The main reason why we chose to visit Uganda was not other than the famous mountain gorillas. The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park hosts one for the two populations of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei). The other population lives within three national parks: Mhahinga (Uganda), Volcanoes (Rwanda) and Virunga (Democratic Republic of Congo). With DRC being out of reach, we chose Uganda, to combine it with a visit Kimbale forest for chimps.
The long drive from Kibale to Bwindi takes 5:30 hours non-stop, through the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Including a stop for lunch at the Savannah Resort restaurant, close to the Kihihi air strip, it took 6:30 hours to reach Bwindi. We did not stop in the park for a game safari, as we had a full week in the Serengeti and Ndutu plains that satisfied our appetite for big cats and ungulates. The Mahogany Springs Lodge is quite new and very good, but sort of uninspiring, The bungalows are spacious with electrical plugs and hot water. During the first night we were the only guests which made the stay more enjoyable.
At 7:30 we left the hotel for a short 10 min drive to the camp where we received instructions and received a briefing about the gorillas. There are eight habituated gorilla groups in Bwindi and we were assigned to Habinyanja which consists of 18 members, led by Makara, the only silverback. It was originally habituated in 1997, one of the first. There are only 8 daily permits per group and the visit is limited to one hour strictly. According to the rules, you are not allowed to go closer than 7 meters to a gorilla and this is for their safety mainly, as they can be easily infected by human diseases.
Eight permits per group times eight groups times $500 per permit comes to $32 thousand a day. The yearly income from gorillas in Bwindi is more than $11 million. Add another $10-15 million than tourists will spend during their stay in Bwindi for lodging and activities and the sum is quite an important for a country with a state budget of $3.2 billion.
We drove for about 20 min until we reached the base of the slope where we chose our porters. Local villagers take turns and twice a month they can earn $15 for carrying the tourists backpacks throughout the short or long quest for the mountain gorillas. Do not hesitate to hire a porter and it is worth every penny as the walk can be exhaustive and you help the local people earn an income.
After one hour of laborious climbing, we reached the top. Short rest and then descend into the impenetrable forest. The vegetation is very dense which slows the descent.
Besides the guide and porters, we were escorted by two armed rangers as a protection against a possible encounter with mountain elephants. The gorilla groups are tracked by rangers that mark their position via GPS, so it guaranteed to reach them. In our case it took two hours and a lot of sweating until our guide asked us to leave everything to the porters and proceed armed with cameras only.
Despite the fact that you are prepared for the encounter, the sight of an adult gorilla emerging out of the thick vegetation send shivers in your spine. The biggest of all apes is imposing. For sure you can see them in zoos, but the natural setting of thick, wet vegetation and the two hour trek makes the first sight unforgettable. In my case I saw Maraya, a young blackback with an intense look in his eyes. Click. Awe. Click. Click. Click.
The five photographers of the visitor group were trying to get the pole position for a clean shot but the vegetation was so thick that it was really hard. Then came Makara, the cool silverback, then the females with the juveniles. At one point when three of us were trying to photograph Maraya drinking water from the small river, he turned, started beating his chest and charged at us. And approached to two meters. Carrying the camera mounted on the monopd I was not able to move quickly enough, which apparently was the right thing to do. He turned back and waked away swiftly. Point well made.
It was after twenty minutes of polite pushing and clicking that I finally put the camera down and started really enjoying the show, in the way the three non photographer ladies of the group were wisely doing since the beginning. I spend the best fifteen minutes transfixed by a couple of juveniles that were climbing and swinging off the trees. Then I started shooting again in the pursuit of the perfect capture. The seven meters distance is a myth. In many occasions we came as close to 2-3 meters away from the gorillas although not for long.
After exactly one hour and one minute, as the tome stamps on my pictures certify, an amazing thing happened. Makara took the lead and started driving the group away. Time was up and he knew it! We started our ascend, overwhelmed by the experience. Fifteen minutes away, we met the porters and stopped a rest and lunch. The way back was another ninety minutes that really put to test my right knee due to the steep descent. It did not matter. The experience was worth all the effort and the $500 per person.
Next: Children of a lesser God