Coming Face to Face with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi

Traveling in Kampala - Photo from ''As soon as I step out of the plane, I feel the comfortable warmth around me and I smell the typical scents in the air. This is Africa!  A representative of Great Lakes Safaris welcomes me and transfers me safely to my hotel. On our way he talks enthusiastically about his country; it is clear that he is very passionate about his job.

The safari starts very early in the morning as we head towards the impenetrable part of southwestern Uganda. While trying to find our way out of Kampala, I am surprised by the commotion in the city. Matatus and boda-bodas, used for local transport, pass other vehicles wherever they can. People are walking down the road and greet each other friendly. Somehow everybody knows its way through the ostensible chaos.

Traveling from Kampala to Bwindi Rainforest

Soon we leave the hustle and bustle of the city life behind us and drive peacefully through the country. Again I am surprised, this time by the greenness of the landscape. No country in Africa could be associated more with tropical forested hills and green valleys. Slowly the number of cars decreases and I try to catch a glimpse of the daily life at the countryside.

The Bwindi LandscapeSmall villages are relieved by banana plantations and rice fields. Herds of Ankole cows are grazing peacefully in the savannah grasslands, their heads adorned by long curving horns. We quietly pass the area known as the “Switzerland of Africa” with terraced farming and mountain scenery. As we’re approaching Bwindi, the landscape becomes more mountainous.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is located on the edge of the Western Rift Valley, covering 330 sq kms of an incredibly dense rain forest, more than a million years old. Roughly half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas make their home in these afro-montane forests.

Buhoma Lodge in Bwindi, Uganada

In the evening we reach Buhoma Lodge via a bumpy, curving road. The camp is located opposite of the park entrance and is one of the original camps in Bwindi. I’m led towards one of the self-contained cottages, where I can enjoy the view over the forest canopy from my private veranda. After a delicious meal I settle myself in front of the fireplace that warms the cool evening and I start to feel anxious for tomorrow. Finally I will face the giant animals that have attracted me all the way to Uganda!

Tracking Gorillas in Bwindi with Great Lakes Safaris

HikeIt is cloudy when I start the hike through the African jungle. The mist that has been lingering in the valleys conceals the park with a mysterious atmosphere. Together with seven other tourists I have gathered at the headquarters of Uganda Wildlife Authority this morning, where the rangers briefed us clearly about the gorilla trekking. Our international group, consisting of Americans, Spaniards, Italians and Australians are accompanied by rangers, trackers and some porters.

We have been told that the hike can be tough with lots of steep and muddy parts. But I am determined that nothing will stop me from my meeting with the gentle giants. The trail we follow disappears after some time and soon we’re just cutting our path through the thick tangle of the forest. It’s magnificent and breathtaking! We pass streams and waterfalls, we climb and descend. The sounds and smells of the forest make me curious to what is behind the abundant jungle of vines, bamboo and huge trees. This is how Africa has been for centuries: mysterious and untouched!

After three hours we still haven’t found a trace of the gorillas. The density makes our hike more and more difficult and the steep hills are merciless. Unexpectedly we seem to have reached the place where the gorillas spent their night. We must be close now! Still our hike continues. More and more often I have to stop to catch my breath and I start realizing that this journey is not as easy as I expected. But giving up is certainly not an option that has crossed my mind!

Coming Face to Face with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

GorillasThen, all of a sudden, the guide gives us a sign. “There they are”, he whispers. We have come face to face with a group of mountain gorillas. I forget everything around me and only have eye for those immense dark shapes, sitting peacefully together. Quietly we try to get nearer, as the impressive silverback watches us closely. I observe the amazing animals and wonder at their human features. They are so strong and yet so vulnerable! A baby gorilla stares curiously at our group. Other gorillas are sitting in the dense undergrowth, not disturbed by our presence. Suddenly one of the adults slowly moves in my direction. I hold my breath because I know that we should keep a minimum distance. At two meters she finally stops, sits down and starts to eat slowly. Her eyes, black and gentle, make me feel very humble.

The guide brings an end to the magical moments by makings us clear that it’s time to go. An hour has past. Without a doubt the fastest hour of my life, I think, as I reluctantly back away. We start our way back to the camp, climbing through the fields and woods. Tired but extremely satisfied we reach the camp. I still find it hard to believe that I really spent time with the gorillas. That they allowed me in their world for a while. Being there with these gentle apes, surrounded by nothing more than the African jungle, was an incredible privileged and fortunate feeling. Their kindness, peace and amazing human features have impressed me deeply. This beautiful and humbling experience I will cherish for the rest of my life…”

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