Volunteering for Orphfund meant I would be visiting Uganda for the first time, and I felt that while I was in the country it would be the perfect opportunity to tick off a bucket list item - seeing the endangered mountain gorillas!! It was something I wasn't sure I could afford (as I also planned to do a safari in Kenya) but knew I had to find a way and make it happen. So I have that "just do it/YOLO" mentality that sometimes means credit card debt :s But experiences like these are so worth it to me. None of us are promised tomorrow, so don't wait, live now etc.
I arrived in Entebbe, stayed a night in a guest house and the following morning my gorilla guide Robert picked me up. We started the long drive down the country to Lake Bunyonyi where I would stay for two nights at his new lake resort, a short distance from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where the gorillas are.
Robert kindly made many stops along the way for me to take photos. From the moment I landed in Uganda I was in awe at the beauty of the country. The greenest hills, luscious expansive fields and happy, friendly faces everywhere. I instantly loved the vibe of this country and didn’t expect Uganda to be so tropical and stunning!
I happened to be the only guest at Lake Bunyonyi Rock Resort and Robert, his family, and staff made sure I was treated like a queen! It is just the most lovely, serene place - I had a fantastic 3 days and he made sure I had the best gorilla trek experience. As a solo female traveller I was taken care of so well and made to feel very welcomed and comfortable. Robert gave me a lot of information about all the different areas of Uganda that we passed through as well as about the gorillas. He is very knowledgable and knows everyone so is definitely the man to take you around. It would not have been the same if I booked with anyone else. Also, they fed me so well - the food was fantastic!
So, the day of the gorilla trek I woke up early and we drove to Bwindi. It was so cold! I did not expect Africa to be a cold place and didn't pack appropriately for it so I was keen to start the trek to warm up asap. But first our briefing; The head tracker explained what not to do (run away from a gorilla) and the 7 metre rule etc. He also explained that finding the gorilla family can take anywhere from a 30 minute hike to a 7 hour hike depending on where they might be located. The rainforest has no paths and is dense but I was ready!
The group was very small and split in two - each would visit a different gorilla family in a different part of the forest. Robert knows all the trackers and put in a good word to get me in a small group. Luckily that meant it was just me and one other tourist (an elderly man from Texas named Gary), while the other group consisted of two couples. As Gary was older, he hired two porters to help carry him through the rainforest, one at each arm. I hired one porter to carry my camera backpack. This is highly recommended as it provides the locals with employment and is only $15. Even though our trek was not too long I was glad I didn't have my backpack weighing me down. I went ahead with my porter and tracker while Gary took his time behind us. I found out that they allocated the closest gorilla family to us because of Gary's walking ability. It took just over two hours to reach them as some parts of the rainforest were challenging. We also had an armed guard tailing us; at our briefing it was explained that wild elephants roam the rainforest and can be quite territorial so if we were to encounter them, the guard would fire shots into the air to scare them off.
It's hard to explain the feeling of seeing my first gorilla. I wanted to squeal but I didn't. I must have had the cheesiest grin on my face. And then I saw a mother and a very young baby and did squeal. And then I saw the huge dominant silverback and my breath was taken away. Gary made it behind us and explained that he didn't have a camera with him so for me to go ahead and get all the prime position shots. I could not for the life of me understand why someone would not bring a camera. That is until he explained that this was his 7th gorilla trekking experience!!! He was happy standing back watching them from afar so from then on it was like a personal gorilla trek - the trackers made sure I got the best positions for photos, moving branches out of the way to give me clear shots and also encouraging me to sit in spots very close to them (the 7 metre rule went out the window).
I didn't hesitate and the trackers communicated with the gorillas constantly (by making an “ahemm” noise that sounded like they were clearing their throat) to let them know we are friendly. Usually a group on a trek would include 8 tourists all vying for prime photo position but it was just me. It felt like a very personal experience. I sat close and watched the baby gorilla play. The baby was curious and would come close to me, looking at me quizzically before his mother pulled him back to her. At one stage she got up and walked straight towards me. The tracker just said "don't panic, stay still" as she brushed past my shoulder with her baby clinging to her back.
The trackers seemed keen for me to get a good shot of the dominant silverback male who was busy eating in a bush behind a bunch of dense branches. After one too many times of them trying to move the branches out of the way to give me a clear view, the dominant male stood up very quickly and made a gesture of a warning charge. My instinct was to run but I was held still by one of the trackers who made the "ahem" throat clearing noise and the male sat back down. I assured the trackers that I did not want to interrupt this silverback's lunch and preferred to take photos of the baby and mother anyway.
We are allowed one hour with the gorilla families and this time flew by. We ate our packed lunch and began the walk back through the rainforest.
I was overwhelmed and exhausted from all the stimulation that once I was back at the lake resort I tried to sleep but was wide awake, still high from the experience.
The next morning Robert drove me the 5 hours to Kasese where I was to meet up with the other Orphfund volunteers for the first time. We had lots of photo stops along the way and I visited the Kitagata hot springs, where many people come from far away to bathe in the mineral-rich water valued for its believed healing properties. The water from deep inside the earth felt almost boiling in some parts!
Being the only white (and clothed) person meant there was a lot of attention on me. Everywhere you go, people yell out “muzungu!” which means white skin, or white person. The kids run after the car waving and yelling out “muzungu, muzungu!” they are curious and excited when they see foreigners especially in the smaller villages where you stand out like a sore thumb.
Ultimately, gorilla trekking in Uganda was amazing - I feel so grateful that I had the opportunity to interact and lock eyes with these intelligent, gentle giants. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. The beauty of the Ugandan countryside and the warmth of the locals is equally as memorable.
Here is some information on the habituation of mountain gorillas and the benefit it has had for ecotourism and the economy in Uganda. I highly recommend adding this one to your bucket list!
Eco-tourism and the habituation of endangered mountain gorillas
In the 1960s and 70s mountain gorillas were threatened to near extinction by poaching, disease and rebel militia. And despite being now a critically endangered species with an estimated 880 left in the wild, the fact that they are here at all defies statistics. In their darkest hour, gorilla numbers plummeted to just 250 in Central and East Africa.
The legendary primate researcher and humanitarian Jane Goodall said "it's tourism involvement with the mountain gorillas that saved them".
Several projects in Uganda are taking the role of Eco-tourism one step further in a last ditch attempt to strike them off the endangered species list.
Humans share 98% of gorillas' DNA and our almost identical genes have made it possible for a process called habituation to be implemented, whereby researchers and rangers repeatedly visit groups of wild gorillas until they tolerate the presence of humans. And while habituation is not an entirely new concept, it's deployment with tourists is a more recent development - helping to financially support the ongoing conservation work that traditional habituation provides.
There are 38 gorilla families in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, 13 of which have been habituated for tourism. The current situation in Bwindi is reassuringly stable, helped by giving locals a stake in their local wildlife through community-based conservation, which has made them advocates for the gorillas' survival. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that one mountain gorilla can indirectly generate US$2.5 million over its lifetime in income. Funds from each gorilla trek goes directly to impoverished locals and communities receive 20% of the entry fees generated from the park. The remainder of fees generate revenue to protect Bwindi.
Thankfully, the delicate balance between nature and tourism is carefully managed in Bwindi, with only a maximum of 88 permits issued a day across the 331 square kilometre park.
The guidelines established for tourist visits have been developed to respect the special relationship that exists through habituation: the gorillas briefly letting us into their world.
The experience is less about being a voyeur and more about being an active participant in the conservation process. Local gorilla vet and researcher Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says "tourists are basically researchers for the day with minimal behavioural disturbance to the gorillas". In groups limited to 8, they get to track the gorillas and look for signs like fresh dung and discarded fruit with rangers and researchers.
The park rangers and researchers habituated gorillas from 100 metres right down to 5. It's a lengthy process that can take anywhere from 2 to 4 years. Habituated groups have grown overall at a steady and encouraging rate (4.1% per year). By contrast, the total number of gorillas in the unhabituated groups has tended to decline (0.7% per year). Habituation protects, among other things, by keeping poachers away. And this is largely thanks to the research field staff whose daily monitoring of the gorillas have made them the first line of defence against poachers.
Mountain gorillas are incapable of surviving in zoos so the researchers' ability to observe our mighty mountain cousins at close range in their habitat has generated new data on their behaviour, ecology and physiology, thanks to habituation.
The WWF acknowledges "Eco-tourism - socially and environmentally responsible tourist visits, including carefully guided trips to see gorillas - can also be an important way for local people to gain benefit from living in close proximity to gorillas".
The key is putting local people in the frontline of its sustainable ecotourism initiatives.
As long as the economic value of ecotourism works in favour of local communities and human interest in seeing our closest kin in the wild continues, habituation could very well be the lifeline that primates so desperately need.
Next week: I’m looking forward to sharing my experience as a volunteer at the Orphfund Kasese orphanages in my next blog post so keep your eyes peeled!