Face to face with Gorillas

In the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in Uganda, you wake up fast when there's a 400-pound gorilla standing outside your tent.

"Ruth!" I called in something of a whisper-yell to the woman in the tent next to mine. "Ruth! Wake up! There's a gorilla out here!"


The male -- silverback -- mountain gorilla was only about 20 feet away, but I inched my way out into the cool mist of the morning. The stench of gorillas cut through the crisp air.

The silverback noticed me, looked right at me, even, but kept to his business, eating a breakfast of tree leaves. Nine gorillas in all -- including a couple of tiny babies clutching their moms -- climbed trees, picked leaves and fruits, and didn't mind us humans the slightest bit.


It was 6 a.m., and my day of gorilla watching was just beginning.

I'd traveled to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in southern Uganda just to see the endangered mountain gorillas, and already the experience was exceeding my expectations. By day's end, I would hike deep into the jungle and sit in the midst of 15 more gorillas while they napped, ate, played and stared back at me with their deep, brown, soulful eyes.

Bwindi, known as the Impenetrable Forest for its thick jungle growth, sits in the precarious corner of mountainous land where Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) come together.

For news-savvy vacationers, the region usually conjures up thoughts of guerrillas instead of gorillas, and that apprehension is warranted. Civil wars and regional conflicts keep these three countries perpetually locked in a state of high alert and ill ease.

Jungle-wise, machine-gun-toting soldiers with questionable allegiances have been lurking in the dense mountain forests around Bwindi for years. And a brutal attack that left eight Western tourists dead at Bwindi in 1999 nearly ended Uganda's hopes for its budding eco-tourism industry.

But since then, the Ugandan government and a number of nonprofit research and conservation groups from around the world have made a Herculean effort to regain a sense of safety and security around Bwindi -- where half of the world's dwindling population of mountain gorillas live.

Now, Uganda boasts a growing tourism industry, and a trip to experience such a rare wildlife encounter can be surprisingly manageable for even a first-time-to-Africa traveler.

Security bolstered


The renewed attention to security is essential around Bwindi, not only to attract tourist dollars but also to ensure a safe environment for the mountain gorillas.

I was struck by the genuine concern for the gorillas expressed by the Ugandan villagers who live around Bwindi. For two years before my visit, I'd lived as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia and had traveled extensively in regions rich with wildlife where the local communities ignored the need to protect rare or endangered species.

In parts of Zambia, many of the local people -- struggling for their own survival -- are cynical about Westerners who roll in with unimaginable riches to invest money on wildlife programs while local residents languish.

A "wildlife management" program takes time to develop, and until the economic rewards are obvious, it can be a hard sell to a community that survives on poached meat and black-market game hunting.

In Uganda, I sensed that something good had taken root. Most of the people I met were educated not only about the endangered gorillas but also about the intense biodiversity of the mountains surrounding their villages.

A number of successful community programs were launched in the early 1990s when gorilla-tracking was first opened up to tourism at Bwindi. A Peace Corps volunteer who had been based there helped develop the "community campground" where I stayed for three nights.


The campground, a lush, terraced slope of thatched bandas (huts) and cleared tent spaces beside the national park entrance, is run entirely by the local Buganda people. It is managed so that a significant percentage of the campground proceeds are returned to the community to support a women's cooperative market and an orphans center.

Villagers around Bwindi told me that poaching still happens but that it's not as much a problem as it used to be. I'm not so sure that's true, but the Uganda Wildlife Authority assures travelers that policing in the area has been increased significantly in the last few years.

(A few days after my visit, I learned that a female gorilla had been shot in a different area of the jungle and her baby stolen by poachers on the same day I'd been with the gorillas. Some said the gorillas were shot for meat; others said the baby was probably sold on the black market.)

Minimal contact

On the morning of my scheduled gorilla trek, we weren't supposed to have seen the gorillas already. The group that provided the early-morning wake-up call had been lingering around the park entrance for the past few days, much to the dismay of wildlife rangers.

But through word of mouth -- and a few "gorilla tips" leaflets -- we knew the do's and don'ts of gorilla-watching: Stay calm, don't make any threatening noises or movements. And if you're lucky, a gorilla might approach you gently, out of curiosity.


We watched for about an hour as the group moved through our camp, climbed trees, ate leaves and then moved on.

Thrilled by the unexpected encounter, we decided to trek into the mountains in search of another group.

To minimize the human impact on the gorilla habitat, only 12 gorilla-trekking permits are issued per day, at $250 apiece plus park fees, all of which must be purchased well in advance from the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kampala. Permits can be arranged through travel groups and agencies as well.

A permit doesn't guarantee a gorilla encounter, though. More than 300 mountain gorillas are estimated to live in the mountains of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, but it's a thick jungle, and some tracking groups search all day without finding them.

Full of hope, we started off down a long dirt road into the park, accompanied by two other travelers, two trackers (guides) and two armed guards -- one far ahead and one just behind us.

The road narrowed and then we cut off onto a jungle path that carried us up and down and around, into a dark forest area where our guides told us about beautiful rare birds and butterflies while I fought away thoughts of giant snakes, scorpions and army ants. We hopped over mountain streams and climbed around precarious boulders, always keeping our voices down as we listened for the gorillas.


The trackers and park guides are all Ugandans who grew up in the area, and their knowledge of the terrain and flora and fauna were impressive. Our lead tracker had spent months following and sitting with the group of gorillas we were tracking.

With GPS (satellite tracking) devices, other trackers mark where the gorillas nest for the night. They don't roam far in a day -- usually no more than a mile -- so chances are good that tourist groups will find the gorillas within a few hours.

Quietly watching

Our guide heard them first -- a low rustling in the trees just beyond us.

We stopped in our tracks, hearts pounding as the adrenaline rush hit.

Sure, we'd seen gorillas in our camp in the morning, but now we were in their territory and anything could happen.


The gorillas spotted us immediately, and a few of the 15 scurried off to a safer distance, but most acted indifferent. For years, the trackers had conditioned the gorillas to human presence.

Following our guide's instruction, we crouched down in the brush, kept silent and simply observed.

Not far away was this group's silverback, an extremely large male that clearly directed the movements of the family (silverbacks, named for the silvery-gray patch of hair on their back, are mature males). He kept a close eye on us while he sat pulling leaves to eat from a bush.

One younger gorilla played the class clown, swinging among branches and apparently having a great time. Some were sprawled out, napping. Others just meandered around us, eating leaves and checking us out.

When tour books call such an experience "magical" and "enchanting," I'm usually skeptical, but I'm at a loss for a better description. Still, I wondered how magical the encounter was for the gorillas anymore. They must fit the tourists' arrival into their daily routine. And they must wonder what on earth these hairless beasts are so curious about.

It's impossible not to feel the evolutionary connection with the gorillas as they go about their ordinary, familiar activities: toddlers running around and then jumping into mom's arms, adolescents doing acrobatics in the trees with a mischievous glint in their eyes, dad watching over everything.


No wonder Dian Fossey fought with such passion to protect the gorillas. The famed researcher was murdered by poachers in mountains like these in Rwanda in 1985, and her spirit still seems to influence the work of all of the trackers I met.

Our guide led us as close as possible to the gorillas, all the while making deep grunting noises that the silverback seemed to take as a friendly gesture. He said he'd learned to communicate in a very basic way with them over the years and felt like he "knew" most of them.

To minimize the chance of passing along human colds or illnesses, tourists are allowed to spend only an hour with the gorillas. It's a loose rule, though, and our tracker stretched the time about an extra 30 minutes. I could've stayed all day.

Tender moments

After shifting position a couple of times as the group moved around the mountainside, we found ourselves sitting about 10 feet from the silverback and one of the mature females.

Like a pleasantly comfortable married couple, the two lay next to one another as if exhausted from a morning of tending to a busy family. The female tenderly patted the silverback's arm and tugged bugs from his fur, and he responded with some guttural sweet nothings.


We were all wrapped up in this loving moment when it suddenly occurred to us what was really going on. Apparently, they were in the mood and our presence wasn't about to get in the way.

Even our guide looked embarrassed, yet we couldn't help but watch.

A mere minute or so later, the two were collapsed side-by-side again, and from the female we heard a soft purr of contentment.

We stayed just a little longer and then our time was over.

The hike back was strenuous, as we'd left the path once we found the gorillas, but the exhilaration of the experience gave us a kick of energy, and we couldn't wait to return to camp and share our stories with other travelers.

That night, we sat around a bonfire with a group of Europeans who'd just rolled in and had permits to track the gorillas the next day. Just as previous travelers had hyped us for the "enchantment" to come, we glowed with our own brand-new gorilla expertise.


We suggested that there might even be gorillas at the camp come morning and watched them marvel over the possibility.

By 6 a.m., I was up and packing my tent for the long road back to Kampala, but there were no gorillas in sight. Certainly they'd been nearby earlier, though, because I could still smell them.

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When you go

Getting there: Most travelers fly to Uganda via Amsterdam and Nairobi on KLM or via London on British Airways.

* From Kampala, it's a two-day overland trip to Bwindi. If you don't have a private vehicle, "luxury" (but still overcrowded) buses run daily from Kampala to Kabale, take about six hours and cost about $7.


* Kabale is nothing great, though there are several reasonable lodging options. The better choice is to head about 5 miles farther to Lake Bunyonyi where you might consider spending an extra day relaxing and sightseeing in what's been called the "Switzerland of Africa." A day on the lake in a dugout canoe with a local guide is worth the short detour.

* The road from Kabale to Bwindi is winding, mountainous and at times perilous, but the views are spectacular. In a private vehicle, the drive takes about six hours. If you book your trip through one of the luxury camps, you can arrange to fly from Entebbe (Kampala) to a private airstrip near Bwindi.

Visas: U.S. citizens need a visa to enter Uganda. For information on obtaining a visa, contact the Uganda Embassy in Washington, at 202-726-0416. Also, expect to pay a $20 departure tax if you fly out of Uganda.

Permits: The Uganda Wildlife Authority issues only 12 tracking permits per day for Bwindi. Each permit costs $250 and must be purchased through the UWA office in Kampala. It's best to buy your permit at least two weeks before you plan to visit Bwindi. If you use a tour operator to arrange your trip, it will take care of your permit.

Internet and phones: In Kampala, there's an Internet cafe on nearly every block. Connections are fairly fast and inexpensive. Beyond Kampala, phones are unreliable, international calls nearly impossible and Web access unheard of.

Health concerns: You'll need a variety of inoculations and medications to visit Uganda. See your doctor or a clinic that specializes in travel medicine at least six weeks before your trip. You also can get information at the Centers for Disease Control at


Cost: I ventured to Uganda on a backpacker's budget -- slept in a tent when I could, hitched a few rides from fellow travelers, packed my own food and never spent more than $40 a night for lodging. In one week that included a few splurges for good meals and the $250 gorilla-tracking permit, I spent about $600 (not including travel in and out of Uganda). Clean, moderate-priced hotel rooms generally run around $30. Large, modern hotels in Kampala run about $100. Good meals can be had for under $10.

Package deals: Many travel companies offer packages to Bwindi in which all of the hassles of buying permits and arranging transportation and lodging are arranged -- a service that can be worth the expense for travelers on a tight schedule. Among them (airfare to and from Uganda is not included):

* Natural Habitat Adventures offers an 11-day package for about $6,400 that includes several extra excursions to other sites in southwest Uganda. 800-543-8917;

* Abercrombie & Kent offers a five-day package to Bwindi with two days of gorilla tracking for about $2,500. 800-554-7016; www.abercrombiekent. com.

* The Uganda Tourist Board maintains a Web site at that lists many tour operators that offer tours and lodging in a range of prices.

Lodging: The Community Campground on the edge of the Bwindi National Park is one of several accommodations for gorilla trackers. Another campground sits just across the road, and a few luxury camps are nearby. Amenities range from spare to opulent.


* The Community Campground offers tent sites as well as small, enclosed bandas (huts) with beds, a roof and concrete floor. The luxury camps, such as the Abercrombie & Kent one I visited just inside the park, offer fully contained "tents" with comfortable sitting rooms, king-size beds, electricity and an extra-large bathroom with marble counters, bathtub and glass-walled shower.

* Many travelers who stay at the campgrounds reserve a dinner table at one of the luxury camps. For $23 a person, the three-course meal and comfortable surroundings are worth the minor splurge.

-- Lara Weber