Tracking the Mountain Gorilla

8 – 12 September 2010, Uganda

After our stay at Byoona Amagara we were feeling recharged and ready for the real reason we’d come to Uganda: to track mountain gorillas. Our gorilla experience had actually started several weeks earlier when we arranged our tracking permits. The roughly 700 remaining mountain gorillas live in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and in a group of three contiguous national parks in the Virunga Mountains spanning Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mountain gorillas live in family groups led by a dominant silverback male. Some of the gorilla families have been habituated, meaning the gorillas have become accustomed to regular contact with tourists. Each country sells daily permits to visit these habituated groups. In Uganda the permits are handled by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and payment must be made in person with cash. We’d received mixed information about whether it was necessary to buy a permit in advance, so we decided to work with a friend of our overland tour leader to secure the permits for us. We sent him the money, including a ten percent commission, via Western Union. We were a little skeptical of the entire arrangement but once we arrived in Kampala we found that he not only existed, but that he’d bought our permits as promised.

Our bus trip from Kampala to Kabale brought us within 100 kilometers of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, but we were still several hours away from our actual entry point. Bwindi covers a relatively small area but travel around the park is slow because the roads are unpaved and deeply rutted. According to our guide book getting to the park was easy: any taxi driver in Kabale would know where to take us based on the gorilla group specified on our permit. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were bombarded by drivers offering their services. We showed our permit to one of the drivers and he confidently stated that he knew exactly where to drive us. Setting out for Byoona Amagara, we were relieved that our plans for Uganda and the gorillas were finally coming together.

Two days later our confidence slipped a notch as Allison, Paulo, and I stood waiting for the driver a full hour past the promised time. When he finally appeared he offered no coherent reasons for his belated arrival, but with neither a better option nor much time to spare we tossed our bags in his car and set out for the park. Our confidence slipped a little further when one of the car’s already bald tires went flat and was replaced with an equally bald spare. We hit rock bottom when we arrived at Nkuringo Gorilla Camp after dark, in the pouring rain, and were told by the owner that we’d been driven four hours in the wrong direction. If we didn’t delay we just might make it to our entry point by morning. Recurring theme of our trip: taxi drivers are the root of all evil.

Robert, the British owner of Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, sat us down for a hot meal and talked through our very limited options. Our chances of reaching our intended entry point were slim: we’d need to drive through the night, the roads were getting worse, and we had no spare tire. We didn’t even know if the driver, who never actually acknowledged his error and had strolled off to nap in his car, would take us there. Robert instead proposed a second option. The nearby Nshongi family had recently split when superordinate silverback Mishaya broke from the group, taking several other gorillas with him. The UWA wasn’t yet issuing advance permits for the newly formed Mishaya group but they were issuing them at their local office. Using cell phones, radios, and a motorcycle Robert was able to reach the park ranger, cut through several thick layers of Ugandan governmental red tape, and arrange for us to visit the Mishaya group.

The next morning, after a briefing by the rangers, we started our hike through dense jungle but on level, established trails. After an hour the terrain grew steep and after about three hours our guides had to clear their own trail with machetes. By this point we were also a little worried; the two advance trackers who’d left before us had yet to find the gorillas and we had only a couple more hours before we’d have to turn back. Our guide, Godfrey, left to help the trackers and we waited nervously for an hour before he finally returned with the news that they’d found the gorillas. After another hour of strenuous hiking we sighted two juveniles playing in a tree, although they quickly ran off. We struggled to follow but finally caught up with the Mishaya group when they slowed to rest on a hillside in the thick jungle. Rain started to fall as we peered through the foliage at Mishaya and his family. We watched for an hour as the adults rested and the young gorillas played in the trees. Our walk back to the ranger station followed an easier route but we arrived dirty, tired, and a little disappointed. We’d met other travelers whose moderate hike emerged to a clearing where they watched the gorillas under a sunny sky. After stumbling and crawling for nine hours we left Bwindi with only glimpses of the gorillas. Allison and I headed back to the camp while Paulo rejoined our esteemed driver for the first leg of his long journey back to Brazil.

We spent a day recuperating at Nkuringo Gorilla Camp before setting out on foot for for Kisoro, where we planned to stay for a few days before continuing on to Rwanda. Kisoro borders the Virunga Mountains and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, the second home to the mountain gorilla in Uganda. UWA doesn’t sell advance permits for Mgahinga because the gorillas occasionally cross into Rwanda. Still feeling like our experience in Bwindi was somehow lacking, we inquired at the park office and found that there was plenty of openings for gorilla tracking in Mgahinga. After an hour of number crunching we decided that our budget could be stretched to include a couple of additional tracking permits. The next day we took a taxi to the park and simply paid the ranger, avoiding all of the hassle that preceded tracking in Bwindi. To reach the gorillas we started with an easy uphill hike through farmland, and then walked another hour through an open secondary forest. We found the gorillas much as other travelers had described them: they were sitting in a clearing, and we had unobstructed views of the entire family.

As we walked down the mountain we reflected on our two experiences with the gorillas. Both were unforgettable. In many ways the gorillas are strikingly similar to ourselves, and looking into their eyes it’s not hard to imagine that there’s a kindred consciousness looking back. It’s tragic that these creatures have been pushed to the brink of extinction, although after seeing the poverty in the nearby villages it’s easy to understand why conservation hasn’t always been a top priority. In Mgahinga we had an easy hike and excellent views, but we also came to appreciate that in Bwindi’s primary forest we saw the gorillas in their true natural environment.

Check out the Gallery for more pictures from our time with the gorillas.

One Response to “Tracking the Mountain Gorilla”

  1. Tom says:

    That’s awesome. I could sit here and write superlative after superlative, but in the end, that is just friggin’ awesome! Sooooo jealous!! :)

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