For the last 15 minutes, the silverback in front of me has been fiddling with his belly button. If I were to break down every penny spent on my US$700 (£560) permit, this intimate viewing has set me back $175 (£140) so far.
Costing up to US$1,500 (£1,200) for an hour’s viewing in some countries, gorilla trekking is undoubtedly one of the world’s more costly wildlife experiences. Yet anyone who’s scaled the slippery slopes of volcanoes or squeezed and scraped through bamboo thickets to spend time with some of our closest cousins will tell you it’s money well spent.
Besides, my one-hour Ugandan encounter is half the price of what it would cost in neighbouring Rwanda. And nearly 50% of the world’s population of mountain gorillas live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. That equates to around 500 individuals, according to the last official census in 2019, with 21 gorilla troops currently habituated for tourism — more than in any other area of Africa.
But a visit to the home of gorillas is about so much more than 60 minutes of ape activity. My adventure had begun several days earlier, long before I entered the forest. After landing in Entebbe, Uganda’s international air hub, just outside the capital of Kampala, I shunned pricier internal flights in favour of a nine-hour drive to Buhoma, the gateway to Bwindi, where most treks begin.
Views of ever-changing landscapes and snapshots of city and rural life enrich the overland journey. We pass through traffic-clogged towns, emerald fields and a crush of hillsides that rise and fall like a roller coaster.
On the outskirts of Kampala market stalls overflow with glistening mangoes, enormous avocados and onions shinier than snooker balls. Moving through districts en route to the southwest of Uganda, I spy calabash fruits drying in the sun beside fields of cattle in Mburo, and engalabi, cow-skin drums, stacked outside the village of Mpambire.
Eventually, tarmac roads melt into red earth, mountains rise and smoke coils from mud kilns. Tea, coffee, bananas and potatoes are all harvested on precipitous slopes where wild creatures — including gorillas — hide.
Arriving into Buhoma, it’s a short but heart-pumping uphill walk past the town’s main sprawl of wooden stalls to my mountainside base in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Run by Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), the accommodation is part of the NGO research base.
“Gorillas often wander into farmlands,” explains Sharon Akampurira from CTPH, when I meet her to learn more about the organisation’s work. At the entrance to the research base, farmers sift through sun-roasted coffee beans — part of a fair-trade initiative set up by CTPH. The NGO was founded by award-winning vet and conservationist Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, to safeguard the future of gorillas by improving living conditions and livelihoods for local communities.
Visitors can tour its laboratory, where samples regularly collected from gorillas are scrutinised for microbes, drop in for a coffee at its new Gorilla Conservation Cafe, or stay the night in comfortable and affordable en suite guest rooms. Costing a fraction of the price charged by luxury lodges, it’s another way to keep down the cost of a gorilla-trekking safari while learning about community conservation at the same time.
I taste their excellent Gorilla Coffee — rich and velvety — the following morning, as I gaze at chilly moss-green mountains snuggled by scarves of woolly mist. Very soon I’ll be trekking through dense, dark forests.
Into the woods
After an 8am briefing at the park headquarters, I’m assigned my troop — Mubare, the first family to have been habituated for tourism, back in 1993. None of the original members are still around — some died in fights or from natural causes, others joined wild troops and disappeared into the forest — but ranger Amos Nduhukire assures me their nine descendants are some of the most playful.
Although familiar with humans, they prefer to stay in hard-to-reach, high-rise hangouts. Trackers, out since dawn, have located them a two-and-a-half-hour walk away. The hike only serves to heighten anticipation and becomes an adventure in itself. Crossing fields where women in colourful kitenge headscarves are harvesting crops with heavy scythes, we enter a tunnel of branches and roots.
Climbing at elevations between 1,000 and 2,000 metres, walking is tough at times. I soon appreciate my decision to hire a porter from the local community for $20 (£15) to carry my heavy backpack. Once inside the forest, uneven ground makes it hard to keep balance and I find myself frequently taking his hand for help.
Damp from overnight rainfall, the ground is slippery and droplets cling to leaves. Occasionally I hear a faint whistle and the flapping of bird wings floats down from the highest tree canopies. Along the way, my group of seven fellow trackers whisper excitedly about life-long dreams of seeing gorillas. Will they look at us? How should we act in their presence? Will we be charged by a silverback? But as the minutes pass and the terrain gets tougher, we fall into silence, conserving our breath and savouring the privilege of being alone in this deep, dense forest. Then another thought enters my head: will we actually find them?
Amos unnerves us with past tales of trekkers hiking until midnight — although he insists better knowledge and technology means it’s a very different experience today. Communicating via a radio, he’s in regular contact with our team of trackers who’ve been searching for the Mubare group since the early hours, having left them making nests the night before. During daylight, they follow the animals religiously until the moment they sleep.
“We’re getting close now,” Amos informs us, as I hear grunting from the bushes. Even though I’ve had several months to prepare, I still don’t feel quite ready.
Masked up and instructed to keep a 10-metre distance, to protect the gorillas from human-borne diseases, it’s time to meet the family. This is the moment I find silverback Maraya gazing at his navel.
“They’re not at all shy,” says Amos, as a symphony of bodily functions follows.
Females climb trees above us, seeking leaves to munch on, and toddlers tumble from the undergrowth, rolling so close, one even points his podgy index digit into my camera lens. They eat, fart and even mate — an act Amos over-explicitly describes as ‘drilling’ — in our presence.
Using a machete to slash back undergrowth, a team of trackers ensures no important moments are missed. Some people cry, others giggle. Most of us simply gawp in disbelief, almost knocked off our feet by the forces of nature… and a couple of delinquent young blackbacks.
All too quickly, it’s finished. Rolling over to reveal the silver streak blazing across his muscular back, Maraya belts out one last fart, a trumpet call announcing it’s time for us to leave. Despite the aches and pains involved, it was all worth it to see a silverback fiddling with his belly button.
After meeting the gorillas, stay a few more days in Buhoma to spend time with the community. One of the most inspiring voices belongs to Evelyn Habasa, founder of NGO Ride 4 A Woman, a women’s group supported with the income from gorilla trekking.
The wheels of sewing machines are constantly whirring in her textiles workshop. Guests can learn how to weave a coaster from palm leaf fibres or take part in a cooking class, making local millet bread on a traditional three-stone fire. Guesthouse rooms are decorated with bright, cheerful African fabrics. Doubles from $150 (£120), full board.
Great Lakes Safaris offers a six-day gorilla safari, with a private driver-guide in a customised 4x4, from £875 per person, based on four travelling. It includes accommodation, meals and activities, but excludes international flights.
Gorilla permits, US$700 (£560).
Doubles at Conservation Through Public Health’s mountain lodge in Buhoma costs from US$90 (£70), full board.
This story was created with the support of Great Lakes Safaris, Conservation Through Public Health, Ride 4 A Woman, Uganda Wildlife Authority and Ugandan Airlines.
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