About 9 years ago, I set about putting together the start of what has become a pretty lengthy and ambitious personal "bucket list". The list was hastily, but thoughtfully, crafted a couple of weeks before leaving for Canada, where it was hoped I would be able to start ticking off items in stylishly grand fashion.
I distinctly remember how one of the very first items I listed was to go trekking in search of Africa's mountain gorillas – those HUGE, hairy, insanely human-like, gentle beasts who were, and to some extent still are, critically endangered.
So when it came to our African adventure planning process late last year, the opportunity to tackle this once-in-a-lifetime experience, although quite pricey thanks to some pretty steep national park entrance fees (US$600 per person, per day), was WAY too tempting to turn down.
Turning to my friends at G Adventures, we were able to book the ideal overland camping tour that would take us through Kenya and Uganda, on PART ONE of our month-long holiday.
Departing from Nairobi with our guide George, driver Steve, and companions, Kirsten and I embarked on literally three dusk-till-dawn days on the road in our rock-solid overland truck, "Luvuvhu" on the dusty, bumpy, East African roads, to cross from Kenya into the lush green mountains of Uganda. Along the way, we collected 19 other like-minded travellers from all over the world including Germany, England, Canada and Norway.
Our base for the couple of nights surrounding our gorilla trek was a beautiful little spot on the banks of Lake Bunyonyi at the Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort. Here we set up our tents on a grassy terrace overlooking the lake and watched the afternoon storm roll in, a seemingly regular event in the region.
Following dinner, as the rain continued to fall around our cosy dining shelter, a representative from the gorilla trekking tourist operation addressed our group, communicating all the details we would need to know for the morning, like how the group would be broken up, what to wear, how much water and other supplies to bring with us, and, the bit that hit really hard, just how early we would need to be vertical ready to leave! I think "stupid o'clock" is how George referred to the departure time requested of us.
Regardless, there was a real sense of excitement and anticipation amongst the group as we retreated to our tents in an attempt to get as much sleep as possible before the vans arrived to pick us up early in the morning.
Rise and shine hikers!
"Stupid o'clock" rolled around, and weary bodies started emerging back at the dining shelter for breakfast as the rain continued to fall in the dark – not exactly the most motivating conditions for a group about to set out hiking into the mountains.
Breaking up into three groups of 5, 7 and 9, we all piled into the vans that arrived to pick us up and headed off in different directions correlating to the various regions we had been designated. One group's zone was quite close to camp, while our trekking area, the only Eastern zone of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was a 2 hour drive away.
As daylight slowly broke through the thick cloud that seemed to only get thicker as we gained altitude, we slowly wound our way up towards an area known as Ruhija, where we would begin our adventure.
Time for some gorilla trekking!
Arriving at the interpretation centre in Ruhija, we had now entered the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site located in south-western Uganda, part of the aforementioned Bwindi Impenetrable Forest which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo on the western side.
Our mini G Adventures group of 5 was joined by another 3 random people making up the maximum of 8 allowed in any one gorilla trekking group. We were met by our guide who gave us a quick briefing on what to expect and how to behave around the gorilla group we would be encountering. With the education session done and dusted, it was time to get all dressed ready for the wet conditions we would be hiking in, grab ourselves a wooden stick to assist us on the slippery terrain, and make our way towards the trail head.
Although the trail was pretty nicely groomed at the outset, we soon became very thankful for our sticks as the steepness of the terrain ramped up – not surprising given the fact we were on Uganda's highest tracking trail at 2345m.
We were all wondering just how far and how long we were going to have to trek before, fingers crossed, finding the gorilla group we were looking for. We had been told that it could potentially take anywhere between 2-6 hours to find a group which we could then spend strictly 1 hour with, before making the return trip back to base.
Fortunately for us, we were only about an hour along the trail when our guide's mobile phone sprang into life as he received news of the location of the gorillas. It was at this point that we broke off the main trail and literally just headed straight into the dense, heavily vined forest with our guide hacking away at a new path for us to follow.
Another 15-20 minutes of scrambling later and we met up with a couple more scouting trackers, signalling our proximity to the group. It was an exciting moment as we could hear the gorillas picking and grazing their way through the forest just up ahead.
We were told to put down our sticks, have our last sips of water for the next little bit, and to get our cameras ready. I couldn't quite work out the logic behind dropping our sticks, given that they had been MORE than handy having left the main trail, but it was explained to us that the gorillas associate sticks with the pygmy tribes of the area who, in the past, used to hunt the gorillas with similar looking wooden spears.
So yeah, probably not the best idea to keep them on hand. Got it.
We took a couple of excited deep breaths and moved ahead...
Meeting the Kyaguriro gorillas
I think it's important to know at this point that no matter what I write, nor what photos I include below, nothing you are about to see or read will EVER be able to capture or communicate just how fascinating, intimidating, exciting, terrifying and downright awesome spending time with these stunning creatures in their own habitat is.
However, I'll give it my best shot.
We pushed through a final bit of dense forest and then descended slightly into a swampy area where we suddenly came face-to-face with one of the dominant male silverbacks of the 19-strong Kyaguriro group, "Rukina" who was calmly sitting, munching away on the vines. It was truly breathtaking.
Scanning the forest, we spied and were also able to observe 2 or 3 infants and a couple of adult females. There was no doubt about it though, as cute as the babies were, the sheer size and presence of the silverback held my attention for the 10 minutes or so we were able to spend with them before they all got up and wandered off in search of more food.
Habituated in 1999, initially for research purposes only, the Kyaguriro group are now able to be observed by tourists which meant slowly and quietly following the gorillas through the swampy terrain posed no threat to us whatsoever.
As it turned out, the biggest issue we had was occasionally sinking up to our knees in mud as we awkwardly attempted to follow the seemingly fleet-footed gorillas in their tracks. Even getting my shoes dirty and wet seemed like a disaster at first, but the quick reality check that what I was doing was a once in a lifetime experience, regularly sinking to my shins in the sloppy mud suddenly seemed like a minor distraction.
Needless to say all of our cameras were getting a fair workout at this point as the gravity of what we were experiencing sunk in and the reflex action was to capture every moment of it for future reference.
At one point, the accompanying armed guard at the rear of our party alerted us to a second, trailing silverback that moved in behind and then around us. My research leads me to believe that this spectacularly handsome gorilla was "Rukara", a younger silverback who had immigrated across from the neighbouring "Bitkura" group.
There were more than a couple of moments where we eyeballed one another which was both beautiful and scary at the same time! He hung around grazing on nearby foliage for a little while before he too moved off with the rest of the group.
Following our guides once more, we put in one more effort to follow the gorillas uphill and out of the swampy area. Leaving the forest floor, the group had moved up into the trees by the time we caught up with them, giving us a different, elevated view of their foraging behaviour for the remaining few minutes we were permitted to spend with them.
All too soon we heard the calls of "Last photos, last photos!", and before we knew it, we were forced to tear ourselves away from the amazing gorilla group who had so graciously allowed us to spend part of our morning with them.
Reluctantly, but with an adrenalin rush that would prove to last most of the day, we began our return ascent back out of the forest. Back at base, we took some time to dry off, get into some warm clothes and have a bite to eat before we were presented with certificates commemorating our once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Bucket list item. Check! Big smiles. CHECK!
Some time to relax and reflect
Arriving back at camp earlier than expected (according to George), we had the luxurious opportunity to rinse our clothes and shoes, and shower before retiring to the bar where we met up with members of another of the groups that had returned, to share our encounters over a couple (or more) "Nile Specials".
Then... a little later in the afternoon, as if the day couldn't get any better, we headed back to the dining shelter to find George well underway in preparing what would prove to be a pretty spectacular dinner. The enterprising fella was busy hunched over his coal fire box rustling up no less than 23 or more peri-peri maryland chicken cuts... YUMMMMMMMMMO!
Oh, and he just happened to throw in some roast potatoes and home-made garlic bread into that culinary scenario as well.
In conclusion, I think everyone on the tour will agree with me when I say today was one of those days in your life that you'll pretty much remember forever. Our expectations were lofty and the experience we had with those big black hairy loveable creatures up there in the mountains was nothing short of magic!
To anyone considering this wild adventure in the future, please, please, please don't be swayed by the high price tag or stories of travel concerns in the region. I guarantee you that you'll never regret it!