To hear the word impenetrable forest conjures up images of a dense undergrowth, a kaleidoscope of greens, vines and vegetation intertwined so dense it takes a machete to cut a path through.
I reached Bwindi National Park on dusk, a journey that took hours along the dusty, rough roads of Uganda. The drive was scenic, winding through villages of mud huts mixed with the occasional splash of coloured door, to rolling hills of tea plantations. Nearing the national park, the villages became more sparsely scattered amongst the hills and the roads turned more treacherous.
Located in southwestern Uganda in the Kanungu District, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of the world’s largest primeval forests. Bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Virunga Volcanoes, Bwindi is one of the most biologically diverse areas on earth and has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its biological significance. My driver Moses told me the name “Bwindi” was derived from the Runyakitara language, meaning “impenetrable”.
Arriving at Chameleon Hill Lodge on dusk, even in the dying light, I was in awe at the view. The lodge sits perched on the hill overlooking Lake Mutanda with the Virunga Volcanoes as a magnificent backdrop. The mist clung to the lake and surrounding mountains as I stared out at the view – the ‘Gorillas in The Mist’, I recently watched made complete sense. I couldn’t help but think about the journey that lay ahead of me.
Waking at sunrise, I was already packed from the night before in anticipation of the early start. In daylight, the Chameleon Hill Lodge revealed its true colours. Literally – the flamboyant, colourful and vibrant lodge was quite the unique place to rest ones’ weary head. Individual chalets lined down the hill and flaunted their own identity and colour scheme with high quality, hand-made furnishings that boasted a unique Euro-African style.
The friendly staff set me on my way with a packed lunch, and it was time for the hour-drive deeper into the National Park. Once at the departure point, I was met with a team of trackers and porters before being briefed on the trek. A permit for gorilla trekking will set you back USD$600, and a porter USD$15. I was soon to learn the USD$15 for the porter was money best spent.
Many of the porters are converted poachers, so making use of them is not just a help for yourself, but in the conservation of the National Park and its inhabitants. Having only been declared a National Park in 1991, Bwindi was at risk from local poachers. Even though today this still remains a threat, the Uganda Wildlife Association works with the locals and law enforcement to ensure conservation of the area. Part of this included converting poachers to see the tourism value in the park and its gorillas, a project that has been working successfully.
With hiking boots bound, long, lightweight pants, full-sleeved, breathable shirt, hat and gloves, I was well prepared for the six hours of trekking that lay ahead – or so I thought. The hiking started off quite moderate along a well-worn path. The temperature was cool and I was feeling extremely comfortable with the pace – so much so, I took in my surroundings and admired the depth of greens, trying to recognise some plants along the way. The trackers were all well informed on where the gorillas were, so I felt the mission would be an easy one.
I could not have been more wrong. Within moments, we had left the safety of the worn track and began forging our own path through the dense undergrowth. A tracker lead the way, hacking at the vines trying to clear a path. Apart from that, it was a matter of pushing and pulling the foliage from out of your way, battling with the vines that entrapped your feet in a desperate attempt to keep you from moving forward. The terrain slowly inclined, and before I knew it, no longer were we scrambling horizontal through the forest, but vertical up the mountain.
The cool temperatures of the forest left as we picked up the tempo and a stifling heat crept in, suffocating with its humidity. It had now been close to four hours of trekking and my feet started to feel as if they left me. Surely the gorillas were near. As fatigue started to kick in I was more than delighted to have a moments rest when the trackers signalled the gorillas where close.
My heart was pounding in my chest and I was overcome with emotions as the tracker used his machete to part the foliage in front of me to reveal a large silverback mountain gorilla. He was right there, just meters from where I sat. It was like I had meshed into part of the environment and it was just as normal for me to be there as any other gorilla. It took me a few moments to adjust to where I was and what I was doing. When I did, I was mesmerized by the continuous munching of the surrounding foliage by the silverback. He was massive, way bigger than I anticipated – his head, so very large. Although he was facing away from me, I felt he sensed me there.
These mountain gorillas are only found in this region of the world, so I felt privileged to be spending time with them in their natural environment. The family I spent time with is called the Bweza family, and consist of 12 gorillas in total. While not all 12 were present, I turned my attention to the left of me where I spotted another two silverbacks. They were well hidden in the foliage, and unlike the munching male to my right, these two were content on laying back, legs sprawled as they relaxed in the nest they had made from the ground creeping vines.
A female gorilla quietly moves through forest and I was only made aware of her presence when one of the two male gorillas stirred. She sat by him and started to groom him, searching his hair for ticks. Oblivious to the people around them, the pair of gorillas continued to bond in this cleaning ritual, just like a scene from a Nat Geo documentary. I sat in silence observing what human like behaviour came from these primates and marvelled at how similar we actually were.
The silence was broken by snapping of branches and rustling of trees. This still did not phase the silverback to my right, who continued his ‘all you can eat’ buffet. Me, I was curious, straining to see what was causing such a commotion. Exploding through the forest was a young gorilla, boisterous and cheeky like a child. He swung through the trees, showing off like he was in his own private show. Over the time of the hour we got to spend with the gorillas, two more silverbacks came and left, and female gorillas joined the group as if checking up on the young. The hours of trekking to see these magnificent animals in the wild seemed to take forever and the time we spent with them went in the blink of an eye.
I don’t know if it was the emotions stirring in me from what I had witnessed or pure exhaustion, but the return journey I found myself spending more time on my bottom than my feet as I descended the mountain. My feet were on auto pilot and I did not know how they were moving beneath me, carrying me back to base. I kept thinking about the baby gorilla, so young, innocent and carefree – totally unaware of what hard work that is taken to protect his home – their habitat that is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I can only hope that this conservation continues to secure the safety of the world’s last mountain gorillas so generations to come can enjoy the life changing experience I had the privilege to share.
NEED TO KNOW
- Fly to Uganda with South African Airways ex Australia via Johannesburg to Entebbe – flysaa.com
- Stay at Chameleon Hill Lodge in Bwindi National Park – chameleonhill.com
- Gorilla Trekking Permit cost starts– USD$600. Must pre-book as only limited numbers are allowed trekking per day
- 3 Day Gorilla Trekking Adventure with Lets Go Travel – ugandaletsgotravel.com
- Anti-malaria medication and Yellow Fever a must when travelling to Uganda. Yellow Fever certificate sited on entry into the country and return into Australia
- Uganda Shilling is local currency used however if you take USD ensure they are not damaged and newer than 2009.
- Entry Visa USD$50 for a single entry tourist visa