Telling people that I was going to hike into the mountains of Uganda to see silverback gorillas in the wild elicited one of two reactions. Either a squeal of delight because it was on someone’s bucket list, or a shake of the head along with the word “crazy.” There was no grey area.
Hiking to see the mountain gorillas of Uganda in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is incredible, and in my experience extremely difficult, even though I prepared for it a year in advance.
According to the latest (2018) population count, there are an estimated 1,004 mountain gorillas alive in the wild. They live in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
You need a permit, and only eight hikers per habituated gorilla family can go each day. Bwindi has 12 of these families. The permits aren’t cheap ($600 USD per person, per trek), but are less expensive than Rwanda ($1,500 USD).
A long, gruelling trek up the mountain
My hiking group was assigned the Christmas Gorilla Family–aptly named because the silverback was born on Christmas Day in 2003. On the morning of our hike, after a fight with another family, our gorillas retreated up the mountain. We followed them, excited to spend an hour with these amazing creatures.
According to the rangers, the hike is three to seven hours and, depending on the location, could range from pretty easy to more challenging.
Our hike took 11 hours, and it was brutal. We had to climb up, down and all around two mountains to find our gorillas. No paths, no steps. Just wild overgrown brush and forest.
It rained a lot that day. The mountain was muddy and slick. It took us five hours and some very tough moments to reach the gorillas.
But in their presence, all of the challenges (and aching muscles) were quickly forgotten. Sitting a few feet away from a 300-pound gorilla and his family is pure magic. It’s worth every ache, pain and bruise.
Meeting the gorillas of Uganda
At one point, Christmas came and sat against a tree about 12 feet away from me. He looked at me, I looked at him. Our eyes met and my heart skipped a beat.
In the briefing before the hike we were told to stay at least 15 feet away from the gorillas. If one gets close, you are told to avoid eye contact and to sit still. All of this raced through my mind as Christmas tilted his head and looked deep into my eyes, but I was powerless to look away.
It was for only ten seconds or so, but in that short time I felt pure love. The rest of the world slipped away. It was just Christmas and me. Then, one of the young gorillas made a noise while swinging from a tree branch and Christmas looked away. Our moment was over but my heart was full (and still is).
Our hour with the gorillas (which is strictly enforced so the gorillas aren’t agitated by people) went by in a heartbeat.
A long, gruelling trek back down again
To get back to the ranger’s office, we had another five-hour hike. It was 3 pm and the sun would set at 6. We needed to move quickly, but the hike back was harder. I wondered how that was even possible, but there we were. In some places, it was straight down. I slid down the mountain like you would on a waterslide. It wasn’t pretty, but it felt safer than falling down and maybe breaking a leg–or worse.
When we hit the bottom of the mountain, I breathed a sigh of relief. Every part of me hurt and I wanted to cry. Then the ranger said, “Now, it’s just an hour or so up and we’re there.” I looked up. Way up. It was too much. I was done.
Taking the African Helicopter
I asked the head ranger to call for the “African Helicopter,” a local term that meant 12 young Ugandan men would come and carry me out on a wicker stretcher.
Making this decision was embarrassing–I had lasted ten hours, but I could hardly walk anymore. However, the silver lining is that the “African Helicopter” experience was amazing. Wearing flip-flops, these men carried me up the side of the muddy, slippery mountain while running. It was like being in a scene out of a movie.
According to the rangers, ours was the most difficult hike since 2001. Four people (including me) were carried out that day. The mountain beat me, but surprisingly, that added to the overall experience of a lifetime. Seeing the gorillas of Uganda will live in my heart forever and my “African Helicopter” ride gives me a pretty funny story to tell.
Now, when I tell people about seeing the gorillas, many are adding “African Helicopter” to their bucket list.
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