Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site is an inspiring area with over 200 species of butterflies and 350 species of birds. It is however the elusive Mountain Gorilla that is the park’s main attraction where roughly half of the world’s population, an estimated 480 mountain gorillas, live in this forest. An estimated 226 of these gorillas are habituated. There are many other primates in the park including chimpanzees, black and white colobus, red colobus and blue monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys and L’Hoest’s monkeys, which are classified as near threatened and only seen in the Albertine Rift Valley. Bwindi provides further shelter to antelopes, elephants and almost 400 species of plants.
Uganda tends to attract people who are slightly more adventurous and interested in a more in depth look at the region, combining the gorilla tracking with other primate viewing (chimps and wildlife etc.), birding, walking, culture, game viewing and general sight -seeing.
But nothing prepares you for the intensity of the gorilla encounter. Many leave in tears, convinced that they’ve felt a “connection”. While such ideas may be fanciful, there is no denying that sitting among the apes, meeting those searching, intelligent eyes in a face that seems to reflect your own, is a powerful experience.
The gorilla encounter
Uganda has always been well known for seeing gorillas and offered the chance to see gorillas in two destinations the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the Mgahinga National Park. Both regions are in the south-west of the country, at least two a full day drive from Uganda’s capital city Kampala, although there is now a scheduled air service to the Bwindi region. Bwindi is still very much a key region to consider, but in recent years Mgahinga has been troubled by inconsistent sightings as the family groups cross the border into Rwanda.
Your guides will explain the rules. You should keep quiet and still and preserve a distance of seven metres although there’s nothing to stop the apes approaching you. Generally, nothing much happens: the gorillas are dozing or feeding, with some occasional rough and tumble among boisterous youngsters. The silverback is awesome to behold but nothing to worry about. If feeling tetchy, he may beat his chest or make a brief “mock” charge. This sets the pulse racing but you need only keep still, avoid eye contact and let his bluster burn out. Your guides will be in control.
Walking to locate the gorillas can take between 30 minutes and 7 hours nothing is guaranteed. Scouts will have gone ahead to find the previous night’s nesting site, and will start tracking the group from there, communicating with your park ranger by radio. Once you catch up with the gorillas, you are allowed one hour with them. However, the gorillas themselves do not understand the rules and sometimes wander very close seeing a powerful silverback close up is an exhilarating experience! When your hour is up you retreat out of the forest and return to your hotel, usually arriving back in time for a late lunch.
- There are strict rules of behaviour, such as not using flash photography or approaching too close, which will be covered in your briefing.
- You are not allowed to track gorillas if you have an ailment such as a cold, cough, fever, flu etc.
- A limited number of gorilla permits are available each day, for high season it is necessary to book well in advance
When to see the gorillas
Mountain Gorilla Safaris to mgahinga National Park or Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is available all year round, though conditions are arguably a little more pleasant from January to March and then from late May to September. Uganda and Rwanda both experience two main rainy seasons each year, usually April/ May and mid-October to mid-December. However it can rain at any time in the gorilla regions this is after all an area of equatorial rain forest.