A to Z of Destinations
Australia, NZ and South Pacific
A to Z of Experiences
Walking and trekking
Diving and snorkelling
Wildlife and safaris
Meet the locals
Frontier and expedition
Cycling and Mountain Biking
Visiting the Poles
Career breaks and BIG trips
Body and soul
Volunteer and conservation
Australia, East Coast
Everest Base Camp
Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railway
Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail
Climb Mount Kilimanjaro
Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights
Great Wall of China
In an extract from his latest book, zoologist and TV presenter Mark Carwardine describes the unique frisson of meeting mountain gorillas
Mark Carwardine | Issue 128 | April 2012
You only get an hour. And there’s an awful lot of travelling and trekking to be done beforehand. But that hour is likely to be one of the most emotional, humbling and exhilarating of your life. Rubbing shoulders with wild mountain gorillas is a true privilege and, if everyone could do it just once, the world would be a better place.
The business of gorilla tourism is a vexed one. I know people who have always wanted to see gorillas, but have worried that tourism might be causing disturbance or exposing the animals to human disease. But in truth the gorillas probably wouldn’t be here at all without tourism. It is the one thing that can guarantee their survival, by making them worth more alive than dead – to governments and local people alike.
There are currently about 800 mountain gorillas left in Africa: 480 in the Virunga Volcanoes, which straddle Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and some 310-340 in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda.
The Virunga Volcanoes is the place most people imagine when they think of mountain gorillas. Thirty-six family groups (and 14 solitary silverbacks) are distributed across three different protected areas: Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda; Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda; and Virunga National Park in the DRC. But the gorilla-watching opportunities are actually quite limited. It’s a little hit-and-miss in the DRC because, unhappily, the animals have been caught in a vortex of human conflict and misery and are forced to share their home with a motley collection of rebels and heavily armed soldiers.
Meanwhile, the only habituated group in Uganda’s Mgahinga has a reputation for crossing the border into Rwanda and the DRC, so it is not a reliable spot for viewing either. That leaves Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, which has eight habituated gorilla groups and is generally considered to be the hotspot for gorilla-watching.
But I really like lesser-known Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a discrete area some 30km to the north. Bwindi is a tiny island of 330 sq km of equatorial primeval rainforest, surrounded by a sea of banana and tea plantations. A vast, misty, mountainous jungle, it is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world.
Although it can be difficult to spot much wildlife through the mass of huge trees festooned with vines and creepers, this forest is home to no fewer than 120 species of mammal, 360 species of birds, 310 types of butterflies and 1,000 different flowering plants. As you walk the trails, you are greeted by a cacophony of animal sounds at every turn.
But mountain gorillas are obviously the star attraction. The Uganda Wildlife Authority has habituated seven gorilla families to receive human visitors. These consist of as few as seven animals to as many as 36, led by a mature male or ‘silverback’ along with his harem of several females, various immature ‘blackback’ males and youngsters.
The first to be habituated was the Mubare group, which was formally introduced to people for the first time in 1991; it’s a popular family with tourists because it spends much of its time fairly close to the park headquarters. The others are the Habinyanja, Nkuringo, Nshongi, Bitukura, Kyaguriro and Rushegura groups (unfortunately, the Rushegura group sometimes wanders out of Uganda and into the DRC, which causes havoc with treks booked months in advance).
Every morning, the latest influx of tourists gathers on the lawns near the forest entrance for a detailed briefing, before setting off chaperoned by trackers, guides, armed guards and porters.
The super-human porters will carry anything – no amount of camera equipment is too much. The trek can take anything from less than an hour (if you’re lucky) to as long as 11 hours (if you’re not). It all depends on where your allotted gorilla family happens to be at the time.
Within minutes of entering the forest you are sweating and panting, crawling and clambering your way along slippery paths and precipitous mountain tracks. The dark, wet Impenetrable Forest is aptly named – it’s a riot of green where things grow on top of other things that grow on top of more things in layers of ferns, mosses, creepers and lichens. In places, the forest is so thick you have to hike on solid mats of vegetation that tremble and flex with every step, threatening to break through and dump you into the unseen depths below.
It’s all very exciting. And the moment you come face-to-face with your first gorilla, the mud and sweat become distant memories. Standing in the heart of a seemingly limitless jungle, with a family of the largest primates in the world, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Your allotted hour – the maximum time allowed – goes so quickly. But life will never be quite the same again.
This article is an extract from Mark Carwardine’s Ultimate Wildlife Experiences, a collection of the most extraordinary natural encounters in the world, co-published by Wanderlust.
With a foreword by Stephen Fry, and drawing on Mark’s 30 years’ experience as a naturalist, writer, photographer and TV presenter, the book inspires and guides you to 20 crème de la crème wildlife experiences, including: Seeing polar bears, Spitsbergen; whale watching, Baja California; tracking jaguars, Brazil; the lemurs of Madagascar; the Galápagos Islands
Wanderlust readers can save 20% on the book – visit www.wanderlustshop.co.uk and quote UWE128.
Impenetrable? Certainly not – you’ll soon be on your way with our guide to gorilla-trekking essentials…| Plan a trip... More
Gorilla tracking: a typical day | Advice... More
Travel Icon: Gorilla watching in East and Central Africa | Destinations... More
Rwanda to increase gorilla permit prices | News... More
Take a look at more articles by wildlife expert Mark Carwardine here | Contributors... More
10 of the best places to see gorillas | Inspire me... More
You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login or get more from Wanderlust - register today!
We did this trip in February, a truly wonderful trip so moving and an absolute privalege.So close to these amazing creatures with their babies yet never once feeling threatened even when the silver back passed by, slightly sad at their vulnerability in an ever growing cruel world.Uganda is a beautiful country and I would love to go back some day and experience it all again.
One awesome experince not to be missed Steve Hanks
Hiking, kayaking, surfing, rafting, scuba diving horse-riding, dog-sledding, horse-riding... add an outdoor activity to your travels and holidays
Wildlife and safaris travel guide, including wildlife and safaris travel advice, where to go on safari in the world
Now easier to get to from the UK than ever before with direct flights, it's time to take advantage of sun-kissed Paciﬁc coast, wild arid desert and epic Andean peaks with our handy Chile guide
Canada’s set to unveil the world’s largest ever network of trails for hiking, biking and more. Jérémie Gabourg has everything you need to know, from key sections to practical tips
The epic new Jordan Trail opens up the country’s desert wonders, including Petra, Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea canyons, to explore on foot. Amjad Shahrour has all you need to plan a trip...
Art historian Gus Casely-Hayford set out to discover the landscapes that inspired classic paintings by the likes of Constable, Turner and Hogarth. Here are 6 extraordinary art-inspired British walks
From castles and coastlines to mountain magic, this exclusive set of breathtaking photos from 10 years of the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition showcases Britain in all its glory…
Photographer and wildlife guide Paul Goldstein condemns inadequate international efforts to protect tigers, rhinos and other wildlife, and calls for tougher measures
The Cagols have just spent a year travelling the world. 11-year-old Madeline shares her diary entries from their last week in Africa, revealing what she really thought about her family’s big adventure.
Simply select the destination you’re interested in or the activities you’re looking
for and we’ll send your request to a select panel of tour operators.
Each operator will respond to your request individually. Your details remain private
and are not disclosed to any partners unless you decide to proceed with a booking.
Save up to £600 per couple on Costa Rica Wildlife Holidays
£60 off your first order
Save 15% exploring Chile and staying at Tierra lodges
Wanderlust sends out regular email newsletters – be the first to know about web
exclusives, competitions, hot offers and travel jobs. Register today!
I have read and agree to the Terms &
Where in the world are you? Add
#wanderlustmag to your tweets and share your latest travel adventures with
fellow Wanderlusters on wanderlust.co.uk
Get to know Wanderlust on facebook and bring all your travel-minded friends, too