Seeing gorillas in their native habitat is an incredible experience, and Uganda is the best place to do it. Here's what you need to know before you book your trip.
1. Stay at Clouds Gorilla Lodge.
Clouds Gorilla Lodge, near the border of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, is as great a base for gorilla trekking in Uganda as you could ask for. Each of the cottages is kitted out with a small fireplace, sitting room, and patio and features work by a Ugandan artist. It can be chilly in the evenings and housekeeping puts a warm water bottle under the blankets so your bed is extra inviting after a long day of hiking.
As the highest lodge in Uganda, the view from Clouds is unbelievable—when it’s clear you can see the Virunga volcano ridge in Rwanda, and on especially clear nights I was told you could see a red glow from the volcanoes. The view of Bwindi is equally stunning—the trees are so dense it’s immediately obvious why it’s called the Impenetrable Forest. Another benefit to staying at Clouds is that they work closely with the local community, and a significant amount of revenue goes back into the community and into conservation efforts.
2. Get your permits and hire a porter.
If you're planning to go gorilla tracking, make sure to organize your gorilla permit well in advance of your trip—this can be done through your lodge or through a safari company. The permits aren’t cheap, but the experience is more than well worth it, and in the low season the price is cut nearly in half. We got permits to see the Nkuringo group, which is the closest group to Clouds, and at the time had two silverbacks and about 13 members in the group in total, including a baby.
The hike itself is strenuous and hot, and there’s no way to really gauge how long the trek will actually take since it depends on where the gorillas are. I highly recommend hiring a porter to take with you—even if you’re fit or prefer to carry your own pack, it provides valuable income and employment within the community.
3. Wear long pants and sleeves.
You're advised to wear natural colors on the hike and to avoid anything white. I wore black running leggings and a black quick-dry long sleeve tee. You’ll want to wear long pants and long sleeves, and I advise wearing all quick-dry materials. You’ll definitely sweat, and being in a rainforest, you never know what the weather will do. As such, also be sure to pack a light rain shell and rain pants, as well as a good hat.
Sturdy hiking boots are a must since the ground can be a bit muddy and slippery. Be sure also to pack something warm for the evenings, as well as a pair of comfortable sandals or slippers to wear after your hike.
4. Don’t freak out, but do keep your distance.
After a sweaty four-hour hike through the gorilla buffer zone and farmland and eventually into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, our guide alerted us that the gorillas were just over the next ridge. I still wasn’t prepared to actually see them! Their fur is so black and dense, and they’re massive—it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in nature. Even the teenagers look like they could rip a limb off if they wanted to.
Fortunately, this group is habituated to the point of being almost friendly. Visitors are advised to maintain seven meters between themselves and the gorillas, but that’s impossible when a young gorilla runs past you, grabbing your leg playfully—something that actually happened to me—or when the alpha silverback lumbers past you with barely six inches of clearance. It’s hard to forget that these are wild animals, and that they’ll do whatever they want, so for the hour I spent with them I was in kind of terrified awe, not wanting to get too close, but also on the brink of tears at how lucky I was to see them.
It can’t be overstated how human they look. Their body language and expressions are so close to our own, I’d urge anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution to pay these guys a visit. At the end of the hike, everyone is awarded a charming commemorative certificate of the trip. Again, it’s important to remember to tip your guide, as well as the trackers and porters.
Learn more about visiting gorillas in Uganda.
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