I got to tick off one of my bucket list items last month. Yipee! This trip was more than a year in the making, most of the time I was not even sure if we would actually get to do it. Covid and the most recent Ebola scare had us almost canceling the trip but thankfully we did not. H and I did it. Together. Whew!
My husband is much more fit than I am so you can imagine the pressure I had put on myself to make sure I was in tip top shape for a long hike. We had decided to do our trekking in the hilly Nkuringo sector of Bwindi. It is so scenic, and also one of the highest points of the park.Walking up and down our hilly Kampala neighbourhood, HIIT exercises and even a few pilates sessions got me psyched up and in pretty good shape, or so I thought…
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in south western Uganda, and is home to the last of the world’s mountain gorillas. The forest is dark, dense, cool, steep, beautiful, lush, sounds wonderful with the birds calling out to each other, and stays true to its name “Bwindi” which I was told means darkness.
We stayed at the lovely Gorilla Heights lodge, and I will give my experience of the place in a later post. We were warmly welcomed and rested properly the day before the trek.
The Nkuringo sector, where we did our hiking is one of the highest places in the park and home to the oldest and largest habituated gorilla family in that sector, also named Nkuringo. It is quite far from Kampala (about a seven hour drive), so we opted to take a short flight via Aerolink, from Entebbe airport to Kisoro airstrip. This is a great option when you have kids with you so you do not have to spend too much time on the roads that can be tiring for the whole family.
To prepare for the trek one will need:-
- Well fitting hiking boots.
- Raincoat /jacket
- Sunhat and sunglasses
- Proper and comfortable hiking clothes- long sleeves t-shirt and khaki pants or cargo pants.
- Gorilla tracking permit- as well as the receipt.
- Face mask
- Walking stick
- Camera or phone.
- Packed lunch and some drinking water.
- Some cash or mobile money to hire a porter.
After an early and hot breakfast at the hotel, we set out for the ranger’s station where we would be assembled with other trekkers and briefed for the hike. The hotel was gracious enough to also provide us with a packed lunch (sandwiches, grilled chicken, fruit and drinking water).
Once we got to the ranger’s station run by Uganda Wildlife Authority, they first confirmed all our permits were in order and took us through the checklist and ensured we were all ready for the trek. This took some time as it also included being briefed about Bwindi forest, how it came to be a park and the various gorilla families found in that sector. The trek involves tracking the habituated gorillas; as they are used to human presence hence safer. The local community has various shops one can buy souvenirs and also offered entertainment via traditional dances to energise us for the hike.
Once the briefing session was over, we got walking sticks and porters for those who wanted and set off on another short 30 minute drive to the starting point of the trek. We were in a group of five tourists, three rangers, one of whom was armed, and all of us had a porter each.
We were lucky to start out in cool weather and no rain. The first few hours hiking were cheery, the air heavy with excitement and high energy as we enjoyed the beautiful sights and crisp fresh air. We passed through several tea plantations that have been planted by the local community, not only as a source of income, but to also act as a ‘fencing off’ strategy to keep the gorillas away from the villages to reduce human wildlife conflict. There are no proper paths one can speak off, we walked across streams, rocks and in trenches on the way. At the same time, our head ranger was communication with her fellow rangers who had been sent ahead to spot where the gorillas were in the forest. Apparently they do not stay in one place too long, or even spend a night in the same place. Once we cleared the tea plantations, we took a breather and time to rest a bit as we took in the forest’s scenic beauty and also prepare ourselves mentally to ascend; we just seemed to be going higher and higher.
Bwindi forest is home to many other animals other than the rare mountain gorillas we were tracking. There are elephants, baboons, various monkey species, hundreds of bird species, and even chimpanzees. We got to hear and spot some birds, monkeys and baboons from a distance. The terrain is rough, slippery, rocky in some places, wet in others and one may have to cross the streams and rivers by wading through. Hence the waterproof gear and hiking boots. The walking stick is important as it helps one maintain balance and also check depth when wading in the water. The long sleeves protect your arms from scratches from the leafy vegetation and the gloves protect your hands from stinging nettles or other plants you may hold on to that may have thorns or spikes.
After trekking for about three hours, I began to tire and slow down. I have never been good with heights and slopes, and as we kept going higher and deeper into the forest my heart was pounding hard and fast. But the thought of being able to see the gorillas spurred me on. The closer we got to where they were, the tougher the terrain, slippery, dense and rocky; this part made me sweat! It was also so quiet, other than the birds and hearing the rangers clear some foliage, the silence was palpable.
We got to a small clearing where we were to leave our bags with the porters and put on our face masks to protect the gorillas from any contagions we may have. We were briefed once more on the need to be silent, take photos and not get too close to the gorillas so as not to agitate them.
My words and these pictures I took with my lil’ phone do not do justice to the experience of seeing the gorillas up close. It was and is still so surreal in my mind. We walked on ahead for a couple of minutes and right there in front of us in the dense forest vegetation was the Nkuringo gorilla family in all its glory.
Some of the gorillas were on the ground, and others in the trees above feeding on wild fruit. The baby gorillas were frolicking about, some were nursing and others practicing their climbing skills. The group had two silver back gorillas. One was on the ground napping, another, the alpha male of the family, was in the trees above, getting some fruit.
The rangers allowed us to have one hour with the gorillas, telling us more about them, letting us take as many photos and videos as we could and all the while ensuring we kept our masks on, didn’t get loud and didn’t get too close to them. We were privileged to spend time with the Nkuringo family which is unique with about 20 members. (You can also read more about the various gorilla families found in Bwindi here).
The long and arduous trek was definitely worth it to view our gorilla cousins up close. They are so used to humans that some of them seemed to be communicating to the rangers in grunts. A few of the younger gorillas kept climbing up and looking back at us, making me wonder if they were putting on a show for us. Once you are there with them though, you cannot fail to marvel at how big, beautiful and majestic these creatures are. They are so precious yet endangered, with a population of around 1000 found in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. The biggest risk the gorillas face is human; poachers and encroachment into their natural habitats. The reason they need to kept safe is unlike other gorillas, mountain gorillas cannot exist in captivity The Uganda Wildlife Authority in Bwindi as well as other conservation partners are working really hard to protect this precious species and funds collected from our permits as well as donations go towards their protection efforts.
After an exhilarating one hour or so, it was time to move on and let the gorillas be. We left the silverbacks dozing, the baby gorillas playing and swinging around and a couple of them nursing / being fed by their mothers. This is an experience I will never forget and will forever be grateful for the opportunity to see them up close.
We headed back to where we had left the porters and our walking sticks and bags and began to head back through the dense forest to the pickup point. The way back was no less arduous, it even seemed more treacherous. We had ascended up steep muddy trenches to see the gorillas and heading down was really difficult. Most of us in the group kept sliding and skidding more than once, even ending up on our bums several times due to the slippery terrain. We were however in high spirits after seeing the gorillas so the falls did not discourage us in the least.
When we got to the first clearing where the tea plantations began, the rangers let us have both a lunch and bathroom break as it was far and safe enough from the gorillas and other wild animals. We however had to eat our lunch in a rush as it began to drizzle and we could see some incoming rain clouds a short distance away. Once sated and energised enough we continued on our way back and then my shoes fell apart!
Yes guys, my precious hiking boots that I had had for a while fell apart. I lost the sole on one boot at first. But could still trek, but as we went over the rocks and wet ground, the inner sole got wet and started falling apart too. Luckily I had two pairs of socks on, but on rough muddy and rocky terrain, it was not easy or pleasing. My porter got a shopping bag and tied it round my foot which worked well for some distance but got ripped in the short sharp tea branches. Bummer!
We had to keep stopping and I slowed the group down as I had to now be careful where I stepped to not hurt my foot. As we crossed one of the streams, I noticed the sole on the other boot had loosened too. Our quick thinking ranger quickly tied my straps under and above it to keep it attached to the shoe, which worked for the rest of the trek. It did lower my spirits as nobody ever wants to slow people down, but on the other hand, I was glad it happened on the way back from seeing the gorillas instead of before which would have surely depressed me. I had to find some humour in it to encourage myself to keep walking but it was not easy.
I was both mentally and physically exhausted and I kept telling myself that after this I never ever want to hike again. Some sections were muddy and squishy and all this was seeping to my toes in my right foot. My bum was sore after a few skidding and sliding down the slopes, my thighs on fire, my ankle paining from places where I had stepped into holes that one cannot tell are there due to the dense vegetation. All I wanted at that moment was to get out of there; but I had to keep walking as it WAS the only way of getting out of there!
H and our porter were very patient with me and encouraging, as well as one of the rangers who kept us entertained with stories of the gorillas and interesting things that have happened on gorilla treks. It did cheer me up a bit to hear that hiking boots falling apart does happen more than one would think.
As we neared the place where we had left the vehicles, the hike seemed even more treacherous, I could barely breathe or think straight but guys I did it! After a lot of positive encouragement I finally made it to the vehicle. We buckled up and settled in for the ride back to the rangers’ office to get our gorilla tracking certificates.
Our gorilla tracking experience took a total of seven hours, and it was worth every single minute. We knew that was the most physically challenging sector but also the most scenic to me. The rolling hills, acres of tea plantations, crisp fresh mountain air, amazing views of the impenetrable forest and if clear, the Virunga mountain range, as well as views of crater lakes on the way to Bwindi, it is truly an amazing and enjoyable experience.
We got back to the hotel, tired, happy and still giddy with excitement of the experience. The kids could not wait to see the photos and videos and were also glad to see that we were back safe and sound. I had to throw away my boots, though it was a pity I didn’t get to take a picture of them in their deplorable state but oh well, they had served their purpose already.
I was proud of myself in the end. This trip had been a long time planning and seeing it come to pass was an amazing experience and privilege that I cannot take for granted. I am grateful that I got to do it successfully and safely. One of the things H and I have always agreed on is to take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy as much of a place as we can while we are still there. Uganda never ceases to amaze me with all its fertile land, delicious food and fruit, scenic beauty and warm hospitality from its people.
Now on to the next bucket list item.