There comes a moment somewhere up the side of that impossibly steep and muddy mountain that I begin to doubt whether I’m up to the challenge I’ve set myself.
Hands bloody from gripping razor-toothed ferns and every inch of me drenched, dried, and re-drenched in sweat – I teeter on weak legs and feel my head spin. My stomach churns with exhaustion induced nausea and I fairly radiate heat.
My porter, himself looking as if he’s been on a leisurely stroll rather than the same arduous climb as me, quickly tears off a nearby palm frond and begins to fan me with it.
“Water?” seems to be the only word of English he speaks, and he turns so that I can reach the bottle of water in my backpack.
I feel a moment of embarrassment that he is not only able to do this with such aplomb, but that he is doing it while lugging my backpack full of water and food up the side of the mountain. Sometimes, just for a laugh, he adds my considerable bulk to his burdens when he reaches down and hauls me up after my latest fall.
We’re not even two hours’ hike into Uganda’s ominously named Bwindi-Impenetrable National Park, but you’d be forgiven for thinking we were somewhere deep within the fabled jungles of the Belgian Congo.
Beyond the frantic breathing of our party and the occasional whistle of distant trackers urging us on, we’re alone out here with the birds and the park’s most famous residents: mountain gorillas.
“Ready to go?” our lead guide shouts from the front. He’s wearing a grin that seems completely at odds with the hard slog that has seen us make our way up the side of a mountain so densely wooded that our armed guards have literally had to hack away at it with the machetes they wear at their hips.
I’m not ready. Far from it.
I want to lie down on the ground, suck water from the bottle, and take off my mud-caked shoes.
But the gorillas are somewhere deeper into the forest and I didn’t come all this way to turn back.
I’m going to earn my hour’s quiet communion with those beautiful animals.
Preparing to go Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Gorilla trekking is most commonly associated with neighboring Rwanda, but Uganda’s cheaper rates make it an appealing option for those on a tighter budget.
While Rwanda charges $750 USD for the privilege and is looking at increasing their rates in the future, Uganda’s low season (November) sees gorilla permits available for the relatively affordable price of $450 USD per person.
Far from being a gentle walk through the park, gorilla trekking in Bwindi-Impenetrable is an activity that requires at least a modicum of physical fitness.
It’s not mountain climbing in the strictest sense, but there are no paved paths through the dense jungle that clings to the side of the Virunga volcanoes. Your hand rails are fragile branches and prickly sharp ferns, and your steps up the mountainside are those that those before you have carved out from the clinging mud and rotting vegetation.
“Three legs are better than two,” is the unofficial motto of park officials, and we’re all equipped with walking sticks that range in style from hastily repurposed branches to staves intricately carved with motifs of the very animals we’re seeking to find in the mountains.
Ostensibly, we’re able to request the degree of difficulty we’re most comfortable with, but a legion of grinning grey-hairs has already laid claim to the ‘easy’ hike by the time we’ve finished the orientation.
My co-worker, Marjeta and I are instead put into the medium group alongside a leathery pair of super fit Spaniards, a pleasant Dutch couple, and a young-ish British couple who have made the insane decision to go gorilla trekking three times in four days.
“We will be hiking for anywhere between one hour and six hours,” our guide informs us with a grin, “Our trackers are out in the park now, but we cannot guarantee where the gorillas will be”.
I’d prepared for this eventuality, of course.
I’ve heard tales of people leaving the park office and stumbling upon the gorillas just fifteen minutes into the park. Conversely, I’ve heard of people coming back in the early hours of twilight looking more mud than man and beaming with accomplishment.
If there’s one thing that all gorilla trekkers share at the end of the day, it’s a glowing sense that they have not only achieved something remarkable – but that they’ve done so by earning it.
There’s no express pass to the gorillas. There’s no cable car or carefully paved path for novices.
If you want to see the mountain gorillas, you’re going to earn it with every drop of sweat, every exhausted expulsion of breath, and every aching step up the mountain.
How difficult is gorilla trekking?
At first, I’m buoyed by how easy our path into the park seems to be.
We meander along a service road whose slope is so gradual it’s barely noticeable. Occasionally swerving to the left or right to skirt the edges of an especially hungry looking pool of muddy water, we exchange travel tales and talk of our already swelling desire to have an ice cold beer at day’s end.
It’s not yet 10am, but the air is already thickening with humidity and the sun shows no signs of being cowed by the clouds that had crept in overnight.
Our guide insists on taking breaks every ten minutes or so, and even the laziest amongst us is beginning to question his decision given how easy the hiking has been so far.
“Drink lots of water,” he urges us, “It could be a long day”.
We dutifully slug back mouthfuls of slowly warming water and shake our heads at his caution. How hard could it be?
We find out soon enough.
Our path suddenly veers away from the road and into the jungle proper. There’s no pre-trod path here for us to follow. Just the gap our guide has forced in between the trees with casual swings of his machete.
The sun isn’t quite able to penetrate the dense canopy of the forest, but there’s nothing to stop the pervasive humidity from soaking into us.
I’m soon accompanied by a curious swarm of bees who have been drawn by the sweat that sheens my skin. My first reaction is to frantically bat them away, but one of the soldiers trekking alongside me advises me this isn’t the best idea.
“Just let them look,” he advises me, “They will not sting you”.
And so I find myself carrying a few potentially painful passengers as our path steadily devolves from the relatively easy path we’d originally trod to a near vertical scramble up a mountainside that seems to be comprised solely of mud and angry undergrowth.
When I’m not desperately treading mud in a failing attempt to remain upright, I’m hissing with pain as I drag my palm across another thorny plant.
Why didn’t I bring gloves? They say you should wear gloves.
Our guide is a bald-faced liar.
He looks us in the eyes and promises us we’re just five minutes away.
Five minutes later, we’re facing another slick uphill struggle or (and I soon find out these are worse) a rapid and muddy descent.
The back of my jeans and my jacket are caked with mud. My walking stick is almost as useless as the hiking boots I’d thought would serve me so well.
It sounds like I’m miserable, but that’s far from the truth.
Every painful slip, every lung-bursting ‘last’ push, and every moment of self-doubt is also an affirmation of something.
Travel isn’t always easy. It isn’t always laughs and beer.
Sometimes, it’s an exhausting experience that makes you question the very sanity of your decision.
But nothing worth having is easy.
Whether it’s the degree you strive for years to complete, the girl you spend months trying to win over, or the very literal struggle up the side of a thick, humid, and altogether uncooperative stretch of Ugandan jungle that you hope will end with a glimpse of these critically endangered giants.
And so we press on.
We press on when our legs ache fit to topple us.
We press on when our lungs burn and refuse to take in a full breath.
We press on when the very mountain seems intent on flinging us from its lofty heights and tumbling us down in a torrent of mud and broken sticks.
We press on and, ultimately, we’re rewarded.
An hour with the gorillas
Our first glance of the gorillas isn’t dramatic.
It’s a blur of black motion that’s gone all too soon and leaves only quivering undergrowth in its wake.
It’s so quick that none of us has time to whip out our cameras and snap a photo. Blink and you’ll miss it.
With our packs, porters, and walking sticks cast aside for the final leg of our journey, our descent towards the gorillas is more barely controlled fall than calm approach.
Hearts racing, sweat beading, and hands shakily reaching for cameras – we finally come in sight of the family we’ve been tracking all day.
A young mother lounges in a tree overhead, her curious baby peeping over the leaves to see these strange, hairless primates with their clicking cameras and awestruck faces.
The silverback, striking a pose that would make an oiled up bodybuilder envious, regards us with disinterest as we take turns posing for the obligatory selfies.
One especially irritable female rushes past me with a hoot of warning before the branch she’s dragging literally knocks my camera out of my hands.
While bees buzz lazily around us looking to sample our sweet, sweet sweat, we marvel at the similarities and differences we see in these gentle giants.
The kids show the same reckless curiousity that our own young show, and there’s no mistaking the long-suffering looks their overprotective mothers wear everytime they’re forced to backtrack and collect their distracted babe.
All too soon our hour with these fascinating creatures is up. Our last photos are snapped and it’s time for us to return to civilization.
As if aware of our imminent departure, the gorilla family begins its own Irish goodbye. The females gradually herd their brood of youngsters out of the clearing until the silverback has to grudgingly follow their example.
Even in the animal kingdom, it’s a wise man who knows the way the wind blows.
Returning to Civilization
Our return to Buhoma Town is a different experience than our often grueling ascent.
The excitement that had buoyed us on the way up the mountain has been replaced with exhaustion and a powerful thirst for an ice cold beer. Conversation is sparse at best as we pick our way down the mountainside and wend our way through the forest.
It’s a kind of afterglow that we’re basking in. A private reflection upon an experience we all shared, but that undoubtedly affected each of us in a very different way.
Upon returning to the park headquarters we say our goodbyes, collect our certificates, and pay our tips.
That first Nile beer is heavenly.
Peeling off my shoes is tantamount to orgasm.
The long, hot shower that sluices the mud and sweat off me is a pleasure I can’t quite explain.
Every ache in my legs and even the increasing heaviness in my eyelids are testament to the fact I earned my time with the gorillas.
So much in travel these days is gift-wrapped and given to us on a platter, but there’s nothing easy about earning your time with the gorillas of Uganda’s Bwindi-Impenetrable National Park.
You fucking earn that shit.
Is gorilla trekking on your bucket list? Or is it something you’ve already experienced?
Have you ever done something in travel that was made all the sweeter for having had to earn it?
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