Sharing time with mountain gorillas in the wilds of Africa’s rainforests is utterly magical: nothing prepares you for their sheer beauty and brawn, those soulful brown eyes, their astonishingly human-like expressions or their extraordinarily gentle demeanour. This special encounter normally lasts just one precious hour, but Uganda is offering a new extended experience in an exciting evolution in gorilla tracking.

A gorilla staring soulfully out of the green vegetation in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda © Roger de la Harpe/500px
Caught in a stare, the thoughtful gaze of a mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda  © Roger de la Harpe / 500px

Mountain gorillas

Only 900 or so mountain gorillas roam the rainforests of western Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Virunga Mountains that span the borders of southern Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. They are found nowhere else in the wild on earth. Once on the verge of extinction, their survival is one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories.

The renowned mammologist George Schaller was the first to research gorillas in the late 1950s. But it was Dian Fossey who brought their plight to international attention, studying them for 18 years in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. She lived with them in the forest, raised funds for rangers and protected the gorillas despite extreme danger from poachers, culminating in her unsolved murder in 1985. At that time, Fossey had estimated that just 250 gorillas survived, under threat from habitat loss, extensive poaching and the crossfire of civil wars.

In Bwindi, to fund conservation efforts, so-called gorilla tourism started in 1993, when the Mubare group became the first family to be fully habituated, or familiarised, to humans. Now the park is setting another new precedent, creating an experience for visitors that involves tracking semi-habituated groups – and it provides a fascinating insight into one of the world’s most endangered animals.

Sunlight illuminates thick clouds rising from the dense jungle as if it was a boiling cauldron © Westend61/Getty Images
Gorillas lurk beneath the cloud and thick forest canopy of Bwindi's impenetrable forest © Westend61 / Getty Images

Traditional encounters

Today, Bwindi is home to some 400 gorillas, with 12 fully habituated families available for tracking. The day starts at the Park Headquarters in Buhoma, where guests are allocated their gorilla group and guide before being briefed on essential rules that help protect both primates and people.

Sharing 98% of human DNA, gorillas are extremely susceptible to our infections (a common cold could kill them) so visitors are asked not to trek if they are ill. Only eight people are allowed to track each gorilla family, staying for just one single hour in their presence. Rules also state that visitors should never proceed to within 7m of the giant apes, but occasionally the gorillas will cross this threshold and approach you to almost stroking distance. However, always resist the temptation to touch them. Although usually calm, they can easily be startled by flash photography, loud voices or sudden movements.

Some groups are just a short walk from Buhoma but others can take as long as five hours to reach. Bwindi is called the Impenetrable Forest for good reason: a dense jungle spanning 321 sq km, it makes hiking a challenge, with tangled vines and vegetation sprawled across steep muddy terrain. For around US$15, you can hire a porter to carry your bags and help you negotiate the tough, slippery trails (they’re worth every cent).

The reward of seeing the gorillas more than makes up for the effort of reaching them – being with these incredible gentle giants is a truly moving experience. Mesmerising to watch, your permitted hour flies by as they carry on their daily business of eating, sleeping, preening and playing, usually paying little attention to onlookers. Youngsters chase each other, swing in trees, and laugh and squeal just like children. Mums dote on babies, suckling and cradling them, and big daddy silverback watches over them all.

A Ugandan guide and two trackers collect samples of hair and dung from a mountain gorillas' nesting site within Bwindi Impenetrable National Park © Will Whitford / Lonely Planet
Collecting samples at the nests of the mountain gorillas is a key part of the Gorilla Habitation Experience  © Will Whitford / Lonely Planet

The Gorilla Habituation Experience

Gorillas aren’t always so placid in the presence of people: it takes time and effort to achieve this relaxed, almost nonchalant attitude in a process known as habituation. Bwindi’s exciting new gorilla experience allows you to be part of this process by tracking a group that is only semi-habituated. During habituation, trackers visit wild gorilla groups every day for around three years, gradually getting closer and spending longer in their company. At the semi-habituated stage, the primates are familiar with trackers but not strangers,  so this new experience can now help them get used to seeing different people.

In traditional encounters, trackers have already found your gorillas and they take you directly to them. Instead, this four-hour experience starts from where the gorillas were last seen the previous evening. You walk with the trackers, learning the tell-tale signs that eventually lead to the primates’ nests, such as knuckle prints in the mud, bent and broken vegetation and discarded food. Gorillas build new nests each night then move on looking for food: what they leave behind is vital for checking their health and numbers. At the nests, the team collects samples of hair and dung before continuing their search.

A group of tourists use walking sticks to trek to a gorilla group in the dense forest of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda © Will Whitford / Lonely Planet
Visitors taking part in the Gorilla Habituation Experience walk with trackers who follow signs of gorilla activity  © Will Whitford / Lonely Planet

It's only when you find the gorillas that the real challenge begins. The point of habituation is to follow the group and stay in their vision as they move, eventually getting closer to reach that magical 7m cut-off point. But unlike fully habituated groups who mooch around patiently during your permitted hour, these gorillas move fast to feed, dashing through dense rainforest, storming up and down slippery slopes and crawling on knuckles through bushes, with you and the tracker team in hot pursuit. It’s like a rainforest boot camp, and it’s not for the unfit or fainthearted.

Although all gorillas are wild, some are wilder than others and these semi-habituated ones have an air of unpredictability about them. There is a heightened risk of the silverback charging, but it’s almost always a warning rather than an attack – your trackers will have briefed you to stay calm, crouch down and avert your eyes. It’s easier said than done…

When they’re still, you stay still, mimicking their behaviour to make them feel at ease. You crouch down when they do, copy them picking up grass pretending to eat it, and talk to them in gorilla-language, a series of vocalisations that have specific meanings. To have a gorilla reply to your low throaty rumbling, signifying contentment, is utterly spine-tingling.

A baby gorilla sits in dense, freshly rained on vegetation. It is looking through the undergrowth, with its hand gently touching its mouth. ©mick789/Getty
A baby gorilla in the undergrowth of the dense, freshly rained on forest in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda  © mick789 / Getty Images

Which is the best?

Traditional tracking, costing US$600 per permit at Bwindi (now US$1500 in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park), offers a virtual guarantee that you’ll see gorillas up close and personal in a relaxed, even docile, mood for one unforgettable hour.

The Gorilla Habituation Experience costs US$1500, and lasts four hours, but how long you spend in their company depends on how long it takes to find them. You may not get very close to the gorillas and being in pursuit can be physically challenging and exhausting. You might equally spend some time simply watching them sleep, but you learn so much more about these awesome animals in this edgier and more immersive encounter.

A dominant male gorilla standing on all fours in the forest of Bwindi. His silver back striped between his jet black legs, shoulders, arms and head. ©GUDKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock
A dominant male silverback can stand up to 183cm (6ft) tall and weigh close to 230kg (500lb)  © GUDKOV ANDREY / Shutterstock

Whichever option you choose, tracking mountain gorillas is extraordinary, evoking a deep connection with our closest cousins in a truly enriching and unforgettable experience.

Sue Watt travelled with support from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Tourism Uganda and Steppes Travel. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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