Gorilla tracking in Uganda: a typical day

It's one of the world's greatest travel experiences – but what to expect when you're gorilla trekking in Uganda? Primatologist Ian Redmond OBE describes a typical day

7 mins

Tap, tap, tap… “Wake up! Time to go gorilla tracking!”

“But it’s not even light yet!”

Whether you’ve been sleeping soundly or awake half the night in nervous anticipation, gorilla visits require an early breakfast.

You should arrive at the park HQ by 7am to check your permits are in order. Once assigned to a gorilla group (it is sometimes possible to choose the closest, biggest or highest, depending on preference), your guide will begin a detailed briefing.

For millennia, human-gorilla relations have been based on mutual fear and aggression; your guide has the difficult task of bringing these two species together for an hour in mutual trust. Thus, it is important to follow the rules, and learn a little gorilla etiquette – it is a free forest, and if the gorillas don’t like the way you behave, they’ll leave.

Mountain gorilla in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Shutterstock)
Mountain gorilla in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Shutterstock)

A short drive to the closest part of the park boundary and a walk through fields often precedes stepping into the shade of the forest (though in Bwindi some lodges are close to the forest). There’s another briefing – and a chance for anyone showing symptoms of a cold to own up and go back. Illnesses can be passed from humans to animals, so this is a legitimate concern. Own up now and you'll get a refund; if you persist, and then show symptoms, you’ll be escorted out of the park with no refund.

Then, in single file, guides, trackers, visitors and guards begin to snake their way uphill, downhill, over logs and through thickets. At 2,500m to 3,300m, you’ll notice the thin air, but anyone with a reasonable level of fitness will be OK (if you are worried, ask to be assigned to a lower-altitude group).

Dominant male mountain gorilla (Shutterstock)
Dominant male mountain gorilla (Shutterstock)

Birders will be excited by some of the rare endemics, and you’ll see tracks of buffalo and forest antelope, though the chances of seeing other mammals are slim. With luck you might pass a nest site, where each gorilla over the age of four has built a structure like a giant bird’s nest to pass the night. Then you are hot on the trail – to check how hot, touch the back of your hand to the next gorilla dung you see; if it’s warm, you’re close.

The moment of contact is different every time, but I never tire of watching people’s first reactions. Often they are expecting to see a distant black shape ahead, and when they suddenly realise an adult gorilla is just behind the next bush, jaws drop and eyes widen.

Tourists looking for mountain gorillas, Bwindi (Shutterstock)
Tourists looking for mountain gorillas, Bwindi (Shutterstock)

If the gorillas are still feeding, viewing might be a bit obscured as they move from one feeding site to the next, but with luck you’ll arrive as they settle down for their post-prandial siesta.

Adults doze in the sun while the kids chase and play, chuckling and chest-beating energetically.

It feels as though you’ve been invited to a family picnic, and can be both hilarious (for example, if a gorilla misjudges a branch and crashes out of a tree) and profoundly moving, as you exchange a glance with a non-human being and have to readjust your perception of what it is to be hominid.

Baby gorilla, Uganda (Shutterstock)
Baby gorilla, Uganda (Shutterstock)

All too soon, though, the hour is up, so make sure you lower your camera from time to time to take it all in.

As your guide ushers you away, stay silent until you are well clear of the group (which might be spread over 100m). Then, if there is time, you can find a nice spot for your packed lunch and the long (or short) hike back.

Gorilla family in wild, Uganda (Shutterstock)
Gorilla family in wild, Uganda (Shutterstock)

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Main image: Female mountain gorilla with baby. Uganda (Shutterstock)

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