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Gorilla tracking at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Experience an unfathomable connection during a magical hour with Uganda’s most iconic primate.
The tangled forested slopes of Bwindi provide shelter to one of Africa’s most diverse mammalian faunas, including 45% of the global mountain gorilla population. Unsurprisingly, the main tourist activity in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BIMP) is gorilla tracking, which was first established at the Buhoma park headquarters in 1993, but now operates out of four trailheads – the others being Ruhija, Nkuringo and Rushaga – all of which are serviced by a selection of tourist lodges. Today, 11 habituated (and three semi-habituated) gorilla groups can be tracked in Bwindi, a thrilling but costly venture regarded by most who have undertaken it to be a true once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Tracking mountain gorillas in the Virungas or Bwindi ranks among the absolute highlights of African travel. The exhilaration attached to first setting eyes on a wild mountain gorilla is difficult to describe. These are enormous animals: up to three times as bulky as the average man, their size exaggerated by a shaggily
luxuriant coat. Yet despite their fearsome appearance, gorillas are remarkably peaceable creatures – tracking them would be a considerably more dangerous pursuit were they possessed of the aggressive temperament of, say, vervet monkeys or baboons, or for that matter human beings.
The magical hour spent with the gorillas does not come cheaply. Two types of permit are available. The vast majority of visitors buy a standard permit, which costs US$600/500 FNR/FR, dropping to US$450/400 in April, May and November, and includes all park entrance and guiding fees. The alternative, applicable only to the sixth group that is currently under habituation at Rushaga, is a habituation permit, which allows you 4 hours with the gorillas. This costs US$1,500 per person, however, and is reserved for one group of up to six people daily. In all cases, the permit includes park entrance fees, guides and trackers, but not a porter if one is required.
You’ll also either need to endure some basic forms of transport (foot, boda-boda, overladen pick-up truck …) on the way or be prepared to shell out to hire a vehicle from the nearest urban centre, or indeed all the way from Kampala. When you fi nally reach the trailhead, you’ll fi nd the cost of accommodation to be on the high side – plenty of opportunities to splash out US$500-plus per night on an upmarket lodge or tented camp – but each of the tracking trailheads also has at least one more aff ordable (but still relatively overpriced) budget option.
If you’re tracking gorillas as part of an organised tour, you can safely assume that your operator will make all the necessary arrangements to get you there and find you a bed, and will also have booked permits in advance. Independent travellers, on the other hand, will generally need to make their own booking, often at relatively short notice.
Historically, when tracking was limited to Buhoma and Mgahinga, the coveted places were often booked up by tour operators months in advance and there was absolutely no point in heading to southwest Uganda hoping to see gorillas unless clutching a valid permit. Things are a bit more flexible now since, with five gorilla-tracking locations in Bwindi, securing a permit is far easier than it used to be. Firstly, the itinerant nature of the Mgahinga gorillas means that permits are available at short notice at the Kisoro UWA office rather than Kampala.
BINP is also one of the finest birding destinations in Uganda, thanks in part to the presence of 23 Albertine Rift Endemics, while other attractions include forest walks in search of smaller primates such as black-and-white colobus and L’Hoest’s monkey. There are also a few reputable cultural programmes that offer the opportunity to interact with the Batwa Pygmies who were evicted from the forest interior following the gazetting of the national park.