Mountain Gorillas in Uganda: a Photo Essay

In September 2017 I had the opportunity to go gorilla trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. At the time of publishing this article in September 2017, there were 15 mountain gorilla families that can be tracked in Uganda: 14 in Bwindi and 1 in the Mgahinga Gorilla Park. Not all of the gorilla families in Uganda have been habituated.

There are four primary areas in Bwindi where tourists can go tracking:

  • Buhoma
  • Ruhija
  • Rushaga
  • Nkuringo

I did two treks, both in the Ruhija area. On the first day I tracked the Oruzogo family comprised of 18 members including two Silverbacks: a dominant Silverback and another.

On the second day I tracked the Bitukura family comprised of 11 members and also one dominant Silverback, plus another.

{The Oruzogo Mountain Gorilla Family}

Habituation of this mountain gorilla family started in December 2009 and they are one of the most recently habituated families in Bwindi. Two years later the family was deemed fit for ecotourist gorilla tracking. This family was named after the Oruzogoto plant, that they love to eat which is found in the secondary forest where they are usually found.

Trekkers love this group as they are playful and spend much of their time on the ground offering stellar photo opportunities. Speaking of which, here are a few of my favorites.

I took all of these pictures with my Canon T6S DSLR. The lens I used was a Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3. It was a bright, sunny day and we found the gorillas after about an hour of trekking.

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Silverback up close! As you scroll through, you’ll see how human-like their faces are. But actually chimps, not gorillas,  are man’s closest animal relative.
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Look at those eyes, looking right at me! Mountain Gorillas are vegetarian. They eat roots, wild fruits, tree bark, and pulp.
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Mom with baby on her back.
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Their hands are so human-like.
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The babies are SO cute and playful!
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Love this little guy climbing a tree!

{The Bitukura Mountain Gorilla Family}


On my second trek day, we went out in the early morning looking for the Bitukura Family, comprised of 11 members including two Silverbacks.

I stayed in Buhoma and it took about two hours to drive to Ruhija. And what a beautiful drive it was. The views of the mountains were unreal. And when we passed a Batwa village I really felt like I was in that movie Gorillas in the Midst.

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The Silverbacks are truly giant. Photographing them can be tricky because of the light under the forest tree canopy and how well they camouflage in their surroundings. As you can see it was a bright and sunny day, but on the forest floor the tree canopy provides tons of shade. Thus to photograph them you really need a camera as well as a lens with low light capability and zoom. I used a Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3. All of the articles I read recommended the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II. And I agree it would have been better than the Tamron lens. But the 70-200mm was too big and too heavy for me. I still got  incredible photos, that I’m completely happy and satisfied with. And more importantly I enjoyed the experience vs. ruining it by schlepping around a camera/lens that I would have been miserable handling.
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This Silverback hung around for about 5-7 minutes and we were able to observe him. It was interesting as the female and babies kinda did their own thing – eating and playing, and the Silverback was always nearby keeping watch.
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LOVE this image of a baby with his/her hand on dad.
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Eventually we got to see the Silverback’s face.
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Even though there are 11 family members, including two Silverbacks, we didn’t see all of them. We saw one Silverback plus 3 other members.
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This little baby was breast feeding when we first found the family. Afterwards he/she climbed into a tree directly in front of our group and it was like the baby was putting on a show just for us! He/she kept looking right at me! It was absolutely thrilling to say the least!
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What a beautiful smile!
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I was using a zoom lens but still, THIS is how close we were!
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We were very fortunate, as throughout our hour with the gorillas we got to spend a lot of time with them, while they were on the forest floor. But even when a few of them went up into the trees, they were still visible.
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View of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda.

{How Do You Get Gorilla Permits?}

We got our gorilla permits through our travel agency that we used to book our entire trip. I reached out to about 10 companies before I booked with Africa Travel Resource. All of the people we met during our travels got their permits through their travel agency as well.

During peak season which is from December to February and June to September, gorilla tracking permits are $650 per person per day. During the low and very rainy season in April, May, and November, permits are discounted to $450 per person per day.

There are 96 gorilla permits available per day in Uganda – 88 in Bwindi to trek 11 families and 8 permits in Mgahinga to trek 1 family.

{Is the Trekking Part of the Treks Difficult?}

On the day of your trek you’ll meet your guide at the visitor center where there will be a welcoming ceremony from the Batwa people and a brief orientation, before you head off. From there you enter the forest. On both days, everyone was pin drop quiet while trekking, as everyone concentrated on the trek itself -steep and through dense brush. Most people in our group, on both days, held their porter’s hand pretty much the entire time. By the way, your porter will carry your backpack. So all you’ve got in your hands is your walking stick.

{To Hire or Not Hire a Porter for Your Gorilla Trek?}

It’s highly encouraged to hire a porter. Each porter costs $15 per person. I strongly suggest that you hire a porter for each person in your group.  They’re worth their weight in gold. As of September 2018, they charged a $15 flat fee. They’re all locals for whom $15 is a lot of money.

There’s so much demand to be a porter in Bwindi that there are restrictions on how often an individual can do it. There were a couple of guys in our group that at first said no when our guide asked how many people wanted to hire a porter. When the rest of the group encouraged them to hire, they did. And at the end they proclaimed how glad they were!

You’ll be trekking until you find the gorilla family. For us, on both days we found the family after about an hour. Once you find the family, the porters stay a good distance behind with the bags and walking sticks. You’ll just get your camera and follow the group closer to the family.

You’re not allowed to carry nor bring any bags – just whatever you have on your person. I have no idea how anyone would bring a tripod or monopod.

How easy or difficult is the trek? I wanted to provide an overview. This is very subjective. I strongly suggest you read what others have said online. I read varying accounts ranging from “holy shit this is insane” to “anyone who does some form of exercise on a regular basis will be fine”.

The other thing to consider is that Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is nearly 130 square miles. So, it’s really big and not all areas are the same. I found trekking the Ruhija area challenging because it was steep and slippery, not because it was too long to hike.

But I read accounts from people who I’m pretty sure are in much better shape than me who thought it was VERY difficult. My guess is they went trekking in the Nkuringo area, which we heard is the most difficult area to trek.

It is steep. You’re hiking in thick brush with branches peaking out everywhere – hence you’re encouraged to wear a neck buff, hat, gardening gloves, long pants and gaiters, especially during rainy season when there are fire ants.

I saw people ranging from age 20 to 70. The older ladies in particular struggled a bit but everyone had hired a porter as well as had the support of everyone else in the group. I thought to myself, “I hope I’m as adventurous as them when I’m their age”. And we all gave them a special round of applause during the post trek certificate ceremony.

{How Do You Determine Which Gorilla Family to Trek?}

We were assigned the gorilla families. We didn’t get to choose. If you’re concerned, talk to your travel agent as they should have more insight into the different areas and families. That decision could influence where you stay during your time in Bwindi.

{Gorilla Trekking Twice vs. One Day}

If you can, I recommend going gorilla trekking two days instead of one. Though rare, there is a possibility that you won’t see any gorillas. Going twice increases your chances.

One couple staying at our lodge, that went to a different part of the Bwindi Forest trekked for two hours before they found the gorilla family. But the gorillas were up in the trees. So their group waited for 1.5 hours before they came down from the trees.

Another reason to go twice is that once you find the family, you only get an hour with them and that goes by swiftly! On our first say, I was clicking away on my camera. On the second day I had time to put the camera down and just observe and enjoy being with them.

As of September 2018, gorilla trekking permits were $650 USD per person per trek. Each person is only allowed one permit per day. This may seem expensive, but compared to Rwanda’s $1500 per person per trek, it’s a steal!

{Other Tips for Travel to Uganda}

What to Pack for a Trip to Uganda

Packing Hack: Pre-Packing Your Gorilla Trekking Gear

Traveling To/From Entebbe: Details That Are Nice to Know

How To Travel Within Uganda

Vegetarian and Vegan Travel to Uganda

{Conclusion}

Gorilla trekking is a one-of-a-kind experience and a rare opportunity to get up close to such majestic creatures in the wild. Mountain gorillas are critically endangered.  There are only about 1000 mountain gorillas left in the world. They reside in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, though tourism there is discouraged by the U.S. State Department.

A portion of trekking permit fees goes towards conservation. And throughout your trip to Uganda, your lodge staff to guides will humbly ask you to share your experiences with friends and family to encourage others to visit.

I hope this article was enjoyable and educational. Have a brilliant time on your gorilla trek experience! Keep adding those stamps to your PassportPages!

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Samta, Founder, PassportPages

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