There are only two places in the world where mountain gorillas live in their natural habitat. The first are the Central African Virunga mountains between Rwanda and DR Congo. Number two is the rainforest of south Uganda. Mountain gorillas are critically endangered for a number of reasons.
The biggest threat are poachers. They set up trap sets, capture baby gorillas to sell them illegal to zoos and kill adult gorillas in the process and sell all parts of their body to cruel collectors. To reduce the risk of poaching the areas are heavily secured and patrolling is now very common. Habitat loss, war and disease are also big risks and challenges, hence the wild giants are one of world’s most critically endangered species. Luckily there are a few organisations trying to prevent their extinction and doing everything they can to provide them a safe life.
When Philip and me put together the route for our East Africa Adventure we learned, that we would pass one of the two possibilities to see Mountain Gorillas. We were instantly hooked and wanted to go there. But, we were soon to find out that you need a special permit to visit the national park. Visits to the national parks are limited to a certain number of visitors each year and there is no way around it. Despite that, a permit costs 500 US Dollar. That was a shock!
We wanted to do it so badly, there was nothing that would have stopped us. We hired a company specialized in organising permits and paid the high amount. We were told that the reason of the high costs are to keep the number of permit applications low and secondly, 100 percent of the money goes directly towards the conservation efforts.
That said, even with the hired company we were not guaranteed a permit. We were on a road trip through Uganda not knowing if we would be able to actually enter the national park. There were dozens of tense moments, where we thought we wouldn’t make it.
We arrived at Lake Bunyonyi in the far south of Uganda at a camping site from where we would head straight into the mountains to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Luckily we received the permits in time and we couldn’t have been happier.
Lake Bunyonyi is a charming lake with a few islands dotted in the middle. The late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had a summer residence right next to the lake. We had to kill a day, so we visited it and learned that it is a hotel today. Awkward if you ask me. Later, we borrowed jet skis and splashed around the giant lake a bit. We ran out of gas nowhere near our camping site and got towed back. Adventure was real in south Uganda. Only one thing was missing though. Mountain Gorillas.
The next morning we got up early and got picked up. The drive was about 2 hours. I remember vividly how excited I was. We entered the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and drove to a small entry house. There was a small gift shop and a statue of a gorilla. In front of the gorilla was a 7 meter long stick. We were told to stand at the end of the stick and then look at the gorilla. This is the distance we should have at least all the time. Gorillas can get very dangerous if they feel threatened and if so, heavily injuring or killing you is easy for them. The second reason for the distance are diseases. Human interaction might be dangerous for the gorillas and they would die if they get any disease or illness.
In our briefing we were told there is a fair chance that we would not see the gorillas. They are constantly moving around and the rangers might not know exactly where they are now. However, a few rangers patrolling the area for poachers are constantly near them and they call each other. Today’s chance for seeing them was about 60 percent. I thought it was fine. That’s a lot!
Our ranger told us how this is the real african rainforest and we don’t know what animals we might meet. Hence, our group was heavily secured as well. Every ranger was armed. Some with guns, some with machetes. And then he looked at our shoes and told us to pull our trousers inside our socks. Philip and me looked at each other confused. He laughed and said giant red ants are everywhere and if they bite you, you’ll go through hell. At this point, I wondered what we have gotten ourselves into.
The ranger got a call. The gorillas are near. I got pumped and could feel the rush. However, being near still meant about an hour trek through the rainforest. Our group consisted of 4 rangers, two with machetes walking in front and cutting our way through the thick jungle, two walking with guns in the back, two swiss friends of us, two americans and one ranger that is in charge of our behaviour. His job was to make sure we come out alive and the gorillas were safe from us. I thought their effort is incredible and at this point I could see my heart bumping through my chest.
We started trekking through the lush green, thick forest and I never felt more adventurous and excited in my life before. And I stood on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro just two weeks prior this day.
The noises were incredible. All sorts of birds and monkeys were around and I was simply amazed by the real life version of jungle book. After just shy of an hour shambling through the rainforest, we were told to stand still and be quiet. This could only mean one thing. The gorillas are very close. I was shaking of excitement.
It took another few minutes of slow, quiet movement until we finally arrived at their current position. At first we spotted one small gorilla up in the trees. We had to kneel down and stay quiet. We hurled down together and just observed. A blackback female gorilla came out of the thicket. Accompanied by a bunch of baby gorillas. Wow! To our left we heard some tree limbs cracking and there he was. The silverback gorilla. A majestic animal and the leader of every gorilla family. He didn’t seem to notice us and just walked past. Our ranger told us he knows we are here, but since he is not feeling threatened he is not giving us attention.
The family moved on and we slowly followed them. We got a bit further into the jungle, where we met the rest of the family. We sat down, quietly watched, took a few pictures and just enjoyed this amazing moments. The gorillas were casually strolling around us, eating leaves, playing and sleeping. We had 12 different gorillas around us. Words can’t do this meet up justice. There are less than 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and I was able to see 12 of them. A truly amazing experience.
Apparently, the gorillas came much closer, than our ranger liked it, but there was nothing he could really do. At one point however a silverback was literally 1 meter in front of Philip and me and when it looked like he would charge us, we got pulled back by our ranger and pulled down. Jaw-dropping!
Visiting the gorillas is limited to only one hour and towards the end of the hour we took some more photos and got ready to say our good byes. While trekking back to the base of the national park we were on an absolute high! To this day, it is my favourite animal encounter I have ever done and seen. I don’t care about the 500 US Doller permit, it is worth every cent and I would do it again. Without a doubt!
The NGO’s are doing a really great job in protecting the mountain gorillas and helping them survive. They are living a quiet life in a fragile environment. An experience I would recommend to anyone who is up for adventure and something truly unique. As I often say, real life experiences matter more than material possessions and this experience was as real as it gets.
And now we were ready for the next adventure in war-torn Rwanda.