Gorilla watching really does make for the trip of a lifetime (Dreamstime)

One perfect hour with Uganda's mountain gorillas

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.

The ultimate wildlife CHECKLIST:

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.

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 Your Comments (2)

  • 3rd May by Samburu

    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.


    Report as inappropriate
  • 20th June by destasteve

    One awesome experince not to be missed

    Steve Hanks


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