Things to do
Uganda’s most famous tourist experience, tracking mountain gorillas is arguably one of the top five wildlife encounters available anywhere in the world.
Departing from one of four trailheads on the perimeters of the Forest, you join a group of a maximum of eight other visitors for a guided trek into the forest in search of one of 11 habituated gorilla families. Each visit requires a gorilla permit that currently costs $600 and you must be 15 years old or over to join a trek.
Led by experienced, specialised Uganda Wildlife Authority guides, you will be introduced to the ecology of the forest and the changing landscape as you trek to the gorillas. Your guides are in communication with the team of trackers who will have been shadowing the gorillas since daybreak. The trackers direct your guides and so bring you to the gorillas. You should be prepared to walk through a challenging terrain of steep ridges and valleys, following animal paths through tangled undergrowth for about three hours to reach this point. Although sometimes contact can be made after 45 minutes and other times six hours.
Once contact has been made, you have up to one hour in which to observe the gorilla family from a distance of 7 metres. However, you should also be prepared for relaxed mums or inquisitive young to close this gap considerably! The trackers will remain in charge of the contact, telling you what to do in order to remain safe and enjoy the experience to the full.
When the hour is up, you will trek back through the forest to the tail head. This last bit often feels a little like walking on air.
The number of gorilla permits each day is strictly limited and so the peak season months of June to September and January and February sell out well in advance of travel. It is therefore recommended that you plan your visit about a year in advance, if not earlier. Gorilla permits are non-refundable, but if you trek and do not see a gorilla the Uganda Wildlife Authority will refund 50% of the permit cost. This happens very rarely.
The four areas of Bwindi in which it is possible to track the gorillas are Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo.
Gorilla tracking began from the northwestern village of Buhoma in 1993 and it remains the place with the greatest number of accommodation options, plus the home of the Park’s HQ and a good base for birdwatchers with 190 species, 10 of which on the IUCN red list, recorded in the vicinity. The village is located at 1,500 metres above sea level. Arguably, the topography around Buhoma provides some of the more accessible gorilla treks, especially as the Rushegura family is known to be found relatively close to the village (occasionally thrilling visitors to Gorilla Forest Camp). Buhoma is also home to inspiring non-governmental organisations like Ride 4 a Woman the Batwa Development Programme, plus local craftsmen, providing interesting and often inspirational experiences outside of the forest.
45km from Buhoma, Ruhija has been said to be one of the most beautiful gorilla tracking areas. At 2,340 metres, it is also one of the most challenging. Opened for tracking in 2008, the local roads have now been improved to the extent that visitors often stay in Buhoma, enjoying the greater range of accommodation options, and track in Ruhija where three gorilla groups are now available.
Approached from the north, Rushaga is the first of the southern locations. At 1,900 metres, it is lower than Ruhija; inaugurated in 2009, it is also Bwindi’s newest trekking destination. There are five gorilla groups available in Rushaga, making 40 permits available daily. Additionally, six permits are available for the gorilla habituation trek. The terrain is more open here, providing stunning views of the mountains, rather than enveloping trekkers in forest, making it easier going than Ruhija. While there are local accommodation options, Rushaga is also accessible to trekkers staying in Nkuringo, around Lake Mutanda, or even Kisoro.
Opened in 2004, Nkuringo is found diametrically opposite to Buhoma in the remote south of Bwindi. The trailhead is at an altitude of 2,100 metres on the Nteko Ridge, 600 metres above the Kashasha River valley where the Nkuringo gorilla group like to roam. This makes for a steep descent at the beginning of a trek and a very challenging return hike. There is no doubt that Nkuringo is the most difficult tracking destination of the four. But it is beautiful with stunning panoramic views of the Virunga Volcanic Range. A stay here also provides access to local farming communities, a Batwa experience and the wonderful lakes Mutanda and Bunyoni - plus easy access to the border with Rwanda.
Gorilla Habituation Experience
Visitors often ask about the difference between tracking the mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda. One of the answers is that over the last few years, Uganda has provided an incredible opportunity to join a gorilla habituation team and spend up to four hours in the company of one gorilla family.
This opportunity costs $1,500 per person, but with only six trekkers in a group, it is an intense and unforgettable experience, perfect for those with a passion for gorillas or the urge to capture the perfect photographic record of the experience.
It is not right for everyone, even if the cost is not an issue. Four hours is a long time to remain quiet and observant in a small area of forest. We humans find it incredibly difficult to maintain concentration for more than an hour. However, if once you have read this, you the idea of effectively becoming part of a gorilla family for four hours keeps returning to your mind until you can’t think or anything else, the habituation trek is probably the one for you.
Guided forest walks are available from each of the trailheads and are a lovely way to experience the landscape and wildlife of the forest without the focus of the gorillas. They normally last around 3 hours and depart in the morning.
One of the best walks is the transect from Buhoma in the north to Nkuringo in the south. This operates in both directions. The trek takes normally between 3 or 5 hours, depending on the route taken - although slower walkers may end up taking much of a day. Be warned that if you walk from north to south, your trek will finish with the 600 metre climb up to Nkuringo.
The walk is both a wildlife and in many ways a meditative experience. There is no rush; you may just be on your own or with your travelling companions. You move slowly through the forest, taking in the sights and sounds, observing the changes; stopping just to enjoy the sense of peace.
It is also sensible to keep an eye open for familiar tracks, steaming piles of dung and a black shape in the foliage. This is gorilla territory after all.
The Batwa people are the original human inhabitants of the Forest. An ancient race of hunter gatherers, they lived off, and in harmony with, the Forest until the creation of the National Park in 1992 led to their expulsion and banishment to a modern world they knew little of.
Since that time, they have lived on the forest fringes, unable to hunt, often squatting in the gardens of villagers, uneducated and unable to make a future for themselves. The result has been similar to that experienced by indigenous communities worldwide in similar circumstances: widespread alcoholism, prostitution and the disintegration of an ancient way of life.
While it has always been possible to ‘visit’ Batwa communities since the establishment of the Park, these experiences have been tragic and tawdry observation of desperation, with any cultural element staged for a perceived tourist appreciation.
Happily, in recent years, that has changed. By visiting Batwa cultural projects run by the Batwa Development Programme, it is possible to learn about and support this fascinating, vulnerable, culture in a sensitive and appropriate manner.
One of the best ways is to take a guided walk into boundary forest purchased by the programme and set aside for the use of the Batwa (excluding hunting), accompanied by an interpretive guide from the neighbouring Bakinga community.
Climbing a hundred metres or so above Buhoma, you will then be met by a Batwa welcoming community comprised of varying representatives of the community from the young to the very old. They will then skip ahead along the trail (while you wheeze and stumble), stopping to re-enact living tableaux of the life they used to live from preparing traps, to building houses and even disposing of the dead.
This is not a happy ending. The Batwa arguably should live in the forest and they probably never will again, so a seam of sadness runs through the experience. But the guides undoubtedly enjoy the experience and the sights and sounds of your hours on the trail will live with you for a long time while your money helps support sustainable medical and educational lifelines for the Batwa community.
Buhama has grown since 1993, but it remains a compact and welcoming village, sustained by the gorillas and the forest that seems to push against the collection of lodges and houses in the valley bottom.
Most wildlife activities depart by 9am and are often finished by early afternoon, meaning that if you are still feeling active, you have a few hours in which to explore your surroundings.
There are not a great deal of options, but most are available in and around Buhoma. You can follow a formal village tour that includes a visit to the blacksmith, brewery and traditional healer. Alternatively, visit the Ride 4 A Woman compound, a worthy non-governmental organisation established by local women to support those who are victims of domestic abuse. Initially generating income through the hire of bicycles, the group has now developed into a sewing and weaving co-operative. Members produce a great range of traditional and modern products that are available to buy; visitors are also welcome to try their hand at weaving and to chat with the women.
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