Gorilla trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda
One of the main reasons for visiting Uganda was gorilla trekking. This had been on our bucket list for a long time. Gorilla trekking in Uganda is cheaper than Rwanda, and most people visit Bwindi National Park for this. However, we did gorilla trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, where the Nyakegei gorilla family has been habituated to tourists, and stayed at the conveniently placed Amajambere Iwacu Community Camp
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Why go gorilla trekking in Uganda?
Our first wild great ape experience in Borneo
Way back in 2006, during our first tentative steps after leaving the UK, we visited Borneo and went on an overnight jungle stay which included a boat safari looking at things such as mangrove snakes and proboscis monkeys on a wild and deserted part of the river.
And on that trip, we were very lucky to see a wild orangutan high up in a tall tree. We floated quietly in the river below with the engine turned off and looked up following the guide’s finger. At first I saw nothing but branches and squinted at the bright sky beyond, the trees black against it. Then, suddenly, a hand reached out of the gloomy tree branches above, silhouetted against the bright clouds and looking very very human.
To be honest it was a bit weird. It was so high up and so human-looking, but all we saw was a hand. We floated there in silence a little longer and saw little more, but it was fascinating. I couldn’t help thinking – has he sent one of his friends up the tree to pretend to be an orangutan? – but I’m pretty sure it was the real thing. Anyway, it reminded me of those sightings of bigfoot you see on low-brow Animal Planet documentaries – ‘I know what I saw! Clear as day! Just like a man!’ – except this wasn’t a myth. These incredible animals exist. At least for now…
Which brings us back to Uganda in 2019.
The Uganda gorilla trekking trip wasn’t the first time I became interested in chimps and gorillas. I remember in the first year of my zoology degree telling my tutor that I wanted to study great apes. She, a world expert on freshwater shrimps, got somewhat irritated with me and asked me why I’d chosen to come to a zoology department that specialised in birds, insects and aquatic ecology. She had a good point.
And eventually I abandoned these ideas and studied insects and viruses – a choice I don’t regret by the way. But you don’t just stop being interested in great apes and although it took us 13 years after the orangutan experience, we finally made it to Africa to see chimpanzees and gorillas. So here starts our gorilla pilgrimage story…
Read about our chimpanzee trekking in Kibale National Park
Gorilla Trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
When most people go to Uganda to see gorillas they go to a forest called Bwindi. Or It’s full name as described for tourists – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. In fact, I believe ‘Bwindi’ actually means ‘impenetrable’ too. So it’s doubly impenetrable. Sounds inviting doesn’t it? It sounds a bit like a forest that Lion-o would get lost in in an episode of Thundercats.
Well, apparently it really is actually quite difficult to get through and is done so with guides slashing their way through the undergrowth with machetes. But there is an alternative – the smallest national park in Uganda – Mgahinga Gorilla National Park- also has gorillas and the hike to them is somewhat easier. Another advantage of gorilla trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is that it’s easier to get gorilla trekking permits (see below for more information about gorilla trekking permits). So we went there.
Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against a bit of hard work and I’m sure Bwindi is fantastic, but why not Mgahinga? So, after checking out of Elephant Home in Queen Elizabeth National Park, we set off on the long drive to the gorillas.
Getting to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
The route from Queen Elizabeth National Park was pretty picturesque and as we climbed onto higher ground we started getting stunning views from the road and passed through pretty little towns on the way. Halfway there we arrived at the town of Kabale where we planned to have a break and some food.
Although Kabale got a bad rap in our guidebook, it looked fine to us and we parked up to change some money at a bank on the high street and did a little bit of shopping in a nearby ‘supermarket’ (a term used in the loosest sense for a medium-sized corner shop festooned with ebola warning posters and a SUPERMARKET sign). Then we climbed a very steep hill and found a place called the White Horse Inn for food.
The White Horse Inn is a hotel complex with gardens and tight security. A grinning security lady on the gate checked under our car with a mirror and then asked me if I was carrying arms. I was a bit taken aback and asked her to repeat. ‘Arms…for protection‘ she confirmed and I said I didn’t think so – I didn’t declare my Swiss army knife, but figured I’d get away with it as it was at the bottom of my rucksack sock pocket. I was right and we were allowed in.
Inside we found a beautiful building surrounded by tailored lawns and took a table on the veranda to enjoy a club sandwich. It was a really nice respite from the chaos of the streets outside and the bar, with open fire and wicker chairs, looked like a great place to hang out in the evening. Anyway, we had a good lunch and set off on our journey fully replenished.
Next town – Kisoro
We were clearly getting close to the gorillas at this point as the ‘Gorilla trekking tours’ signs were massively increasing in frequency and then we even encountered a gorilla statue in the centre of town. Kate directed me round a left turn off the main road and directly into the car park of another little lodge called the Travellers’ Rest.
Again, another secluded respite from the rivers of motorbikes just over the hedge – but no one asked to see my weaponry here. Although deserted of customers when we went in the afternoon, it is a popular place to stay for gorilla trekkers and has a great interior filled with decorations and trinkets from around Uganda. We had coffee in the garden and met the resident dog while watching the abundant birdlife… And here comes the important info, apparently Dian Fossey stayed there! Yes! Her out of ‘Gorillas in the Mist’! Yes! The gorillas are coming closer…
After coffee, we set off on the last leg of the journey, ever upwards on a country road to the National Park gate.
For advice on doing a road trip in Uganda, see our post on our experience on our Ugandan road trip.
This was an experience in itself as the road is rough. I mean, I guess it was a road in the sense that you could see cars had been on it before me, but I think if it was a road in England we’d refer to it as an off-roading track. Certainly best tackled in a 4wd. Another added hazard was that the road winds its way through several villages and we passed through just at school kicking-out time, so the place was swarming with kids. We chugged along over and around the potholes past seemingly hundreds of children waving at us and shouting ‘Mzungu!‘ – the term for European foreigners ( apparently it translates as ‘someone who roams about’ – sounds fitting). Some of the kids also shouted ‘Give me money!!!‘ which was a bit disturbing.
Needless to say, they had to make do with a smile and a wave from this muz. It was only when we got to one stretch of road where little kids started chasing the car to try and jump on the bumper for a ride, that I got a bit uncomfortable about safety…
Anyway, eventually we got to our lodge and parked up outside. We were there. A short walk from the park gate and gorilla country.
Amajambere Iwacu Community Camp
Amajambere Iwacu Community Camp sits nestled by the park gate and the forest information centre with basic rooms and shared bathroom facilities in a little garden. The focal point in the main building with a bar for a drinks and from which food is served from a daily changing menu, with outside seating and tables set around an open log fire.
When we arrived we were desperate for a shower and realised we should probably do it before nightfall as the showers are exposed to the outside and I wondered what jungle visitors might be attracted to the light if we went after dark. Then it was time a for a beer on the terrace while we waited for the very helpful Alan on the front desk to find out the itinerary for our trek the next day.
There are two entry gates to Mgahinga National Park for gorilla trekking, and where the trek starts from depends on where the gorillas are that day. National Park trackers follow the gorilla all day, only leaving them at nightfall, heading out again at dawn to find them again. It seemed that the Mgahinga gorilla family had finished the day closer to the other gate, not the one we were staying at. It would have meant a morning drive back down the rough track before the early start. However, as Alan was talking to the National Park guides, a group of trekkers from Iceland turned up, also staying with us. It was therefore decided that the trek would start from our gate.
Into the jungle
The day started at 8am sharp and we filed into a small hall for a pre-trek briefing on how to behave around gorillas. The group consisted of us, a Sri Lankan couple and a group from Iceland, as well as a team of porters (who can carry your bag for a minimum of $15), a few leading guides scouting ahead and our main guide to tell us about the forest. We each picked up a bamboo walking stick and set off.
Organised gorilla spotting
The gorilla trek was really well organised. The National Park trackers were already working in the forest when we started and were in touch with our guide to tell her when they’d located the gorillas. As I’ve said, we were also told they stayed with the gorillas long after the visitors had left too, to get an idea where to find them the next day. So your chance of seeing the Mgahinga gorilla family seemed to be pretty high.
Before we came on the gorilla trek we were led to believe it was pretty extreme. Admittedly, as I discussed above, this could specifically refer to Bwindi rather than Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, because it was actually not too bad at all. The forest was broken with clearings and dappled light and we were bothered by very few mosquitoes.
Also, I had expected to be sweaty. Having trekked in a Thai jungle before I know how a tropical forest can be oppressively hot and humid to the point where I have, in the past, assumed I was actually melting and would come out on the other side of the green with my clothes hanging loose and me now being the size of a 8-year-old boy.
Luckily this never actually happened and it certainly didn’t seem likely here in Uganda. Due to the altitude, the temperature was reminiscent of an English summer’s day and the sky was overcast, so no scorching equatorial sunshine. This is not to say that it couldn’t prove an exhausting trek if you are really unfit, so I would still suggest getting your steps in on your Fitbit before signing up for it.
Not just gorillas in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
The first primates we wandered into on the trail were not gorillas, but a pair of golden monkeys, happily ignoring us high up in a tree as they stripped off bark and feasted on insects. This was quite a bonus as the golden monkey is endangered and has a very restricted range. In fact, the National Park Visitors Centre runs a separate golden monkey trek for the enthusiast. I guess we got 2 for 1. We hung out for a good while under the trees, watching these fuzzy monkeys feed and leap from branch to branch.
But then we happened across some gorilla poo! Excitement was building! …sort of. I mean, it could have been human poo really. Which makes sense, we’re closely related. We gawped at it in awe….and continued down the trail behind the guide.
And then, there they were…
The Nyakegezi Gorilla Family
Suddenly in front of us there was a group of mountain gorillas peacefully lounging in the shrubs picking at branches, the young ones clambering in the trees.
The guide brought us closer and introduced us to Mark the dominant silverback of the Nyakegezi Gorilla Family who was much more interested in eating than looking at the strange humans who had just wandered by. It was like we weren’t even there. We were just part of the daily routine. As normal as a passing golden monkey, presumably.
We watched Mark for a while as he tore down tree branches as if they were twigs to eat berries and it was incredible to see how human he was in such close up detail. The juveniles played overhead and at one point a branch broke and one had a short fall into the bush just to Mark’s right. He paused, stopped eating and looked upwards, a finger scratching his chin – presumably thinking ‘what was that?‘ – then he got back to his berries.
Meanwhile, while the silverback got most of the attention, the juveniles of the Mgahinga gorilla family were pretty active and entertaining and, incredibly like human kids. It’s sobering to realise we’re no that different from some other species as you sit in a forest in eastern Africa and watch 2 shaggy young gorillas play fight and roll on the floor and climb in trees much like human kids do. I just hope they don’t get iPhones.
The Nyakegezi gorilla family is currently made up of silverback Mark, and two other silverbacks, Ndungutse, meaning ‘profit’ and Rukundo, meaning ‘love’. Mark is the oldest at over 40 years old, while Rukundo is only 19. They are accompanied by females Czizanye and Nshuti. The Mgahinga gorilla family is completed by three juveniles: Mutagama and Nsekuye, Nshuti’s two children, and Tulambule. The juveniles are 6, 3 and 2 years old and were very playful.
After our strictly enforced 1 hour with the gorillas we were told by our guide it was time to move on and leave them to their afternoon. So we dragged ourselves away, some people lingering to snap a few final pictures…
Hiking back to base
…and then we were wandering back through the forest – this time a different route. We suddenly came through a clearing and faced a dry stone wall. Climbing over this we were in farmland and the area at the edge of the forest with moors-like land and grey sky all looked weirdly reminiscent of a scene from the Yorkshire Dales in northern England. This sensation intensified as we settled down to eat our packed lunches in the grass much like I might have done on a school trip to the countryside many years ago. It was hard to imagine that just over the wall roamed buffaloes, forest elephants and, of course, the big furry people we happen to call gorillas.
Then it time to wander between fields, wave at children and make our way back to the information centre again for a debrief and presentation of our certificates, confirming we’d tracked (albiet with somehelp..) Ugandan mountain gorillas.
It had been a good day and the great apes this time around were so much closer than that silhouetted orangutan hand high in a tree that we’d seen in Borneo. Something that really grabbed me was how, just like with the chimps, if you’re in a zoo you’re protected from these animals behind bars and thick glass…but when you’re in their forest – admittedly with these individuals habituated to human contact – you could happily sit by them and they peacefully went about their daily activities. A lot of friends saw the pictures and how big they are and said it looked amazing, but scary. There really wasn’t anything scary about the encounter.
Much more scary to be a gorilla in a zoo stared at by hundreds of humans everyday, I’m guessing.
The photo pressure
While getting up close to the gorillas everyone had a phone or a camera in hand and continually snapped pictures or rolled film. I took my fair share too. But part of the time I just wanted to look. You know, if you spend all your time in one of these experiences viewing the gorillas through the screen of your phone, you kinda might as well be watching a video of them on YouTube through 4G. Save money on gorilla permits and sit in a nearby wood at home to add to the realism if you like.
The thing is, I understand everyone wants pictures, I did too. But then, when I stopped taking pictures I felt I should move to the back, like I wasn’t entitled to just look. Don’t get me wrong, this was totally internal. No one actually made me feel I had to move, but I felt sort of guilty.
Anyway, my conclusion is that you shouldn’t. There’s always time just to look and watch and use your eyes and listen to the sounds and enjoy being there. Not everything has to be recorded. I felt better for it.
Read about our next stop at Lake Mburo National Park for ungulate spotting.
Did you know…
There are 2 species of gorillas – western and eastern (with 2 subspecies of each) and the species we went to see was the eastern one, the mountain gorilla subspecies. They have shaggier hair.
One estimate suggests that in 1981 there were only 254 mountain gorillas in the wild. Thankfully, in 2018 the number was estimated at 1004 and rising by the IUCN redlist.
The gorillas you see in zoos are western gorillas. You have to come to the forest to see mountain gorillas.
Permits for Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
To go gorilla trekking in Uganda, or neighbouring Rwanda, you need to get a permit. There is a limited number of people who can visit the habituated groups each day so you need to book permit in advance. Gorilla tracking permits for Uganda are issued by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority and cost $650 each when we bought ours. and the best way to get them is to ask your tour company to do it for you.
We asked our car hire company to book them, and Joy at Self Drive Uganda, or Active African as their tour company is called, was incredibly helpful. She found what groups we could buy gorilla trek permits for, advised on which to choose, and bought them on our behalf. It was a bit worrying, doing a bank transfer of that much money, but we were reassured by the positive reviews of the company on Tripadvisor. It worked out perfectly. When the car was delivered to our hotel in Entebbe, the driver handed us the gorilla trek cards.
We booked our gorilla trek permits 9 months in advance, and there were only a few left. Apparently, big safari companies book the permits up to 18 months in advance, choosing the groups that are the easiest to trek for their guests. When we came to book, there were only permits for the Nkuringo group in Bwindi, known as the most challenging group to trek to, and the Nyazegezi gorilla family in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. While we hadn’t heard of the Mgahinga gorilla family before, Joy advised us that this would be a more comfortable trek.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park lies on the boundary of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. There are gorilla families in the three countries, and since they don’t need passports to pass between countries, sometimes they do. The Nyakegezi gorilla family had spent a few years crossing between Uganda and Congo, and so had a reputation for a less reliable gorilla trek, but we were reassured that they had stayed in Uganda for several years now.
Read more about our trip to Uganda.
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