A Gamewatcher's Gorilla Safari

As I lay in my bed at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, looking through the black of the night sky, I could see red explosions of color illuminating the horizon. The Virunga volcano was spewing fiery lava into the dark sky, it back-lit the clouds with a kaleidoscope-type light show of red splashes of light. Imagine falling asleep to that!

In the morning, I woke up ABOVE the clouds! Blue mountains peaked through the clouds and I watched the sun rise from beneath where I stood. Roosters were crowing, the air was crisp. I just wanted to raise my arms above my head and say out loud, “Wow! This is Uganda”!

My journey started with my arrival in Kigali, Rwanda. Kigali is the closest major airport for gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenatrable Forest, Uganda. I went on two gorilla treks in Rwanda last year but this time my gorilla trekking safari is in Uganda.

I have photographed a bit of everything from grizzly bears in Alaska, bighorn sheep and elk in the Canadian Rockies, black bear in Wyoming, and the big cats in Africa. Photographically speaking, the experience of trekking in the jungle through a scramble of vines and bamboo, climbing the volcano and ultimately being able to hang out with a family of gorillas is the most thrilling experience ever!

Gorillas - baby & mum

Just imagine being surrounded by a family of wild gorillas! They may be in the trees and on the ground. A huge silverback may pass in front of you, just a few steps away. Wide-eyed babies pound on their chests trying to practice looking tough, but then their playful nature takes over as they pounce on each other and tumble down the hill in a rolling ball of black fur.

Gorilla Rwanda

It is humbling and an honor to spend time with these peaceful creatures. Wild, but at the same time, looking in their eyes, you can sense their gentle side, the side that shares over 98% of the same DNA humans have.

Below is a summarized itinerary of the treks that I did both in Rwanda and Uganda. Whichever you choose, a gorilla trek will most likely be an experience that will touch your heart in a very special way.

Gorilla Uganda 7Julie in Rwanda

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda normally starts out with about a 45 minute walk across rolling farm fields with beautiful volcano views. Upon reaching the park border, you enter the slopes of the volcanoes and the terrain becomes more jungle-like. Trackers will guide you and, depending on the group you are with, the total trekking time may take up to 1 to 3 1⁄2 hours + (each way). Guides will normally try to divide up groups (of no more than 8 people per group), by fitness level. In my experience, (with 2 treks in Rwanda), the trekking was much less strenuous in Rwanda (compared to trekking in Uganda).

Gorilla Uganda 6

Gorilla trekking in Uganda is a completely different experience from trekking in Rwanda. Accommodation at the gorilla trek lodges that we offer will make you feel like you are staying right in the middle of a jungle! The trek begins at the base of the volcano and the climb up the volcano zizzags through the thick and beautiful vegetation. Guests should be in a bit better physical condition for a Uganda gorilla trek (in comparison to Rwanda). Trekking time is normally 1 1⁄2 to 3 1⁄2 + hours (each way), but guests can also request their guide to try to put them in a group with similarly fit people.

Getting to Bwindi is also part of the adventure. The last 2 hours drive getting to Bwindi is on a very winding and bumpy road. It is absolutely BEAUTIFUL scenery but this drive would not be good for anyone with back trouble and older guests may be better choosing Rwanda instead of Uganda. But, for anyone with a good fitness level, personally, I found the overall experience to be very rewarding in Uganda. I liked feeling like I was staying right in the middle of the jungle, the beauty of Uganda, monkeys around my room, and also the opportunity to walk to the Batwa Pygmy village was yet another highlight of my stay in Uganda.

Batwa Pygmy visit: This was by far, one of the most amazing cultural experiences I have ever experienced on a safari. It’s a beautiful walk through backcountry Bwindi-area neighborhoods and a then your guide will take you further up into the mountainside where you’ll find the Batwa Pygmies. It is a step back in time to see how the Batwa lived and hunted in the Bwindi, They have ancient legends and very interesting traditional songs.

batwa - Julie R

Logistics: It’s closer, and easier to get to Bwindi, Uganda, by flying in and out of Kigali, Rwanda. Kigali is closer than flying into Kampala/Entebbe and the scenery is fantastic along the way. An overnight at Serena in Kigali will make a great start to the safari! From Kigali to Volcanos National Park, it’s about a 3 hour drive (depending on how often you stop for photos). Even if guests are only doing gorilla trekking in Uganda, they will most likely enjoy 1 night stay in Rwanda Volcanoes National Park area. Then from Volcanoes (Rwanda) to Bwindi lodges (Uganda), it’s about a 6 hour drive of non-stop photo opportunities and exceptionally beautiful scenery. From Bwindi lodges by road back to Kigali, it’s about 7 1⁄2 hours depending on how often stops are made for photos. The drive time should not be a deterrent; rather it should be considered an added benefit to be able to see more of the beautiful country.

Get in touch with Julie to find out more.

by Julie Roggow, Gamewatchers Safaris