What to Expect from Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

After a brief introduction, our tour guide, Obed, led us into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest following directions from the gorilla trackers via radio. That morning, our gorilla family was at the top of the mountain. We were joined by four people from South Africa, flanked by park personnel carrying AK-47s, and accompanied by paid porters who helped carry our bags.

Our porter was Rulia. She was tough and graceful, effortlessly maneuvering the forest wearing rubber rain boots and carrying our backpack full of water bottles. I followed behind her, using a walking stick for balance while upright, and clawing my way up on all fours at steeper points. The soil was soft and gave way underfoot, so I grabbed for rocks and vines as I climbed. Before I put on gloves, I got a handful of thorns. And when I lifted my sunglasses, I was slapped in the eye with a branch. At least I had sturdy pants and good boots.

We climbed slowly and took several water breaks. Once we finally reached the top, or at least a plateau with level ground, we had to head back down; the gorillas had moved during our ascent. Obed led us with his machete, hacking a new trail for us to follow, and after four hours in the forest, we finally reached the gorillas.

Since they are habituated and used to human presence, they didn’t mind our thousands of camera clicks and went about their routines of eating and grooming. The mother was nursing a baby and we poised our cameras waiting to catch its tiny face. That was the strangest part about seeing gorillas in the wild; knowing their fierce power while suppressing that fear so effortlessly, so present in the moment with near-anxiety that you have only 60 minutes in your lifetime to do this exact thing, and to get photos you’ll be happy with. We furiously took photos both out of excitement and for fear the gorillas would leave at any moment. Later, once we all had good shots, we relaxed, put our lenses down and just sat to observe. Our hour was up in no time.

We left the gorillas then stopped to eat our packed lunches. Then we headed out of the forest. The route was even steeper than before and Obed directed us to scoot down on our butts. I slid several feet at a time down the soft soil which became looser as we each took our turn down the trail. Sometimes Rulia would grab my foot and place it in a sturdy spot or untangle it from a vine. As we descended, we loosened rocks which tumbled down on those below us. A large one narrowly missed my husband’s ribs.

And then came the rain.

It poured for an hour, big fat drops of ice cold rain, turning the forest into a muddy slip-and-slide. Rulia was ahead of me, insisting I grab her hand with each step. But reaching for her below me was throwing off my balance. Eventually, I ignored her outreached hand, trusting my instincts to get low to the ground. I literally crab-walked through the steepest and muddiest parts. I felt sturdy and moved swiftly without slipping until the land was flat and I could stand.

By the time we returned to the park entrance, after 7 hours in the forest, I was exhausted, caked in mud, and grateful for no broken bones. Of his 9 years of experience leading these treks, Obed said this was his third most dangerous.

Our trek ended with a “graduation ceremony.” Then we tipped Obed and Rulia for their hard work and headed back to our lodge for a long night of mud removal and comparing photos.

9 Tips for Gorilla Trekking

    1. Hire a porter, or two. Your porter will be very helpful during the trek, and this is a good way to support the local economy. Porters take turns working the trails and get only a few opportunities per month. The cost is around $20. You should also tip.
    2. Wear gardening gloves.
    3. Keep your sunglasses on to protect your eyes. Branches have a way of slapping you in the face.
    4. Bring a rain jacket, not a poncho. Ponchos can get tangled up and ripped. Bring a rain cover for your day bag.
    5. Bring at least 2 liters of water per person. You could be in the forest a while.
    6. Wear long sleeves and sturdy pants that can stand up to rocks and thorns.
    7. Wear good hiking boots. I wore the LOWA Renegade GTX® Mid. They were comfortable right out of the box and had great ankle support.
    8. If offered a walking stick, take it. Mine was a huge help in keeping my balance.
    9. Bring a waterproof camera, especially during the rainy season.

Obed giving instruction Obed giving instruction

Distance to keep from gorillas
Distance to keep from gorillas
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest ...
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest …
And we begin ...
And we begin …
Getting hot and steep
Getting hot and steep
Our porter Rulia
Our porter Rulia
Peering out from the brush
Peering out from the brush

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

The descent
The descent

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

scooting down
scooting down (and looking rough!)
Here comes the rain
Here comes the rain

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

After: wet and muddy
After: wet and muddy
"graduation ceremony"
“Graduation ceremony” with Obed

 

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The Batwa Experience Near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

On my fourth day in Uganda, I visited the Batwa pygmies just outside the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. They are notorious for their small stature—4’9” and shorter—and this was the only thing I knew about them. Initially, I feared the experience would be like the episode of An Idiot Abroad when Karl Pilkington visits a dwarf village in China prompting discussion of whether such experiences are exploitative.

Fortunately, the experience was a positive one. The Batwa welcomed us, knowing we were there to learn about their culture and to support them. Our guide, Levi, walked us through the village discussing how the Batwa are adapting to a new way of life. Though the Batwa had dwelled in the Bwindi Forest for millennia, they were evicted by the Ugandan government in 1992 when the forest was turned into a national park. Now, the Batwa struggle to adapt to the demands of modern society while trying to maintain their history and culture. Already, they have lost their traditional language.

We were led to an outdoor stage where Levi introduced us to the Batwa. We took a seat on wooden benches as they gathered in a semicircle, some carrying instruments. My husband then stood and introduced us and Levi translated. Then the Batwa entertained us with song and dance. It was a spirited performance, which masked the sad nature of the message. One of the songs described their plight after the eviction, the uncertainty surrounding the future of their people.

After the performance, Levi explained some of the difficulties the Batwa face in modern Uganda. Once nomadic forest dwellers, the Batwa have had to learn to farm and to use currency. One of the elderly men described his bewilderment at needing money to buy meat. In the past, they had hunted and gathered what they needed, living in harmony with the forest.

Next, we visited the Batwa’s traditional housing including ground huts and a tree house with a ladder which we were invited to enter. The women showed us how they weave bags and baskets, and Levi explained that the Batwa’s terracotta-colored clothing was made of bark cloth. When we left, we purchased a doll and a small basket, gave a donation to the Batwa elder, and thanked them for sharing their day with us.

As we left, I thought about the previous day. I had spent the entire day hiking in the Bwindi forest to see endangered mountain gorillas—there are less than a thousand in the wild and none in captivity. My permit cost $500, the average per capita income of a Ugandan, and presumably helps to protect the forest and its animals. And while no one wants to see an animal go extinct, I felt conflicted, as my trip to see the gorillas was in a way at the expense of the Batwa. To protect the forest and to save the gorillas, this ancient people and its culture have been cast aside, doomed to one day exist only in history books and museums.

In the end, however, I still recommend a trip to the Bwindi National Forest to see the mountain gorillas. Spending a day in the forest gave me a deeper appreciation for the Batwa and for all that they have lost. It also brought me to the Batwa people who now live just outside the park and who need visitors to help keep their story alive.

Learn more about the Batwa Experience at www.batwaexperience.com.

Note: The Batwa Experience is usually a 5-hour affair including a traditional meal; however, we asked for a shortened version due to our travel schedule. Contact the manager of the Batwa Experience for a personalized tour.

Levi Busingye
busingyelevi@yahoo.com

The Batwa The Batwa The Batwa The Batwa
The Batwa
The Batwa The Batwa The Batwa The Batwa The Batwa The Batwa The Batwa The Batwa