Tracking down rare gorillas in the thick rainforests of central Africa is not an exact science and it takes some steps to get to these primates;
Finding the Gorillas
Finding and getting to the gorillas is not always easy, nor are you guaranteed to see them. The arduous trek to the gorilla groups takes you through very dense vegetation, on narrow trails up steep and often muddy slopes. The search for gorillas can last several hours, since the gorillas move around in the thick undergrowth shifting deeper into the forests at times.
The good news is that once you search them out the gorillas don’t flee, because they are quite used to human onlookers.
Starting Your Expedition
Trekking expeditions start out early in the morning, driving to the boundary of the national park for formalities before continuing to a ranger’s station.
Leaving your wheels behind at the ranger station, the walk begins. Your group follows a local ranger through farmlands and into the thick vegetation of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Know Your Gorilla Whoop!
Did you know the collective noun for gorillas is a ‘whoop’? The rangers can tell you about the specific family of gorillas you are trekking to, filling you in on the family history and sharing their in-depth knowledge about mountain gorillas.
The rangers usually trek to the site where the gorillas were seen the previous day and trace their movements from there to locate them. The gorillas are monitored daily which helps keep track of their locale, as well as their health and safety. After a fair amount (anything from 45 minutes to 8 hours) of challenging bundu bashing along muddy tracks you will hopefully come face-to-face with a family group of gorillas in the forest. Usually you put your stuff down, try to remain silent and move in a little closer with just your cameras.
The Gorilla Encounter
This is where the magic happens, as the unique and intimate gorilla encounter unfolds. You have an hour to observe these gentle apes at close range (up to about 7 metres) in their natural state and take photographs of them. Watching the untamed gorillas feed, groom, parent, play and interact is spell-binding. The striking resemblance between the way the gorillas behave and relate with one another, and the mannerisms of humans leaves many onlookers awestruck.
After spending an hour with the gorilla family it is time to retrace your steps, trekking back to the ranger’s station. Along the way to or back from the gorillas the group usually pauses to eat. You generally carry your own packed lunch and water along with you. Back at the starting point of the trek you transfer to your vehicle and make your way back to your accommodation.
The above is a rough guide to what will take place on the ground. The actual experience can vary depending on local conditions (weather, gorilla movements and happenings, politics etc), as well as being slightly different between exact locations and tour operators. It is important to remember that the gorillas are wild, which means that even though they are habituated to humans, their behaviour is somewhat unpredictable.
The gorillas may possibly retreat into the bush while you are visiting them which is beyond your rangers control as their movements are not restricted. The gorillas generally go about their activities undisturbed though, with some of the young ones showing curiosity about the human visitors.
How best to enjoy your gorilla trekking experience
Keep yourself covered – long pants, gaiters and socks help keep the bugs (red ants) at bay and gloves will protect you from stinging nettles and thorny branches.
Get reasonably fit – the trek is usually a physically challenging and tiring mission through rough terrain, so you want to be relatively fit.
Be equipped – carry enough water, waterproof bags for your camera and insect repellent as well sunscreen and a hat.
Stay warm and dry – take warm and rainproof clothing with you to cope with the cold conditions up in the mountains.
Join an organised trip – book through a tour company to simplify your travels and get the gorilla permits arranged for you beforehand.
Choose your timing – try to avoid trekking in the rainy season (March to April and October to November) when the going gets tougher.