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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A Guide to Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

We arrived just in time for an evening game drive and hired a Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) park ranger to accompany us into the park. His name was Charles and he wore a dark green uniform with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.

“What do you want to see?” he asked.

“A giraffe,” I said.

Five minutes into our drive, we saw one. It stood near the road, staring down at us as we took photos, and then crossed the road behind us.

I had imagined that finding the animals would be harder. I had also imagined more tourists. But not at Murchison. We practically had the park to ourselves.

Soon after our first giraffe sighting, we saw the whole shebang: elephants, buffalo, warthogs and several species of antelope including the tiny oribi, the masculine waterbuck, the majestic kob, and the Jackson’s Hartebeest which are apparently just as dumb as they look—after running from lions, the Hartebeest quickly forget about their predators and resume grazing.

As it grew dark, Charles directed our driver to take a quick detour. We left the main road and began driving toward a tree. I saw something bright red and tan but I didn’t know what it was. Then we stopped and I realized it was a fresh antelope carcass. There was nothing left but a head, legs and an open ribcage. On the other side of the tree was a lion. It was exhausted, panting heavily and too tired to lift its head.

Upon closer inspection, we noticed it was missing a leg, the result of poachers leaving traps in the park, Charles said. We would later see a giraffe with a mangled foot; an open trap doesn’t discriminate.

We watched the three-legged lion for a while and then drove to the next tree where another lion was resting. He was attractive with a thick orange mane, the sun setting behind him. He remained still as we crept closer, stopping just 5 meters from him to take pictures from inside the vehicle. Though I had been to zoos many times, it was different seeing animals in the wild, especially seeing the lion’s dinner. Had we come just a bit earlier we might have seen the kill.

Before long it was dark so we concluded our tour and planned to go again at sunrise.

On the second day, we saw the lions again, this time accompanied by a female. Still full from the antelope, they were unbothered by our presence as we drove in circles around them. The female ignored us and licked her paws like a house cat. Then she yawned, revealing her sharp fangs, and made eye contact with me. Her stare was piercing, reminding me that though they were docile now, they were still fierce predators.

By day’s end, we added hyenas, hippos and patas monkeys to our list. And by the time we left Murchison, after four total game drives, we had seen everything there is to see except for the leopard, which is only seen about once a month.

Though I’ve never been on other game drives, I’m inclined to think Murchison is one of the best. Namely, there’s an abundance of animals without an abundance of people.

Hiring a Ranger
Hiring a ranger is a must. Without Charles, we simply wouldn’t have had the same experience. He knew the trails and knew where to find specific animals. I also felt more comfortable getting out to take pictures since Charles could scare off any threatening animals with his AK. As a ranger, Charles was also allowed to take us off the beaten path and give us a more up close and personal tour.

Another important distinction is that we had rented a vehicle and hired a driver for our entire trip. We could therefore spend as much or as little time as we wanted in each place, and our driver was able to make arrangements for us, like calling to hire Charles for our game drives. We encountered the alternative while inside the park—an enormous bus with tourists baking on the rooftop and clinging to binoculars. It’s unlikely the driver had intimate knowledge of the park, Charles said, because these companies are based hours away in Kampala and Entebbe. They may claim to specialize in places like Murchison, but no one knows the park like the rangers.

Tipping
At the end of our first tour, we paid Charles the 20 or 25 dollar park charge for his services and added a 50% tip. While this percentage seems high, the actual tip was very little considering what we got out of the 3- to 4-hour tour. Apparently, though, this was an extremely generous tip. Charles told our driver he had never seen people tip like us. By the next day, our driver had received several calls from other rangers who wanted to take us on a tour, but we really liked Charles and booked him for all four game drives.

Visiting the Falls
If you want, you can get dangerously close to Murchison Falls, one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls that forces its way through a narrow opening in the rocks and flows into the Nile. The crashing water is loud and violent and there are no guard rails, just a warning spray-painted on the ground. Take this warning seriously as falling in would be certain death.

You can also get an elevated view of the falls if you take a short, steep hike nearby. It’s definitely picture-worthy, but it’s also very hot with tons of tsetse flies (which hurt like hell, I’m told, and spread dengue).

Where to Stay
While a bit pricy, Paraa Safari Lodge is located within the park, making it ideal for early morning game drives. The lodge is also nicely decorated, making you feel like an old-timey explorer. The food is good, the rooms overlook the Nile, and the staff is very gracious—with the exception of the ladies at the front desk who can be a bit cold and reluctant.

Paraa Lodge Boat Tour
Paraa Lodge offers a 3-hour boat tour down the Nile to see Murchison Falls. Along the way we saw a few crocs, some elephants and warthogs, and loads of hippos in the water. We also experienced one of Africa’s infamous freak storms. Halfway to the falls, we had to dock the boat due to strong winds and golf ball–sized hail. After half an hour, we were cold and wet. But at least we had Nile beers to drink—an American-style lager brewed in Jinja, Uganda—that we purchased from the bar onboard.

Then we resumed toward the falls and stopped for a few minutes when we reached a tiny island in the middle of the river. Here, there’s a great postcard-worthy photo op. Just hop off the boat, climb a bolder and have someone take your photo with the falls behind you.

Stephanie and Charles
Stephanie and Charles
Giraffes at Murchison Falls National Park
Giraffes at Murchison Falls National Park
Giraffes at Murchison Falls National Park
Giraffes at Murchison Falls National Park
Taking pictures at Murchison Falls National Park
Taking pictures at Murchison Falls National Park
Elephant at Murchison Falls National Park
Elephant at Murchison Falls National Park
Elephants at Murchison Falls National Park
Elephants at Murchison Falls National Park
Warthog at Murchison Falls National Park
Warthog at Murchison Falls National Park — my favorite animal from the trip!
Baby warthogs at Murchison Falls National Park
Baby warthogs at Murchison Falls National Park!
Warthog and friends at Murchison Falls National Park
Muddy warthog and friends at Murchison Falls National Park
Thorny bush at Murchison Falls National Park
Thorny bush at Murchison Falls National Park
Lilies at Murchison Falls National Park
Lilies at Murchison Falls National Park
Game drive at Murchison Falls National Park
Game drive at Murchison Falls National Park
Oribi at Murchison Falls National Park
Oribi at Murchison Falls National Park
Waterbuck at Murchison Falls National Park
Waterbuck at Murchison Falls National Park
Ugandan kob at Murchison Falls National Park
Ugandan kob at Murchison Falls National Park
Ugandan kob at Murchison Falls National Park
Ugandan kob at Murchison Falls National Park
Jackson's Hartebeest at Murchison Falls National Park
Jackson’s Hartebeest at Murchison Falls National Park
Taking pictures at Murchison Falls National Park
Taking pictures at Murchison Falls National Park
Lion at Murchison Falls National Park
Lion at Murchison Falls National Park
Lion at Murchison Falls National Park
Lion at Murchison Falls National Park
Ugandan kob at Murchison Falls National Park
Ugandan kob at Murchison Falls National Park
Lion's dinner at Murchison Falls National Park
Lion’s dinner at Murchison Falls National Park
Three-legged lion at Murchison Falls National Park
Three-legged lion at Murchison Falls National Park
Three-legged lion at Murchison Falls National Park
Three-legged lion at Murchison Falls National Park
Taking pictures at Murchison Falls National Park
Taking pictures at Murchison Falls National Park
Lioness at Murchison Falls National Park
Lioness at Murchison Falls National Park
Lioness at Murchison Falls National Park
Lioness at Murchison Falls National Park
Lioness at Murchison Falls National Park
Lioness at Murchison Falls National Park
Hyena at Murchison Falls National Park
Hyena at Murchison Falls National Park
Patas monkey at Murchison Falls National Park
Patas monkey at Murchison Falls National Park
Ugandan kob at Murchison Falls National Park
Ugandan kob at Murchison Falls National Park
Sunrise at Murchison Falls National Park
Sunrise at Murchison Falls National Park
Game drive at Murchison Falls National Park
Game drive at Murchison Falls National Park
Buffalo at Murchison Falls National Park
Buffalo at Murchison Falls National Park
Murchison Falls
Murchison Falls
Taking pictures at Murchison Falls
Taking pictures at Murchison Falls
Murchison Falls
Murchison Falls
Ferry to Paraa Safari Lodge at Murchison Falls National Park
Ferry to Paraa Safari Lodge at Murchison Falls National Park
Crossing Nile to Paraa Safari Lodge in Murchison Falls National Park
Taking ferry to Paraa Safari Lodge in Murchison Falls National Park
Paraa Safari Lodge
Paraa Safari Lodge
Paraa Safari Lodge
Paraa Safari Lodge
Paraa Safari Lodge
Paraa Safari Lodge
View of Nile from Paraa Safari Lodge
View of Nile from Paraa Safari Lodge
Hail storm on Paraa Lodge Boat Tour
Hail storm on Paraa Lodge Boat Tour
Waiting out the storm with a Nile on the Nile!
Waiting out the storm with a Nile on the Nile!
Hippos on Paraa Safari Lodge Boat Tour
Hippos on Paraa Safari Lodge Boat Tour
Hippos on Paraa Safari Lodge Boat Tour
Hippos on Paraa Safari Lodge Boat Tour
Murchison Falls from Paraa Lodge Boat Tour
Murchison Falls from Paraa Lodge Boat Tour
Paraa Lodge Boat Tour to Murchison Falls
Paraa Lodge Boat Tour to Murchison Falls