Uganda: The Trek for Mountain Gorillas
Gorilla trekking has been on my ever growing life bucket list since I first overheard conversations about it while in the Masai Mara. I am adventurous, love animals, an avid risk taker, have a huge case of FOMO (fear of missing out), and enjoy hiking, so naturally trekking for Gorillas seemed to fit right in the cookie cutter of myself.
Just saying “trekking for gorillas” sounds so extreme! Seriously, who does that? In my mind, I imagine myself as Jane from Tarzan with a Lara Croft outfit, trekking through an impenetrable jungle, mistaking anaconda’s with vines, giant spiders waiting to eat my soul (ew), jaguars lurking in the shadows in the trees above, only to fall upon a family of critically endangered gorillas with a hot, wild Tarzan, eight pack, biceps, and all. Ok, maybe this is just a tad extreme on the creative side, but a girl can hope, right?
For the last 1+ years, I have I have been on a sabbatical. I went from lady boss, working as an expat overseas for 5 years at a Fortune 500 company to now, a work-free nomad. After traveling the world from East to West through the Silk Road, learning French, spending time with family, diving with sharks, and exploring the most remote islands in the world, I wanted to spend the last part of my sabbatical giving back and volunteering for an impactful organization. Through some friends, I stumbled upon an organization in Uganda building schools for children in rural areas of the country. This was perfect to kill two bucket list birds with one sabbatical stone; giving back through volunteering and going to go find me some gorillas!
A few years ago, the mountain gorilla population was dwindling from 700 individuals due to civil dispute, poaching, and humans encroaching on their natural habitat. Since the decline, conservation efforts have been made, including the gorilla trek. During the high tourism seasons, the trekking permit, alone, will cost $650! Yes, that’s US DOLLARS.
Initially, as a well-seasoned traveler, I thought Hmm… a third world country + rare animals + a lot of money (SIX HUNDRED FIFTY DOLLARS, A LOT) probably adds up to a bad situation in which animal exploitation is used for tourism. This can be seen at all the Tiger Sanctuaries in Thailand, elephant riding in most of Asia, riding dolphins in Asia and South America, and many more places. I was ecstatic to find that the price for the permits goes directly towards the conservation efforts to fund research, veterinarians, trainings for the park rangers and the gorilla trackers, and more to ensure the gorillas are safe from poachers. In fact, with the funding from the trekking, the mountain gorilla population has increased from 700 to over 880 individuals!
These 880 mountain gorillas can only be found in Uganda, DR Congo, and Rwanda, with Uganda having about 340 individuals. The majority of these individuals live in the UNESCO Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and let me tell you, it was named this way for a reason. There was absolutely NO PATH AT ALL. My feet were constantly getting tangled in knee deep vines and sloshing through calf deep mud, giant leaves and branches were slapping my face from left to right, and thorns were ripping at my pants and clothes (definitely wore my expensive Lululemon’s to look somewhat cute on this trek, but no, BIG MISTAKE).
You know those situations that are so ridiculous, you laugh-cry so hard that your stomach hurts and people think you are out of your mind? Well, yes, that crazy person was me laugh crying, out of breath, trekking in the middle of this outrageous “path” through the impenetrable forest. The rangers tried to follow a recent path made by the mountain elephants through the forest, but we still had to clear the path with machetes, while simultaneously hiking up and down steep slopes of the mountain. Talk about road less traveled!
However, as soon as we stumbled upon a family of mountain gorillas I forgot all my thoughts on how I needed to run five miles when I get home, my ripped Lululemon’s, my unhealthy amount of profuse sweating that could have possibly supplied the Niagara Falls, my mud drenched feet and legs, and the bird nest on top of my head, a.k.a. my hair. No, there was no buff Tarzan. No, I did not look like Lara Croft, not even remotely close. No, I did not encounter any anacondas or jaguars or life sucking spiders (Thank you, Universe), but seeing these amazing wild animals up close and in person was much more life-changing than I could have imagined. As if it wasn’t enough of an incredible experience, this particular family of gorillas had a THREE DAY OLD BABY. Is this even real life right now? This baby was so cute that I swear it gave me baby fever (Quiet 25+ year old ovaries, I don’t have the financial means right now for a baby!)
Watching these wild mountain gorillas, up close and in person, spoke volumes to me. Seeing the mother coo and caress her new born to sleep, watching the adolescent gorillas play and joke around with each other in the treetops, and seeing the dominant silverback protecting his family with the oldest silver back grumpy and senile, made me realize that we, as humans, are much more similar to the other mammals of this world than we think. Continue to be kind, love more, and always share this beautiful earth with all the mammals of the world.
Tips if you want to do the gorilla trek:
· Go during low season! Between the months of April, May, and November, the permits are at a whopping $450. It’s still expensive, but it’s much cheaper than $650!
· Get your permit directly with UWA in Kampala, so you don’t have to pay fees for obtaining the permit from a travel agent. The UWA office is CASH ONLY.
· If you’re an experienced traveler, skip the hired car and take the local bus. From Kampala to Kabale, the bus costs only 20,000 UGX (about 6 USD). It’s a long ride, but the scenery is breathtaking and you get more insight on local life outside of the city. You can stay in Kabale and take the long trek into the forest the morning of the trek, but I recommend staying in the forest because the scenery is stunning!
· Call directly to the hotels in the area to get a better rate. Online booking platforms are more than 3x the price. I stayed at Ruhija Gorilla Mist Camp with full board (awesome food), hot shower, and a private balcony with AMAZING views of forest in Uganda and Rwanda, for a fourth of the price by directly speaking with the owner.
· Bring a Zoom lens! If you’re lucky, the gorillas will be curious and come up to you (maybe even touch you!), but humans are advised to be at least 20 feet away.
· Don’t wear Lululemon’s… I’m joking, but seriously, don’t wear anything you don’t want to destroy or lose. Bring good shoes and tall socks. Waterproof hiking boots and socks would be ideal.
Thanks to GLT member Sophia K. for sharing her adventure in Uganda! If you’d like to follow more of her travels, check out Sophia Kim Travels for her website, Instagram, and Facebook. Interested in sharing your travel story or other website inquiries? Send a proposal/email to firstname.lastname@example.org!