Tracking mountain gorillas in Uganda is a once-in-a-lifetime trip and my husband Scott and I made the journey to East Africa and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to celebrate our 20th anniversary (December 17th), another once-in-a-lifetime experience. I never would have guessed that I'd end up holding another man's hand on our anniversary but that's what happened. Intrigued? Read on to find out more about our adventurous trek to see the Nkuringo family of mountain gorillas in Uganda.
Nkuringo: The Hardest Gorilla Trek in Uganda?
At the recommendation of our tour operator, Matoke Tours, we signed up to track the Nkuringo family of mountain gorillas. They are a large family with two silverbacks and a number of juvenile and baby gorillas and promised to be entertaining to watch.
We had some misgivings about the decision to track the Nkuringo family when a fellow guest at the Mutanda Lake Resort with plans to track one of the gorilla families around Rushaga looked at us incredulously and said "that's supposed to be the hardest trek, I'd never be able to do that". She went on about what she'd heard about the steep grade of the terrain and how we'd be crawling through mud and fording rivers. I asked her to stop talking at that point because she was starting to scare us. We're a pair of city slickers and it's not often that we trek into the jungle.
Dawn Departure on a Private Gorilla Trek for Two
We arose before dawn and were driven for an hour over bumpy winding dirt roads to reach the starting point for the hike. We arrived at the trail head around 8 am. By the time we got checked in, had our passports and gorilla permits verified (which we'd booked several months in advance for $600 USD per person in season), and got all our gear together, it was 8:30. We set out to track the Nkuringo family on a beautiful misty Ugandan morning in December. We were thrilled that it didn't rain on the day of our gorilla trek especially since it had been pouring rain the day before.
Our Gorilla Tracking Entourage
It seems like the difficult reputation of the Nkuringo trek scared others away or tipped the balance toward Rushaga. It ended up being just the two of us even though each mountain gorilla trek can accommodate 8 people. What a romantic way to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary! Of course, we weren't entirely alone. Our entourage consisted of armed rangers at the front and rear in case of encounters with aggressive forest elephants or non-habituated gorillas. Osbad (from the Uganda Wildlife Authority) was our official guide for the day.
Both my husband and I hired a porter to assist us on the trek. Even if you feel fit and like you don't need a porter, consider hiring one. The trail is harder than you think it will be especially since the hike is at a high altitude of ~2000 m (6000 ft) above sea level. Also, hiring a porter is a great way to support members of the local community through the porter fee ($15 USD) and tip. A porter will carry your bag and essentially ensure that you make it to the gorillas and back by helping you on the trail...literally lending a helping hand. Porters work on a rotation (going on the trek about once a month) and work as subsistence farmers the rest of the time. My porter was named Godfrey and Scott was working with Everest.
To Uganda's Impenetrable Forest
Our gorilla tracking entourage set off downhill on a steep path cut into the hillside. We were thankful for the simple walking sticks that were provided for free to assist us on our hike. It took about an hour of walking through the rolling hillside before we even reached the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The trail was not strenuous at this point but was challenging to find the right footing on the steep downward slope. Every time I was unsure where to place my foot, Godfrey held out his hand to help me.
Within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
The terrain suddenly changed when we reached the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We continued onto a narrow muddy trail that ran into the forest. At this point, I asked Osbad for an idea of how long it would take to find the gorillas. We were prepared for a grueling hike based on what we'd read about the Nkuringo family of gorillas prior to the trip but wanted to get some first hand intel. Osbad told us that the fastest he'd even found the Nkuringo family was two hours and the slowest was four hours. We were one hour into our hike at this point and did a mental calculation of our energy reserves.
The trail undulated through the forest with steep climbs followed by drops into a valley. In total, we traversed 2-3 large hills and were getting pretty winded when Osbad assured us that we were almost there. Our UWA guide was in touch with trackers who had been out since dawn trying to find our family of mountain gorillas. Osbad and the trackers were in frequent radio contact to let us know which way to go. Fortunately for us, the Nkuringo family was relatively close by and easy to find that day. About 2 hours and 15 minutes into our hike, we were preparing for our encounter!
Our Hour with the Nkuringo Mountain Gorilla Family
I couldn't believe it when Osbad told us that we were 'here'. Our entourage stopped a short distance away from the gorillas. We left everything behind (including our porters) except for our cameras and then Osbad and the trackers led us in. I saw a flash of black and thought "Oh my God, we're here!".
The Nkuringo family was situated in steep brush. Osbad held my hand to help me to a good vantage point. We watched as the number one silverback contemplated following a female and her baby up a tree. Before we knew it, he was climbing toward the sky!
How close were we to Uganda's mountain gorillas? We were advised to stay at least 7 meters back to prevent transmission of germs and to ensure that the gorillas didn't feel threatened. It wasn't easy to scramble through that terrain and in a couple cases, the silverback came within 5-10 feet of Scott as he was contemplating the tree.
Before we knew it, Osbad told us we had just five minutes left. I couldn't believe it. Our hour with the mountain gorillas seemed to just fly by.
For more on our encounter with the Nkuringo family, see my video below.
For more on our encounter with the Nkuringo family, see my video below.
Getting There is Only Half the Fun
We were definitely on an adrenaline high after spending our hour with the amazing mountain gorillas of Uganda! Then it slowly began to sink it that we now had to hike all the way back to the trail head (more than 2 hours away). We left the Nkuringo family behind, hiked for about 30 minutes and then stopped in the forest to eat the packed lunch that we brought with us.
The Mutanda Lake Resort packed us a hearty lunch and there was no way we could eat it all. We ended up sharing the extra food with our guide, the rangers, and our porters. We'd heard that they don't always have food with them and everyone was definitely grateful for the snacks and sandwiches that we shared.
Fortified by lunch, we continued our hike out of the impenetrable forest. Just like our fellow guest at Mutanda Lake Resort had predicted the previous day, we did have to ford a few small streams to get to the mountain gorillas and back. Once again, we were thankful to our porters for making sure we didn't end up face first in the water!
Thankful for a Helping Hand On Our Mountain Gorilla Trek
The return hike was less technically challenging (it was easier to find good footing) but it was definitely more strenuous since the final hour or so was a steep uphill grade. I was super thankful to Godfrey. Every time I got winded or there was a tricky patch on the trail, he grabbed my hand and led me onwards and always with an encouraging smile on his face. Best. Porter. Ever.
With each uphill burst, Scott and I were extremely winded but in the end, we made it with a little help from our new-found Ugandan friends!
How Challenging Was It to Track the Nkuringo Family of Mountain Gorillas in Uganda?
I won't sugarcoat it: this trek is no joke but it is doable. You need to be in good physical shape to attempt the hike to see the Nkuringo family. The altitude and steep grade combined make this gorilla trek both physically strenuous and technically challenging.
You can set yourself up for success on the hike by bringing plenty of water (at least 4 and preferably 6 bottles per person), high energy snacks like nuts, chocolate, and trail mix and a packed lunch.
Don't be a hero. Take the offered walking stick and most definitely hire a porter.
If all else fails, the Uganda Wildlife Authority offers a rescue service where they send in a team of porters to carry you out of the forest for $200 USD per person.
Fortunately, we were fit enough to complete the hike. If it had taken us four hours to even find the Nkuringo family, I'm not as sure we would have made it!
Memories of Uganda's Mountain Gorillas to Last a Lifetime
While the trek to our encounter with the Nkuringo family of mountain gorillas was challenging, we returned with a tremendous sense of achievement. This was amplified even further when we got back to Mutanda Lake Resort and learned that the other guests who had trekked out of Rushaga that day found their gorilla family in just 15 minutes. We felt smug in the knowledge that we'd earned that magical hour in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the chance to look into the eyes of some of humanity's closest relatives.