road to the furthest part of Bwindi. Most of the road from Kampala to Bwindi is paved, though we have some parts which are not yet paved. So it is advisable that you have an early start preferably 7am in the morning and have a lunch break in Mbarara which is half way of the journey to Bwindi. This is the best place for your Gorilla Trekking experience.
Alternatively you can fly from Kampala (Kajjansi air strip) or Entebbe to Kihihi air strip or Kisoro air strip depending on the gorilla family you are tracking. Here you save a lot of travel time by almost 5 to 6 hours. It is costly but for those clients who do not have enough time always opt to fly.
GORILLA TREKKING IN BWINDI SECTORS
The park is divided into four sectors, the North sector ( Buhoma ) where the park head quarters are located- buhoma is where the first habituation of gorillas took place in 1991. The first group to be habituated was the Mubare group and the first visitors were allowed in 1993. Currently the north has four families with Mubare family being the oldest group, Habiyanja, Katwe and Rushegura. The tracking in Buhoma is relatively simpler compared to the other parts of Bwindi. In the East, (Ruhija) has four families, Mukiza, Kyaguriro, Oruzogo and Bitukura. Ruhija is relatively easy to track compared to other sectors of Bwindi.
In the west, (Rushaga) has five Gorilla families tracked on a daily basis, these include Nshongi, Bweza, Kahungye, Mishaya and Busingye. Some of the gorilla families in the south are relatively challenging to track because of the stip terrain. In the south ( Nkuringo) has three families, Nkuringo, Bikingi and Bushaho gorilla families. This sector offers the most challenging gorilla treks of all the families available to trek in Bwindi.
There is numerous documentations on the life of the gorillas. The most outstanding documentation was done by Sir David Attenborough. The episode ‘’ breathless encounter with mountain gorillas in 1979’s Life on Earth’’ remains an all-time favorite.
Sir David Attenborough’s wildlife television shows brought wildlife to the lime light among many Europeans and soon many people were eager to visit wildlife in their natural setting. Today, thousands of tourists are making long journeys to Africa to visit the endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
The gorillas are estimated to be around 1,004 according to 2018 census. Uganda has half of the world’s total gorilla population. These gorillas live in groups of 6-20 individuals, over which a “silverback” male (named for his cape of grey hair) presides. The silverback can weigh up to 250kgs. Indeed, the silver back is the leader of the family and has the sole responsibility of protecting its family members from intruders. The mountain gorillas build nests where they spend the nights and build new nests every evening.
Much of the conservation efforts have been credited to an American conservationist Dian Fossey- her conservation work began in 1966 until her death in 1985. She started her conservation work in Rwanda and worked hard to discourage poaching which was rampant throughout Africa. Unfortunately she was murdered 1985 in her remote cabin in Rwanda, her murder was closely linked to her conservation efforts. She is credited for highlighting the plight of the gorillas in the late 1960s.
Gorilla trekking experience
During you gorilla trekking experience, you will be accompanied by knowledgeable park rangers. These are well acquainted about both the impenetrable rain forest and the wildlife in this forest. They will guide you to one of several habituated Gorilla families.
Gorilla Habituation is a process of building trust with the gorillas so that they get used to the presence of human being around them. You must adhere to the instructions of the park rangers as there are rules to be followed in order to preserve nature.
Mountain Gorilla tracking is done on a daily basis but the families have to be tracked only once a day. Unlike in the past where you would walk for long hours tracking the gorillas without end in sight things are now done differently. A team of trackers has to go out in the morning to establish where the gorillas are heading. It then communicates back to headquarters so that it is easier for the rangers to know where to start from.
After the briefing, you will be assigned to a group of up to eight trekkers. It is highly recommended that one hires a porter to help in carrying the bags. These porters are also useful when it comes to the steep terrain.They will help in pulling and pushing you on these steep slopes. Depending on the family you are tracking, the whole experience may take between two to eight hours of tracking. Upon encountering the gorillas, the park ranger will grant you chance to take photos of these magnificent beings.
Meeting the gorillas
As you trek on, you will see rolling steep mountains, whilst passing through the dense cover. Soon tell – tell signs begin to emerge and every ones` heart starts racing with deep anxiety. The nests left behind, droppings, broken branches and echoing sounds made in the far back ground will surely make you race to the front of the pack.
There is nothing that can prepare you for the intensity of meeting the gorillas. The moment is breathtaking that many want to have a moment alone to ponder about this magnificently experience. Many tear-down and sigh in awe as they marvel at the wonderful dream come true. It is at this point that your ranger guides will pass on the rules and regulations as you encounter the gorillas.
You must maintain a distance of seven meters.Keep quiet or if you are to speak, do it softly. No feeding in presence of the gorillas, no flash photography, avoid bright colored clothing. Avoid playing recorded animal voices close the gorillas. Don’t run when the gorillas do the mock charging instead keep still and avoid eye contact – although there’s nothing to stop the apes approaching you.
To sum it up, it is always an extra ordinary moment with these great apes. You see them feeding, occasionally dozing off, babies playing in tree branches, grooming and mock fighting. Gorilla trekking is above all, an intimate experience. After taking your photos, you can enjoy observing these extraordinary primates up close. One hour is all you got, but it will remember for the rest of your life.
Cost of tracking gorillas
The process of tracking starts with booking the gorilla permits. Advance bookings should be done as permits are on high demand. This helps in reducing many disappointments during your preparations. In Uganda a gorilla permit goes for 700$ dollars while in Rwanda a permit goes for 1500$. The permits in the DRC are 400$ dollars but visiting the DRC is not for the faint hearted. There are several accommodation facilities around Bwindi ranging from budget to luxury. So depending on the clients’ interests, and budget is what we base on to cost your gorilla tracking package.
What else to do in Bwindi
After the gorilla tracking experience one may opt to visit the local community. Here you can engage in activities like food tasting, local beer testing, coffee and tea processing, visiting the pygmies locally known as the Batwa. The Batwa lived in the forests of Bwindi before it was gazatted as a National park in 1991.
One can also visit the local schools and orphanages around Bwindi national park. You will find groups of local people skilled in making arts and crafts. Lastly you can visit the local healers who use herbs from the forest to cure diseases.
Gorilla dos and don’ts
- While Gorilla Trekking, stay at least seven meters from the gorillas; retreat if they approach
- Wash your hands before setting out
- Do not eat or drink when near the gorillas
- Keep your voice low – if you are to interact do it in soft voice
- Do not trek if suffering from a cold or flu; gorillas share similar DNA with human being so can easily contract diseases.
- Do not play recorded animal voices near the gorillas
- Some degree of fitness is required so before coming over for gorilla trekking regular exercises are recommended.
- You are not to se of flashes during photography. Therefore, prepare to take photographs in dark conditions
- Protect your camera gear with waterproof bags
- Bwindi is a high altitude area averaging 2500ft above sea level. Therefore, for all living in low altitude areas prepare for change in altitude.