Uganda. So it may not have been top of your list, but that may change soon…
It is known for many tourist attractions from safaris, to jungles, to adventure excursions. But one of the most unique experiences you can have is tracking the highly endangered mountain gorillas. This was high on our bucket list and one of the rare “life changing” “I’m going to remember this when I’m 80” “I’ll forever be grateful I did this” kind of activities.
While mountain gorillas used to stretch over many of the jungles of Northern Africa and India, they are now only found in 2 regions of the world: Uganda and Rwanda. Both regions offer the experience to go in a small group and trek into the jungles to be with a family of mountain gorillas. We chose Uganda because the permits for gorilla trekking here are cheaper and the gorilla families also tend to be larger. For us, it was a no brainer!
When you book the tour, you want to make sure you plan in advance. There’s a limited number of spots (because they don’t want to overwhelm any of the gorilla families with a whole crew of people) and they tend to fill up fast. The booking company we used was Go2Africa and they were really helpful. They also were able to help us in arranging the small regional airplane flights because these can be hard to do online from the United States.
So what’s it all about? You get to just spend time observing how they live, play and communicate with each other in the wild. It’s one of the most intimate experiences you can have with a REAL wild animal. We’re talking 2-3 feet away from a 6 foot tall 300+ lb wild gorilla. Do we have your attention?
Okay but what’s all the hype for? What’s amazing about this experience is that you get to observe the social culture of the gorilla family - and it’s eerily familiar. You can see the expressions and emotions on their face, how they communicate with each other, and the playfulness they share. There were “teenage males” rough-housing and trying to show off, a poised and somewhat tired alpha male who watched from a distance over his family, and a sassy female that pretended to not give any of the males an ounce of attention but still checked periodically over her shoulder to make sure they were still looking at her.
IS IT DANGEROUS?
Not really. So how is this not dangerous? We share 98% of our DNA with gorillas. Humans are basically a distant cousin, just a few hundred times removed. They have also have become used to having humans around as trackers/new visitors go out everyday to spend time with them. In the gorilla's mind, all they see is “there’s our friends coming back to visit again today.” For both of these reasons, the gorillas will allow people to get close and not attack or try to fight them off. So were we walking up to them and shaking hands? No. One of the rules was that we couldn't touch them, but they could touch us. And very similar to the movie Planet of the Apes, you need to show submission and bow in the case they do come at you. All in all, the guides will keep you safe, and for any of you out there wondering, you get to be very VERY close.
WHAT TO WEAR:
Wear long pants and sleeves. Even though YES it’s hot (we went in December), you want protection from the bugs and plants as you trek. We both wore long pants shirts. Make sure the fabric breathes and you are comfortable because it could be a long day. But don't stress too much. It's just one day in the jungle. You'll survive. Promise :)
Also bring sturdy shoes (at least running shoes) and long socks - so my bag actually got lost and I only had THOM’s. Luckily a nice lady at our lodge lent me a pair of hiking shoes for the day. This was crucial. You don’t want to get all the way to Uganda and hike in THOM’s. Also no one wants ants in their shoes so please, trust us, long socks!
WHAT TO EXPECT:
Here’s a breakdown of what to expect on this experience:
· You’ll meet up in the morning and find out which group and family you’ll be tracking. We only did 1 day but some folks will do multiple days in order to see a few different families. In which case you would leave and come back to the lodge each night, then go out again in the morning. One day was sufficient for us.
· Next you’ll take off in a Jeep to the mouth of the jungle. Trackers go out early in the morning to see where the family traveled to overnight. The trackers communicate with your guide through walkie talkie and then the search begins!
· After this you’ll start hiking into the forest. It’s not called the IMPENETRABLE forest for nothing. There’s thick trees and long grass but that’s half the fun. Also *spoiler alert* it may rain in some patches while you trek. But it’s a rainforest after all, and during a muggy hike it can feel refreshing!
· When you find the family (it may take anywhere from 30 mins – 6 hours depending on how far the family is from the forest edge) you get 1 hour to spend with them.
· You may eat lunch during or after - depending on how long it took. Then you hike back!
· GET A PORTER! What is a porter you may ask? A local HERO who walks with you, helps carry your bag, and can lead you though slippery and deep parts of the forest. I know what your thinking - Okay I’ve hiked before how hard can this be? Trust me, having a helping hand in muddy wet 40 degree inclines is not something you will regret. It also helps the local community earn a wage for the day. So even if you feel macho, help a brother out.
· No flash photos with the gorillas - set your camera before so you don’t forget. Bright lights can scare the animals, and no one wants an angry 300 lbs gorilla.
· You may not need a hat - you are under the cover of trees all day. We didn’t find the need for a hat or sun protection, but if you just like hats than be our guest and wear one. You do you after all.
Now what are you waiting for? Got any more questions - feel free to ask away!