Was it worth it? This is the question I keep coming back to after my visit to the mountain gorillas in Uganda. I think the answer is yes but I will attempt to explain my uncertainty in this post.
Heading into the impenetrable forest the three of us certainly had different expectations of what the experience would be, ultimately this led to us all having different reflections about the day afterwards.
One of my friends was fulfilling a promise she had made to herself when she had last visited East Africa as a student, another freely admitted to being ‘along for the ride’, while I had put some thought into the ethics of gorilla trekking and being a natural money saver had balked at the $600 cost.
Gorilla trekking has been established in Bwindi since 1993 and allows small groups of tourists to pay to visit family groups of gorillas that have gradually been habituated to human contact. The money paid by tourists goes directly to the national parks authority and so should be spent on protecting the gorillas and the environment they live in. People living near the parks where gorillas are found also then have an alternative source of income and this upturn in their finances should ensure there is local ‘buy-in’ to protecting these unique environmental areas for future generations. In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda visitor groups of no more than 8 visit 1 of 11 habituated families and spend no more than 1 hour with them. On the day we visited, in the Rushaga area of the park, albeit in rainy season, only two families were visited, one by a group of 3 tourists (us) and one by 4 tourists.
We met at the park headquarters for a briefing and then drove to the start point for our trek. The other group left directly from the visitor centre to visit their designated group. We trekked from a small village through farmland to the edge of the forest accompanied by two armed guards and a guide. Two trackers had already headed into the forest at 7am to begin the process of locating the gorillas again after leaving them the evening before.
The impenetrable forest was just that. We followed a ‘path’ for approximately 100m before heading into pathless forest for the following ninety minutes until we found the gorilla group. The walking was at times amazing; like being in a real life Indiana Jones movie as we clung onto vines for dear life and used them to drag ourselves up steep, undergrowth covered hills. However, as we crested what seemed like the hundredth near vertical hill patience was wearing a little thin. It was hot and claustrophobic but thankfully critter and stinger free. We couldn’t have been more grateful to finally hear the calls of our trackers. We knew we were close!
Coming face to face with a silverback eating his breakfast is undeniably a unique and special experience. What I hadn’t banked on was being quite so frightened. There haven’t been any injuries to tourists from the gorillas who are habituated but nonetheless I immediately developed a very healthy respect for the enormous, muscular creature in front of me. It soon became apparent that the group hadn’t found prime breakfasting terroir as they were constantly seeking out the next patch of undergrowth for grazing. A quick nibble and then they’d be on the move again. The ‘hadn’t found a tasty breakfast’ was the guides interpretation, while to me it felt like they were trying to move away from us and I think this is where my indecision about the experience has come from. We followed different members of the group at fairly close range. The guides and trackers would cut a ‘path’ for us through the jungle and were, I felt, unnecessarily keen on cutting back the undergrowth to ensure good photos.
Our time with the group went quickly, particularly as we had spent a lot of it following various gorillas through the undergrowth. It was brought to a definite end when the silverback appeared to prepare a mock charge which we all agreed was a sign to get going.
Seeing gorillas in the wild was definitely a wildlife experience like no other; truly unique and incredibly memorable. I made peace with the cost as I could see how precious the forest they live in is and I did believe that our money was going directly to conserving their natural environment. I had expected, perhaps naively that we would visit them sitting down in a nice clearing and could spend time with them just observing their daily routine. This definitely wasn’t the case and the mismatch between my expectations and reality certainly played on my mind during and after the experience. On reflection I am really glad I went but I wish I had gone with less or more realistic beliefs about what the day would entail.
The photos in this post are a mix of my photos and some taken by my friend Alice, who definitely had the best photographer’s eye and camera among us. Big thanks Alice for sharing them!