After spending the last two months in the small, rural town of Masaka, we were pretty ready for another African adventure. The one thing we had decided was non-negotiable while we’re here was trekking to see the mountain Gorillas. We took advantage of another long weekend and headed off to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for a visit with the gentle creatures we share 98.4% of our DNA with.
Bwindi Impenetrable NP lies in southwestern Uganda and is home to over 400 Mountain Gorillas, about half the world’s population. The rest are in neighbouring countries Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s crazy to think there are only 800 or so of these beautiful animals left in the world, thankfully due to conservation efforts funded largely through treks like ours those numbers are going up.
A recent weekend trip to Lake Mburo taught us our usual approach to travelling – ‘let’s just wing-it’ – wasn’t as easy in Africa so we decided we would lean on a travel company for this expedition. What we’ve learnt since being here is that Africa is just not setup for backpacking the way that Europe, Asia and South America are. Transport in particular is difficult, expensive and can be dangerous. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s just not as easy as criss-crossing India on passenger trains or jumping on the Eurorail.
We went with a travel company called Home to Africa based on a recommendation from a lovely couple we met at Lake Mburo. They offer packages from budget through to luxury, the main difference being the quality of accommodation and some extra activities. At the last minute we opted for the luxury package, the cost wasn’t significantly different and we were swayed by the accommodation options. A little added bonus for the altruistic types, 20% of your booking fee with HTA is donated to their charity!
We were picked up from our home in Masaka by Derek, our guide for the weekend. We spent the best part of day one driving to Kabale, stopping for lunch along the way in a town called Mbarara. The drive through the hills and villages of Kabale was stunning. The hills were covered with crops, everything from of Irish potatoes to tea, beans and cabbages. It was a nice change from the endless fields of banana trees we’ve become familiar with. We arrived at the Gorilla Safari Lodge in Bwindi and headed up to grab a beer just in time to watch the sun come down over the hills.
We were in bed pretty early because we had to be packed and at breakfast by 7:30am before setting off for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) office in the park.
Note: It was at this stage of the trip we had some reservations about the luxury package, the accommodation was great but our time there was so brief that it almost wasn’t worth the extra money (more on this later).
We arrived at the UWA office and headed up to the banda for the initial briefing by one of the rangers. We learned that there are nine families tracked within Bwindi and each of them has about 10 members of different ages. Each morning trackers are sent out to locate the families and radio back their locations to avoid trekking groups having to walk for hours, up and down mountains trying to locate the gorillas (think Karl Pilkington, Idiot Abroad). At around about 8:30am we set of to locate our family – the Mishaya group.
We trekked for about an hour before we spotted a little guy swinging in a tree, a sign they were nearby but you wouldn’t otherwise know due to the thick vegetation. He was 18 months old, the eldest of three babies in the group, the others were 12 and 4 months. As the ranger cut through the bushes with a machete we spotted them, a giant male silverback and a female nursing the youngest at the base of the tree. We sat in the shrubs, three metres back for an hour and just watched them. They didn’t seem too bothered either, they’ve obviously become accustomed to having humans staring at them for an hour each morning, just part of the daily routine really.
It’s hard to put into words the feeling you get sitting that close to one of the worlds most endangered animals, it’s a memory we will both cherish forever.
After the high of sitting with gorillas in their natural habitat it was difficult to imagine the trip could get any better. That was until we laid eyes on the view of Lake Bunyonyi from the deck of our Arcadia Lodge. What a sight! We were blown away. This place is set right up on the hills and probably has the best view of the lake. Our luxury option meant we stayed in an incredible lodge with a huge deck and unobstructed views – perfect for drinking beers and playing chess (Dayna’s first time). At this point we were stoked we went with the luxury option. That said, Arcadia has accommodation options to suit all budgets and to be honest they’re all pretty good, the main difference is the view but you can still appreciate it from the grassed areas or the restaurant. We highly recommend this place.
On our final morning we set off with a lovely local guide named Ananias who took us canoeing around the lake’s islands in his dugout canoe. He had lots of information about the islands, he grew up there. We stopped off at the island he went to school on and he showed us around. He told us about a project he started where he teaches young kids how to swim, a pretty useful life skill when your school is on island and your daily commute is by boat. When we got back he took us through the village to a local Bushera shop where we found a bunch of locals sipping on a traditional Ugandan fermented drink made of sorghum. We didn’t love it but if you like Kombucha you might be in to it. If you do decide to go canoeing be prepared to work hard, you’re looking at two hours of solid paddling. Luckily for us it was a bit overcast, it would have been tough in the scorching sun.
After lunch we hit the road back home to Masaka and were welcomed home to a pool party celebrating Easter. If there’s one thing we’ll never tire of in Africa it’s the dancing. They start young and man can they move!
Tips for the trek
- Wear good quality hiking boots. You’ll be walking through mud, manure and streams and the last thing you want is wet feet. We both have Danner Mountain 600’s they’ve been great from the very first wear
- Take a light-weight waterproof jacket. It’s not cold, especially when you’re hiking but it’s likely to rain. Even if it doesn’t the trees and bushes are wet and at times you are in dense shrubbery. We have great lightweight jackets from Patagonia that pack down super small
- Take some gloves – we just grabbed some cheap gardening gloves. Again, the shrubbery is thick and you’re often pushing your way through
- A big chunk of the cost is the permit which in Uganda is $600 USD. The UWA governs wildlife parks in Uganda and a portion of the permit goes toward conservation
Feel like reading some more? Check out our first true Ugandan cultural experience!