Gorilla Tracking is on many people’s bucket list, and I often get asked what it is really like. So I thought I’d write this blog-post about my first Gorilla Tracking experience, from when I was a tourist/volunteer, before I’d even considered starting my own safari company.
I showed up at the Rushaga gorilla tracking gate (in the southern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable national park) at 7am ready to be briefed along with twenty other travelers about our upcoming adventure. We were split into three groups (each to track a different gorilla family) and introduced to our guides. Coincidentally, I had already met my guide a couple of days earlier when I played a game of pool against him in the local bar, he had beaten me (by a couple of fluky shots I must add) and found this absolutely hilarious! After introductions and a further short briefing, we set off in search of the magnificent mountain gorillas.
Our guide put the slowest walker at the front, and we hiked at quite a leisurely pace along well-trodden paths, through the dense, mountainous jungle completely in awe of our surroundings and of the breath-taking views that would appear every time there was a gap in the trees. After around 45 minutes of this quite pleasant walking, we turned off the path and the guides, using their machetes, created a whole new path through the jungle for us. We knew we were getting close and excitement started to build. After around ten minutes of trying not to slip in the mud or fall over branches we came across our first Gorilla. A pregnant female gorging herself with leaves.
I was taken aback, one minute we were trekking through the jungle, then the next, with no warning, a mountain gorilla was sat 3 meters in front of me. It was a bit of a shock to be honest! Sir David Attenborough described his first encounter with a gorilla as:
“There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that they see the world in much the same way as we do. We live in the same sort of social groups with largely permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are. So if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature's world, it must be with the gorilla. The male is an enormously powerful creature but he only uses his strength when he is protecting his family and it is very rare that there is violence within the group. So it seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not — and that we are.”
I couldn’t possibly match Sir David’s eloquence and insight, but what struck me was not only how similar we are, but the sheer size and power of them. We have so much in common with a gorilla, yet I suddenly felt very inferior.
This first gorilla we saw was a pregnant female, we spent about 10 minutes staring at her, completely in awe, before deciding to move on in search of the rest of the group. As we were moving on I was stood at the back of the tracking group. We were walking down a narrow path and for some reason we stopped. Just as we had stopped moving the pregnant female started to walk towards me. Having the path in front of me blocked and the dense jungle surrounding me I had nowhere to go. I stood there in terror of what she was going to do. As she walked past me, she stretched out her long arm and tapped me on the thy and continued to disappear into the forest. I was absolutely terrified! I told our guide about it a bit later on and he said: “Yes, she likes to play!”
We went on to see two huge silverbacks and several youngsters. After spending an hour with the gorillas you give them some peace and head back to the tracking gate. It rained all the way back but we didn’t care. The whole experience was absolutely amazing and something I will never forget. Gorilla tracking is expensive but if you get the chance to do it once in your lifetime then I promise you it’s worth it!
Additional info: The hike to reach the gorillas can take anywhere between 30 minutes and 5 hours, depending on their location, and as the animals are wild it is impossible to guarantee their position. Upon reaching the gorillas you stay with them for a maximum of 1 hour, this is so that their day is not interrupted too much by humans, and they remain wild.