We had a hard time finding good information on what to expect when gorilla tracking. I’d like to share what we learned and hope that it helps someone looking for information on tracking gorillas in Uganda.
My girlfriend and I recently returned from a two week trip to Uganda. While the trip was largely a birding trip (for me; Carmen wanted to see lots of wildlife), birds were sharing the spotlight on this trip. Uganda is home to the Eastern Mountain Gorilla, and we had permits to track them.
First, this is no walk in the park. Okay, literally, yes, this is a walk in the park, but it is not an easy walk in the park. The gorillas are located in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This is a steep mountainous region located in the southwestern portion of the country. You will end up off trail for portions of the trek. Even the portions that are on trail can be very rough. We were stepping over fallen trees on steep slopes at times. Once we got out of the forest portion, we were in an area of waist-high vegetation. There was no trail; other than what was trampled down. There was a lot of stinging nettle in the area, and there were a good number of biting ants. Even in long pants (tucked into socks) and long sleeves (tucked into pants), we still suffered some bites. The ants simply crawled all the way up to our neck and then proceeded with the biting bit. We were lucky on our hike, we only had about a half-hour hike to get to our gorilla family. This is on the extremely low end of durations for this type of hike. We met a group a couple days before that had a 6 hour hike to their location. Some of that group did not make it. One turned back and another was stretchered out. The stretcher option is quite expensive. Needless to say, we were concerned.
So, what would I have liked to know ahead of time and what would I recommend for preparation?
1) You need to plan for upwards of an 8 hour day for getting there and back. If you are going through a guide company, they usually will make sure to plan for a packed lunch for you. If you are arranging this yourself, you will need to plan for a lunch. You also will need a lot of water. At minimum, I’d plan on a 1.5 liter bottle per person. If you are more out of shape, like me, you will want to plan on more. I planned on extra for myself and my girlfriend and took along 2 1.5 liter bottles; in addition to the liter I was carrying myself. You should plan to be in decent shape. We were not, and it was not an easy hike for us; even at a shorter duration.
2) You will want long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, and good hiking boots. Between the nettles and ants, this is not the place for anything else. We treat clothing with Permethrin when we travel. It didn’t really help with the ants. As I said, we had pant legs tucked into socks. I would really recommend a good set of gaiters, as well. With the pants tucked, you get stuff down in your boots. The gaiters would prevent that. A set of decent gardening gloves (something lightweight with a tougher material in the palm area) is a good idea. When you inevitably slip and grab something or put a hand on the ground, the protection against nettles will be appreciated. Our hotel (more on that below) supplied us with a sturdy walking stick. If you have trekking poles, you would want to consider bringing them. Rain gear. You can probably do without rain pants, but a good jacket with pit zips should keep you dry and cool. Luckily, we didn’t need to worry about it. I’d also recommend a hat. You are between 5k and 7k feet high. The sun can be strong up there.
3) Porters! Use them. You will have the option to bring a porter along with you. They will carry your pack. If desired (I did not), they will help you up and down the slopes. There was a guy in our group with back issues, and he found the porters to be very helpful; as they steadied him while hiking. This being said, you might take a porter into consideration when deciding what to do about day packs. The porters will literally carry everything for you. Many people showed up and handed their whole pack over. I don’t like the idea of having to ask for access to my water bottle. I took two packs. The first pack had the spare water in it and my camera (more on this in a minute). This pack was waterproof, in case it rained on us. The second pack I carried my lunch in along with my rain jacket and my water bottle for drinking. I felt it was fairer to carry some of my own weight. If I was in the shape I was when younger, I would have carried more. The minimum cost for a porter is 50,000 Ugandan Shillings (or roughly $15 USD, at the current exchange rate). Obviously, they will accept more. I made sure to tip well. I did this for several reasons. The biggest reason is that they work hard to make sure you are successful on your hike. These are people from the area, and this injects a lot of money into their local economy. This ensures that everyone, tourists and people living in the area, is interested in the future and welfare of the gorillas. It really is a win-win.
4) About that camera mentioned earlier – bring one. This is not a thing you are going to want cell phone pictures of; regardless of how good they look on your screen. I didn’t see any guidance on this. I asked a professional that I ran across on Instagram, and I was told to bring a 500mm lens. I was told I would want something large. This did not exactly match up with my understanding of how close the gorillas would be. So, I was a bit confused; all the way up until the night before. I had two cameras with me. One was a Nikon D500 with a 200-500mm lens, and the other was a Sony mirrorless with a kit 16-50mm lens on it. I was using the Nikon for wildlife photography (and was often over-lensed for most of the larger animals) and the Sony for occasional landscape or night shots (which I had very few opportunities to try). Well, I’m glad I had the Nikon with the zoom. If it was a 500mm prime lens, I would not have had much luck. The gorillas were simply too close. At 200mm, I’m sill basically shooting one gorilla at a time. The Sony would have been good at times, but there was not a lot of room (everyone was a bit scrunched together) for a wider shot. A camera with about a 100-400mm lens would have been perfect for most of it. A good bridge camera would work, too. Take what works best for you and covers a decent range. I would not plan on swapping lenses; as you are not allowed to take a pack down to the group.
5) Tipping – yes, please do. Odds are, you spent a good deal of money to get here. You should plan to spend a bit more once you arrive. In addition to the porters, there is a ranger that leads the group. Once you arrive at the location where the gorillas are, you will have several rangers (we had 5; including a volunteer) that have been tracking the gorillas since sunrise. They will be in the field with the gorillas all day; only leaving in the evening before it gets dark. It helps with locating the family the following morning. Tip what you wish, but it would be good to give them something. Again, it not only helps them financially, but it helps maintain an interest in preserving and caring for the gorillas. You don’t have to plan on separate amounts for all of the rangers. You can give them a larger bill, and they will split it later.
6) US currency! If you are taking US currency to Uganda (or are receiving it in Uganda), you need to check the dates on the money. US currency before 2006 is not accepted in Uganda. This is the older style currency, and there is a lot of counterfeit currency from that time. The banks of Uganda (and therefore the people of Uganda) do not accept US money from before 2006. So, please check the dates on your money. I would not take anything smaller than a 5 or larger than a 20.
That about covers everything regarding preparation. We stayed at Ride 4 a Woman (https://www.ride4awoman.org/). Honestly, it was a great experience. The women there were amazing. If you are considering going, stay there. You won’t regret it. We had some free time in the middle of the day, and the women brought Carmen into their group and started teaching her about the crafts they make and what they do. Carmen even got to help make a coaster from woven grasses. It was really great, and she loved it. Go, stay, and plan to spend some time learning about what they do and the crafts they make.
As for our actual tracking experience, it was short and sweet. I could not have asked for much more. Maybe more time, better light, and less obstructions, but, really, I’d say that about any experience. Our trek did not start super early. But, this is something you need to figure out the night before. Not all treks start with a briefing at the visitor’s center. Some treks base from a different location that is an hour away. Ours started at the visitor’s center. Our guide already had our permit info and got us registered when we arrived. The women from Ride 4 a Woman put on an amazing performance (singing, playing music, and dancing) before our briefing. The briefing was quick, and then we loaded up into our vehicle and drove to our actual starting point. What happened behind the scenes is that our guide got us assigned into a group (thankfully, steering us away from the harder hikes) and found out where our startling location was. We drove for about 45 minutes and arrived at an area next to what looked like a yam farm. There, we met the other hikers in our group. Groups are 8 people, at max. We had 6 in our group: two other Americans and two Germans. We met our porters, settled gear, and started our hike. After a quick hike up through the farm field, we arrived at the edge of the forest. Here, for the first time, we learned how long our trip would be. When we were told it was a half hour, I was not sure I believed him. After a long, steep descent through the forest, we arrived at a large open area. A short distance later, we were stopped and informed we should prepare for our encounter. I ditched my pack and got my camera from my porter. We started walking further downhill to the edge of the clearing. I was near the back of the group. The group stopped, and I peered around the line of people to see why we’d stopped. There was a large gorilla head poking out of the grass ahead of us.
We spent the next hour with the Mayambi family. The large head poking out of the grass belonged to Biyindo, the silverback of the group. Biyindo was named for the scar on his nose. There are 8 members in this family. In addition to the silverback, there were two young gorillas (including a very tiny baby), and 5 adults. We did not see two of the adults during our time with the family. We spent the next hour with this group. The male got up and did a little chest beating and hooting at one point, but he calmly moved on and spent the rest of the time feeding. Other than that, everything was really calm and amazing. At one point, a gorilla came down out of a tree behind the group. We were told to give it some space to walk through, and it eventually walked by about 10 feet away from me. I took a lot of pictures. I got a few ant bites. I had a really great experience. The hour flew by, and the gorillas (true to rumors I’d heard) knew that time was coming to an end. They got up as a group and slowly walked away from us and downhill a little further. They picked a sheltered area and started huddling together for bonding and grooming time. Pretty cool.
When it was all done, we slogged our way buck uphill and broke for lunch on the edge of a tea plantation. A few minutes later, we were in the van and heading back to the visitor’s center; tired but happy.
Thanks for reading,