Locking eyes with a wild silverback mountain gorilla in the jungle of Central Africa has to be one of the planet’s best wildlife experiences. Nothing else quite comes close. If you love wildlife, this should be at the top of your bucket list.
I’ve been lucky enough to track mountain gorillas twice – once in Rwanda and once in Uganda. Each time was a magical experience, and I would definitely do it again, even though gorilla tracking is by no means a cheap adventure – permits cost $1500 in Rwanda and $600 in Uganda, which allow you just one hour with these animals.
Part of the adventure is the journey to reach the gorillas. There are only a few habituated gorilla groups in Rwanda and Uganda, and while the trackers don’t know where they are all of the time, they have a pretty good idea of the area each group is in. You arrive for your tracking experience in the morning at the entrance to the park – Volcanoes National Park, in the northwest of Rwanda, or Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. After meeting up with your guide and trackers you head out into the forest to find the habituated group you’ve been allocated to. Both Volcanoes and Bwindi are particularly hilly, which means there’s a lot of climbing up and down steep, muddy slopes.
In Rwanda, our group stuck to the trail, so the hiking was fairly easy. After about an hour or so, we reached our gorilla group. Bwindi was far more challenging. After walking on the hiking path for less than 30 minutes, the trackers led us off the path and into the dense jungle. The trackers and guides had to hack through the undergrowth with machetes, and in a few minutes, I was covered in sweat and mud streaks from falling on the slippery slope.
All I could think about on both hikes was seeing the gorillas. In Rwanda, we had a bit of time to prepare ourselves, because the guides told us the group was just behind a clump of trees, but in Bwindi, the gorillas surprised us by suddenly appearing in the trees above our heads. The hour that you get to spend with the gorillas, once you reach them, seems far too short. These peaceful animals are so human like, and you can’t stop drawing comparisons with people. It’s just incredible to watch them play with one another, swing through the trees, munch on leaves and stems and do roly polys on the floor. Contrary to what you might think, they’re not aggressive at all and are not fussed about a group of humans ogling their every move. The most exciting moment of both tracking experiences came for me in Uganda, when a juvenile gorilla got up from her eating spot, and walked right towards me, brushing past my leg as she walked past to find some new leaves to eat. I’ll never forget the thrill of that touch!
The best thing about mountain gorilla tracking was not even the adventurous tracking or coming face-to-face with the gorillas, it was knowing that by being there and paying my permit, I was contributing to the survival of a severely endangered species. Thanks to tourism, gorilla numbers have been on the rise in recent years. The money from the permits goes towards the upkeep of the parks, paying park rangers, preventing poaching and supporting community projects and many former poachers have turned to tourism instead of poaching. While seeing gorillas in the wild was amazing, the best part of the experience was the rewarding feeling of being able to help them survive in some small way.
Sarah Duff is a freelance travel writer and photographer from South Africa whose assignments have taken her all over Africa. In the name of work she’s tracked mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, driven around Malawi and Mozambique in a Mini, trekked over sand dunes in the Namib Desert, sailed dhows around Lamu Island in Kenya, eaten her way around Mauritius, hiked into an active volcano on Reunion Island and explored the South African bush on foot. www.sarahduff.com