Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

This events of this post took place in late November 2017

Visiting Wild Mountain Gorillas in Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park

Our group was about 7 people and our excitement was palpable. As usual, I could barely contain myself. The guide and scouts came into the reception hall, thee or four AK-47’s in tow. We were in Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park, a lesser known alternative to the famous Bwindi National Park.

“Hello everyone!” Our female guide exclaims. She is clad in military fatigues and knee high mud boots. She is only about 5 feet tall but she has full command of the room, the AK-47 helping make up for her diminutive stature.

“Please look at the wall. We will be visiting Mountain gorillas today, the largest primates on Earth. Specifically, we will visit the Nyakagezi family who are the only habituated gorilla family in Mgahinga National Park” She points to a group of portraits of each individual in the gorilla family we are going to visit. “Please, pick one of these gorillas. They will be your gorilla of the day, you can can ask me all about them as we trek. The trek may be 1 hour or up to 6 hours – so think of some good questions.”

I picked Marc, largely because it was the easiest name to pronounce, but also because he looked like a massive silverback. Val picked Rakundo.

Our guide went on to explain the rules of our visit. When we found the gorillas the clock would start. We would be given one hour to observe them. We were to stay at least 6 meters away and try not to breath or cough in their general direction. We share so much DNA with the gorillas that our diseases transfer readily to the gorillas.

We start walking. “You are lucky today. The Gorillas are close and we can walk through the farms to get to where the are.” We had been prepared for a drawn our jungle thrashing but instead a pleasant stroll through small villages at the edge of the park ensued.

Children chased after us, hollering “Mzungu! Mzungu!” which means white person. As soon as I pointed my camera at them they would scatter and hide, leaving only giggles behind them.

After an hour we took a break. We were close. I breathed deeply, this had been decades in the making. The scenery was beautiful. Behind us three beautiful green volcanoes stretched to the sky, looking like something you would see in Hawaii. In front of us beautiful farms and lakes stretched to the horizon. Everything was deep emerald green.

“So who is Marc?” I asked our exceedingly pleasant guide who, it turned out, had a beautiful singing voice.

“Marc is my favorite. He is the Alpha male and he leads the troop. He is a good father and he is VERY big. You will love him. Good choice.”

“Who is Rakundo?” Valerie followed.

“Rakundo is a beautiful Gorilla, I hope we see him today. He is sometimes away from the group with his brother Mafia. Mafia’s name means rude – because he hates humans. Rakundo is wonderful though, he likes humans, his name means love.”

I’m so filled with excitement it feels like I’m having an out of body experience. As we enter the jungle I realize just how lucky we have been. The roots, vines, and bushes are thick. It is hard to tell where the ground is or see more then three feet in front of us.

After 5 minutes of intense jungle acrobatics we stop. Our scouts listen. We hear a voice. It is the 4 scouts that spend every day with the gorillas from sunrise to sunset.

“Come this way.”

And there they are. Marc is sitting with a female and a new baby just a few months old.

I’m stunned. There they are just 10 feet away from us – this is unbelievable. Marc sniffs the air but generally ignores us. The other gorillas seem totally uninterested in our presence.

I move a bit to get a better angle and one of the scouts waves me to follow him. We circle round to the side of where Marc is. There are a lot of branches making photographs difficult and the scout notices me trying to, gingerly, move them out of the way. With much more confidence and speed he begins moving branches for me. We are now only about 7 feet away from Marc and I can smell his breath.

Suddenly, the scout moves one too many branches. Marc leaps up, roars, and grabs the branch. His hand is massive and it is 3 feet from my face. I am frozen, my heart in my throat. After a moment Marc grunts, let’s go of the branch, and sits back down. I begin to unfreeze myself starting at my toes. Eventually (perhaps half a second later in reality but an eternity to me) I look over at the scout. He’s been watching me the whole time and as our eyes meet he erupts in laughter.

“Did you pee your pants?!” He asks still laughing heartily. I look down, legitimately worried I may have actually peed my pants.

After around five minutes of observation we see an adolescent come crashing out of the bushes. He is about 2 years old and the size of a chimpanzee. He rolls around and beats his chest, shaking branches between summersaults.

“He is trying to impress you.” Our guide smiles at us.

“Pictures,” I think. “I should be taking pictures.” I didn’t expect that we would be so close so I need to changes lenses. I put my backpack down and open it. The little fellow rolls towards me and shoves his arm down my backpack. One of my arms is already in there so now we are in a bit of a standoff.

“Stay calm, you may have to give him your backpack.” Our guide says. There was no way I am giving up my camera gear to this mischievous youngster. I am now staring directly into the young gorillas eyes while we fondle each other’s arms inside my backpack. It’s pure magic.

After a minute or two one of the scouts puts his small wooden staff on the ground next to me and leans on it. Just like a human child the gorilla looks up with guilty eyes, slowly removes his arm from my backpack, and moves away. We are both a little sad about it. Our scouts are still smiling – it is a lovely and lively day so far.Marc and his bride are completely calm as their tiny son climbs all over them. I move back and settle in at a distance, just watching with a stupid grin on my face. I continue to forget to take pictures. The experience is so powerful that Valerie is in tears.

After about half an hour our guides tell us that Rakundo has come but we have to move to see him.

We get up and walk a few minutes. Rakundo is on a small hillock, a grassy knoll really, foraging. He seems uninterested in us. I’m in a great spot for photos, just a little lower than him. Two of the other tourists come over and stand next to me. Suddenly, Rokundo charges us. He is lightning fast and we all gasp. He stops maybe 2 feet away. His feet are at our waist level as he’s still on the grassy knoll. He looks impossibly big. He pounds his chest and roars we all lower our eyes. No one moves. I can feel his breath on my face. He leans in closer. I can almost feel him asking, “are you intimidated?” My mind screams out “oh God yes, please don’t smash me. Doesn’t your name mean love?”

He quickly relaxes and walks past me, brushing against my arm and leg as he goes. I have now had two wild mountain gorillas touch me. I feel blessed and excited beyond words. Even now as I write this my adrenaline is pumping.

We watched Rakundo and another female and baby for about 20 more minutes. It went by quickly but somehow felt like a long and deep experience.

I’ll never forget it. It was a hell of a day.

Practical Information

There are two species of gorillas – mountain gorillas and lowland gorillas. There are only around 800 mountain gorillas worldwide. There are many lowland gorillas in captivity but mountain gorillas only live in the wild in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. All 800 live in the Virungas mountain range which is only few hundred square kilometers but falls in all three countries.
Mountain gorillas are critically endangered but are still threatened by poachers.
Mountain gorillas are larger than their lowland counterparts. Lowland gorillas are found in much greater, but still highly endangered, numbers across a broader swath of central Africa. Mountain gorillas are vegetarians and are the largest primates in the world with males weighing in at 195kg (430 lbs). 
Tourism is a critical part of Mountain Gorillas conservation. Fees for visits make up a huge portion of the total funding needed to protect the gorillas in this volatile region. Gorillas permits in Rwanda cost $1500 per person. In Uganda the fee is $600 but a low season discount of $450 is offered in November and April. In the DRC permits are $400 but a low seaon discount of $200 is offered in November and April. All visits are limited to one hour with a habituated gorilla family but Uganda offers a habituation program where you spend 4 hours with a gorilla family that is currently being habituated, the price is $1500.
For budget travelers Kisoro is a great base to visit gorillas in Uganda. There are a plethora of accommodation options, including budget options, and restaurants. There is also a lot do to in the area. 
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Scott Dusek is a writer and photography originally from Seattle, Washingon.

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