We had such an incredible experience trekking the Mountain Gorilla’s in Uganda and feel like everyone should experience this. So, I thought I would write a “how to guide” to help you plan your own trip (and gain an understanding of our experience).
1. Learn about the mountain gorillas
Even if you don’t want to go gorilla trekking, you should do this step anyway. There are only 700 of these incredible creatures living in 3 countries on the planet: Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC (Congo). While there are many efforts at saving them, the reality is their home isn’t in exactly the most politically stable of regions, and there are lots of other factors that are impacting them including habitat loss, poaching, and a slow reproduction rate. I would suggest watching “Gorilla’s in the Mist.” Planet of the Apes would not be a good choice…mostly because they more closely resemble chimps in their looks, and well… talking apes…really?
2. Sell your stuff on Kijiji
There are no bones about it…gorilla trekking ain’t cheap! The permits alone are $500 USD/pp and this simply buys you the services of the rangers and trackers to trek the gorillas and one glorious hour of getting up close and personal with them in their natural habitat. You still need to get yourself to the mountains to see them and it is somewhat remote which means you will have to shell out for more cash for a 4wd and likely a driver.
Although this price is steep, it was worth every penny. Again..there are only 700 of these left on the planet…and your trekking permit fee goes towards conservation efforts. Things like when the gorillas wonder into a farmers banana plantation and help themselves, the rangers pay the farmers for their lost fruit. This helps stop these farmers from hunting the gorillas because they can’t afford to loose their cash crop.
This is truly a once in a lifetime experience. So, drink one less coffee from Starbucks a week, sell anything you don’t need or use on Kijiji, borrow from the bank of Mom and Dad. Do whatever is legal to get the cash to go… don’t let money stop you from doing this!
3. “Let’s get physical”
Mountain Gorillas’s live in the mountains. These mountains are covered in jungle…thick need a machete to get through jungle. We walked on a path for a good chunk of the time, but once we found where the gorilla’s were hanging out, we followed our guide who simply hacked a swath through the foliage. It was not uncommon to be stepping on the tops of plants, rather than on the dirt. We were fortunate not to get rained on, but the humidity was high and it was hot. We wore long pants and long sleeve shirts to keep the ants from biting and from having an allergic reaction to any of the jungle plants we came in contact with. We were lucky and only walked for about an hour and a half before we found the gorilla’s but we heard some stories of 11 hours of bushwhacking up and down mountains to find these incredible beasts.
I would suggest buying a cheap step ladder and spending 1 hour a day walking up and down the steps. After a few months move the ladder into your bathtub and repeat with the water on, but be sure to wear what you plan on wearing when you trek. Better yet, seal the door and turn the water on HOT for a few hours before your exercise time so you can get the humidity level correct… About a month before you go, I would suggest doing this exercise blindfolded. Feel free to listen to Olivia Newton John..it’s never a bad time.
4. Practice your handwaving and smiling skills.
You could try for a queen like motion of the wrist, or a more gregarious five fingers spread action. Whatever you choose be sure it doesn’t aggravate any carpal tunnel syndrome you may have. Like all other muscles, your smiling muscles would enjoy some toning pre-trip as well.
These skills will come in handy because if you are white then you are a Mzungo (literally means white person in Swahili), and being a mzungo attracts a lot of attention. For the entirety of your visit in Uganda, you will be met with children running towards your vehicle screaming mzungo, mzungo frantically waving and smiling. When you wave and smile back this is generally met with gleeful shouts and more vigorous waving. I wonder if this is what a rock star feels like? Not being any other colour, I can’t speak to what the experience of other foreigners might be, however I suspect anyone who is obviously not Ugandan would attract a similar amount of attention… and besides who doesn’t like waving and smiling?
5. Get a (waterproof?) camera and learn how to use it.
It will be helpful to know how to meter for a variety of lighting situations (no flashes allowed) and how to get it to focus on the gorilla instead of the plants. That said, the most important part of your how to guide is the section about knowing when to put your camera down and just enjoy the moment (don’t worry…mine doesn’t have that section either..but it should). You only have an hour with the family once you find them. I found myself fiddling with the various camera controls, but quickly realized I was spending more time looking at the camera and not enough time just being in the moment. At that point, I purposely put the camera down because it was just awe-inspiring to be up close and personal with these amazing creatures. That said, the pictures and video I do have are pretty cool…so bring the camera but don’t spend all of your time behind the lens.
We were very lucky to have found a family with 14 individuals, and we saw 12 of these. This included 3 Silverbacks (the large male gorillas…but if you have done step 1 then you already knew that) with hands the size of dinner plates. My favourite were the juveniles who wrestled and played with each other for most of our time with them. One of them grabbed my ankle – in the video here you can see him reaching for something… that was me! Matt’s favourite was the adult female who just calmly sat there and ate while we sat and watched her.
Our day in the impenetrable forest was very memorable and pretty special too. I believe we are truly lucky to have experienced this…and I believe the more people that do the better the chances these beasts have at survival. I also got a real sense that the tourist dollars spent on gorilla trekking are going towards conservation efforts and community based improvements. Schools, jobs, electricity, health care and an improved transportation system have greatly reduced the poverty levels of the people in the surrounding countryside..and a significant amount of this funding comes from the gorilla permits. A country as wonderful as Uganda deserves a few more positive news stories like this, and the tourism in the area is having a positive impact.
So, go on… follow steps 1 to 5 above…. I can’t wait to share experiences!