Uganda Gorilla Trekking

June 6, 2023

Having to watch Catarina and Rui deal with getting their luggage up to Maasai Mara because it didn't make the plane with them, we were glad we scheduled a waiting day between flying in and heading out for our gorilla trek.  Even though we are going to see the gorillas in Uganda, we flew into Kigali, Rwanda.  It's closer to the forest where we'll be trekking (6 hour vs. 11 hour drive).

Kigali is a very nice city, built across many hills.  The country has done lots of social and physical rebuilding after the genocide in 1994.  After Stephen went out to do some shopping to get a long sleeved shirt and some gardening gloves for our trek, we took the time to visit the Genocide Memorial.  The memorial includes the final resting place for many of the genocide's victims, and also includes a museum dedicated to understanding the long view of how the genocide happened, from the ways the colonial administration influenced views of ethnicity in Rwanda to the political events after independence that contributed.  What was most striking to us was how this tragedy illustrated how easy it was for those who newly came to power to manufacture differences that weren't even there or recognized before.  The Hutus and Tutsis shared language, culture, religion and still they created the Tutsis as "other." It was instructive about how this process occurred in the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and in South Sudan.

They include a presentation on a number of genocides across time, including the Holocaust and the killing fields of Cambodia.  We both remarked about how what we had seen in the museum reminded us of how popular discourse around political affiliation, wokeness, and LGBTQ allyship in the US is starting to show signs of developing worrisome parallels.... groomers and stuff.

Understandably, you can't take photos through most of the memorial, but we did capture a couple of shots in places where we could.

June 7, 2023

We booked through, who we decided on after doing some internet research and comparing proposals.  The cost of permits for gorilla trekking in Uganda are about half that to do it in Rwanda, and while you can also go in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is not safe to do it there.  We would later find out that in the DRC there is a list of prices for ransom for tourists from various countries, and the US tops the list (the Australian and South Africans felt they were safe because their bounty was pretty low).  We did a simple 3 day... drive in day 1, trek day 2, drive out day 3.  There are a number of add-ons you can do in Uganda, but since we had already done other animal and cultural adventures in other countries while in Africa (and the 3 day trek was about $1450 per person including the permits) we figured we'd just focus on the gorillas.

Our driver, Abraham, picked us up at around 8 and we started the drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.  The border crossing was a bit chaotic, but even still, coming from Kigali was faster than driving from Entebbe or Kampala in Uganda.  We arrived about 3pm at Lake Mulehe Gorilla Lodge, which is situated on a hill overlooking Lake Mulehe and the volcano.  It was ridiculously quiet and peaceful, and the staff were unbelievably attentive.  We got settled, enjoyed the view from our balcony, had dinner overlooking the lake, and then got to bed early to get ready for our trek the next day.  The only down side to staying at the lake was that it's still about an hour and 15 minutes' drive along difficult dirt roads to get to base camp where we'll start our trek, which meant a 5:30am breakfast.  There are some lodges closer to the gate, but not with this kind of view.

Before dinner, we were treated to a dance and song presentation from the Lake Mulehe Foundation for Orphans and Vulnerables.  We got to get up and dance with them.  It was interesting to hear the differences in drumming, rhythm, and song structure from what we heard in the Maasai village and what we heard at Gold Restaurant in South Africa.  

June 8, 2023

We arrived at our base camp at around 7:15 am, and we'd leave at 8am.  We chatted with an Aussie on extended break between midwifing gigs, and a South African couple who were living in the DRC temporarily as they work in the mining industry.  There are 5 gates around the park and at our gate there are 5 habituated gorilla families.  Up to 8 humans can trek to each gorilla family, so at most from our gate, only 40 people can trek a day.  You get one hour with the gorillas once you find them, and then you trek back out.  They say it can take up to 8 hours to hike to see some of the families, depending on where they have traveled to in their feeding range, but we hiked for about an hour and a half and encountered our family, and all the other groups were done in around the same time, if not even shorter.

We were again serenaded by a local group, this time of mothers and young women from the area (strangely also in green t-shirts like the youth yesterday).

You can hire a local porter for $20 to carry your belongings and help you along the trek.  We didn't think we would originally, as our day packs weren't that heavy, but having heard from another lodge guest about being rescued by their porter from some quicksand, we decided we would do it.  We're glad we did, as some of the trails are pretty precarious on the sides of hills and there are steep up and downs.  A couple times Stephen's porter kept him from what could have been a pretty disastrous slippage down the side of a hill.  Additionally, hiring a porter supports the more general conservation goals of the park.  The porters are local villagers who they have coopted into supporting the conservation goals of the park through education and employment, rather than having them work for poachers.  Because of this, the population of gorillas in the park is actually increasing.

In addition to the guide and the porters, there are two trackers who have already headed out to scout from where the family was in the afternoon the previous day to where they have moved too for today.  Our initial 45 minutes of hiking were on a fairly even uphill climb of well-worn if occasionally very narrow trails along the hillside.  As we approached the end of the well-marked trail, our guide got a cell phone call from the trackers stating they had located the family.  From there, we went deeper into the bush.  It was definitely helpful to have our gloves, especially during this segment, and then once we found our gorilla family.  After about another 45 minutes of hiking we were at the gorilla family.

Where they were today vs. where they showed us they had been the previous day was a little more forested and on a much steeper incline, so it was a bit of a challenge to get good glimpses of the gorillas, although our staff did their best to hack away at brush to help us out.  It was also on a much steeper hillside (which didn't bother the gorillas, but it was a challenge for us).

As was true with all of our other wildlife experiences, you never quite know what you're going to see, and even if you see something cool or charming, you don't necessarily capture it on camera.  We saw some stereotypical chest beating, and some cute roughhousing between adolescent gorillas.  We enjoyed our visit with these unique animals, and appreciated that the opportunity to do so was very limited.  We consider ourselves very lucky indeed.  With that said, we didn't find it any more exciting than the other animal related things we got to see, whether in the Galapagos or while on our safaris in other parts of Africa.  All of it has been really cool.

June 9, 2023

Today we did our long (11 hour) drive back to Entebbe to catch our flight to Istanbul.  There actually are more flights to destinations from Kigali, but the flight to Istanbul goes from Kigali to Entebbe to Istanbul, we decided we'd rather spend the time on the ground vs on the plane, especially since the flight from Kigali leaves at 1:30 am, and then leaves Entebbe at 4:50am.  On our way back, we stopped to have a late lunch at a restaurant that serves typical Ugandan food-- stews, mashed millet, cassava, and makoke (which is boiled green plantains).  The restaurant is at the marker of the equator in Uganda so we've now visited the equator in Ecuador and here.  The equator passes across land in 10 different countries.  Maybe by the end of our adventure we'll get to the equator marker in all of them.

Originally we thought we would just head to the airport and stay overnight there until our flight left.  We're glad we ended up booking a cheap hotel room instead.  At least we got a little sleep before having to wake up at 2:30 to get to the airport to check in.  Entebbe airport hasn't changed at all since the 1970s and since "Raid on Entebbe" was filmed.  We wouldn't have liked having to stay there for 10 hours.