A forlorn voice screeches through the radio. Our guide stops and listens attentively. At a halt, we take advantage of the quick break. The thick forest, with its rough, hilly terrain has our calves burning. My raincoat is sticking to my arms, but I keep it on as protection from the buzzing mosquitoes. The fresh water feels like a godsend in this tropical heat.
After a few minutes, our guide turns around, looks at our group and finally announces what we’ve been waiting to hear for the past half an hour; “The trackers have found the Gorilla family!“. A burst of excitement spreads through the group. A few giggle, most sigh of relief. We are only a few hundred metres away from them, we just have to negotiate a path.
We trek for a little while longer, an exhausting mix of hardcore bush bashing and hurdling massive root systems. My gaze has been locked on my feet, trying to avert falling and injuring myself on the thorny low bushes when suddenly, I bump into the person in front of me. Everybody’s stopped. I hadn't realised we’d finally met with the trackers. They blend in with the surroundings, wearing khaki military style uniforms. With one hand, they hold a rifle, and with the other, they indicate there is something shaking the bushes.
A flash of black fur stirs from within. A little hand reaches for a bunch of leaves…We are about a metre away from a gorilla. We’ve made it.
We were very lucky. Our trek to find this gorilla family lasted less than an hour, and we’d been warned that it could take upwards of 8 hours…
To be fair, I really enjoyed the hike. The forest was lush and green. We could hear the chant of exotic birds and spotted a few curious foot/hoof prints along the way. Jumping over gurgling streams and walking around giant fallen trees was half the fun.
Getting up close to the gorillas is an unforgettable experience, and worth every effort. The family we visited had thirteen members comprising mostly females and juveniles as well as a very cute fuzzy baby, and of course, the silverback.
We watched them interact, under the protection of the silverback, who was always very vigilant and wary of us intruders. Some juveniles were quite curious. One of them looked quite sulky with his arms crossed over his chest, until he suddenly got up and grabbed a lady by her shirt to invite her to play with him!
To reduce the transmission of diseases, masks are mandatory. But, the cardinal rule is that you cannot touch the gorillas or get too close to them. However, if they succumb to their natural curiosity, the trackers will intervene to ensure no trespass is made. Gorillas are very territorial and the males will not hesitate to protect their family if they feel threatened.
We were admiring a very cheeky juvenile male gorilla who was very dramatically splayed out on a tree trunk, when he suddenly got up and charged us, fists bumping on his chest in defiance. He’d decided we’d come too close. Fair enough.
This is truly one of the last wild encounters available to the modern adventurer. A rare opportunity only a lucky few can enjoy per day.
At the time of writing, this cost is exponential to the privilege, starting at a mere $1,000 USD per permit. And booking in advance is essential as there aren’t many on sale.
But this is one of these priceless experiences…and the funds help with park management and conservation efforts. Which is no small feat, as every country that is home to the beautiful endangered gorillas are struggling with poaching, human-animal conflicts and deforestation to name a few.
In fact, there are only around 1,000 mountain gorillas left on the planet. They live in central Africa, with half of them in the Virunga mountains. They can be visited in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, with the most popular place being Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda (where we went).
Their cousins, the lowland gorillas can be found in many other Central & Western African countries such as Cameroon or Angola.
Whilst there are few remaining gorillas, they are constantly monitored and tracked. So chances of seeing them on your trek, though never guaranteed, are very high.
Being reasonably fit, with the ability to walk on challenging terrain for possibly 8 hours is a pre-requisite of this trek. In saying this, we had an absolute hero in our group: a 70 year old man who had always dreamed of seeing these primates. And he really kept up the pace, too!
Packing essentials include a raincoat, sturdy boots, mosquito spray, at least 1L of water and snacks. I would add a good camera to this list because I can guarantee you that you’ll want to look back on this day later on.