Gorillas out of the mist

Of all the sights one might uncover on an African safari, for me, perhaps the most haunting and memorable is an encounter with a Ugandan Mountain Gorilla.

Few experiences can compare to the sheer wonder and humbling awe of witnessing these creatures in the wild. It was the famous American naturalist George Schaller who said that, ‘No one who looks into a gorilla’s eyes – intelligent, gentle, vulnerable – can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes, we know that the gorilla still lives within us’.

Indeed Schaller articulates the revelation quite beautifully and tellingly; observing lions, elephants, leopards and rhinos is an undeniably exhilarating and privileging event, but there is something more, something almost ethereal that clouds these elusive beasts. It is this otherworldly sense that resounds so achingly when the moment arrives that you come face to face with a distant relative at once so alien and yet so familiar. With less than 800 Mountain Gorillas remaining in the wild scattered across small regions of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC the impetus to see these animals, learn from them and in doing so understand their plight has never been greater. The main threats to the species arise from loss of habitat for human settlement or farmland and poaching or abduction for research, private housing or for zoos.

Uganda is itself a country in transition. Although the first association you might make with the nation is the infamous figure of Idi Amin, a character whose charisma and brutality were served in equal measure, today Uganda is a forward thinking and progressive community. The capital city of Kampala is in fact one of the safest cities in Africa and although common sense should always prevail, tourists can freely peruse the markets and urban walkways with little bother.

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is one of the country’s most renowned gorilla habitats and a must see for anyone planning a trip to Uganda. Nestled south of the grand Rwenzori Mountains near the DRC border the park comprises 331 sq km of dense jungle and forest (hence the name) and provides a home not only for almost half of the world’s Mountain Gorilla population but an incredible variety of other mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. Of the family communities that exist within the forest four are available for tracking and groups of no larger than eight people are permitted per day into the forest to limit the impact of tourism on the fragile ecosystem.

Even further south in an exposed peninsula of land bordered by the DRC and Rwanada, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is Uganda’s second primate haven and although a tenth of the size of Bwindi, boasts a spectacular catalogue of species, of course including the resplendent Mountain Gorilla. The spectacular geography of the region is dominated by three extinct volcanic cones which rise up impressively from the plains and it is these partly forested slopes that provide an ideal habitat for the Mountain Gorilla. Only one family of gorillas in the park is habituated although this is a relatively large group of 9 animals including 2 impressive silverbacks.

Gorilla tracking can be an intensive but unbelievably rewarding exercise. Although there is a very good chance of seeing the animals, like any safari experience there can be no guarantees and a successful trip will require all of the skill and knowledge of your guides with a little bit of luck thrown. For the chance to witness one of the world’s most iconic creatures, a gorilla tracking tour can offer a truly unforgettable and unique experience.

Greg Fox is a Director at luxury travel specialists Mahlatini.

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