The prompt for the week is to show a wish, and mine is simple, but it seems at the moment, not easy at all. I wish for all these beautiful, wild creatures to be safe, and have the opportunity to live long, natural lives without knowing the horror of poaching or human / wildlife conflict.
This is my final instalment in a 3 part blog series on Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. If you missed previous posts, you can find part 1 here, and part 2 here.
As I said in my earlier post, I had a GoPro on a headmount for the trek and my regular camera. I am definitely not a videographer, and looking back, I think having the GoPro on time-lapse mode may have been a better option than video during the trekking portion, as the video is very jerky from all the motion. I was, however, able to capture the silverback Makara on a mock charge when we arrived at the gorilla family on my first trek, and having that captured alone makes all the other crappy video worthwhile.
There is a good possibility that you will be photographing the gorillas through fairly thick vegetation at some point during your time with the family. Daylight is often very filtered, with combinations of heavy shade and some very bright spots of sunlight (if you get a nice day like I did). All of this combined can make shooting pretty tricky. I kept my camera on auto ISO and manually controlled the aperture and shutter speed. I believe I had my camera on spot metering, but I think matrix would have been a better option. On day one especially, with the juveniles so active, I kept my shutter speed fairly high and as such had a high ISO, usually 3200 or 6400 for most images. I also kept my camera on auto white balance, and it did a fairly good job of capturing colours that feel accurate while I am doing my post processing. In the group I was travelling with, only myself and one other person had SLR cameras, the balance were using either point and shoots or their phones. At some points I must admit I was a bit jealous with how lightweight their cameras were!
I mentioned before that I used a harness to help keep my camera from bouncing while trekking, and another consideration would be some plastic bags or dedicated rain cover for your camera in case the weather turns. Also, make sure you have a fairly large capacity memory card as you won’t want to be changing them while at your sighting, and make sure to start your trek with fully charged batteries. If you have a camera that is a battery hog, you might want to consider keep a spare battery in your pocket, as your backpack will be with the porters and trackers during your sighting.
Gorilla trekking was an amazing experience, and one that I would certainly consider doing again some day. While it may seem silly to some that I spent such a long time getting ready for the trip, I wanted to be prepared and make sure that I wasn’t wasting my time and money by showing up for an experience that I wasn’t fit enough to do. While I was lucky to have two fairly short treks, one group on the first day I was in Bwindi didn’t return to park headquarters until around 6 in the evening, and apparently had a very strenuous and steep climb to see their gorilla group. You never quite know what is going to happen when you are out in the bush, so best to be a prepared as possible.
If you have any questions or want some additional information, please feel free to leave a comment, or get in touch via the contact form on my About Me page and I will do my best to answer.
This is the 2nd part of a 3 part blog series on Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. If you missed part 1, you can find it here.
I stayed at the beautiful Buhoma Lodge before and after my treks. On the morning of the trek, we had breakfast at the lodge, and then collected our pack lunches and water canteens and walked across the road to park headquarters to get assigned to our ranger and gorilla family. One thing to note, the lodge provided one water canteen, I would suggest taking at least double that if not a bit more. You don’t know how long you will be out, and you don’t want to end up dehydrated, especially if you are not used to a warm, humid, mountainous climate.
Park headquarters provided a welcome video and information briefing, assigned us to our groups and introduced us to our ranger. Some groups set out on foot directly from park headquarters, while ours had to drive to the setting off point. Our wonderful guide Jean-Paul from Wild Frontiers drove us to the setting off point and waited for our return; it was about 45 minutes drive through the hills to start. At park headquarters they will ask you if you want a porter for your trek (please answer yes to that!) and the porters will meet you at the setting off point.
Every article and post I read ahead of my trip recommended hiring a porter for your treks and I will do the same here. Even if you are very fit and can carry your pack easily, hire one anyway just for the economic benefit it provides the people of the region. The porters work incredibly hard; they not only carry packs but give you a hand to hold on to during tough up or downhill sections, even providing a push and pull if the terrain gets really steep. They are your extra set of eyes to warn of branches if you are looking down, or tripping hazards if you are looking up. They are fantastic at gauging what will be an effective pace for you and making sure that you stop often enough to catch your breath or take a water break. My porter offered to carry my camera for me as well, but since I wanted to take photos on route, I kept that with me. When there were interesting birds or monkeys, my porter was pointing those out to me as well.
For many of the men and women in the villages surrounding the park, being a porter is an excellent career and a way to provide a stable income for their families. There are always more porters available though than tourist spots, so they work on a rota system. My porter on the first trek, Emme, was not available to be my porter again on the second day, because he was at the back of the line having already worked that week. The daily salary for the porters was only $15 US, so I would suggest that anyone that can afford a $600 trekking permit can afford to help make one of the locals lives better by giving them some work for the day. I found all the rangers, trackers and porters that I dealt with to be friendly, helpful and very informative. Tipping is not mandatory of course, but it is greatly appreciated by all the crew.
For the porters, you pay and tip them directly at the end of the trek. For the rangers and trackers, their salary is paid by the park and included as part of your trek permit, and any tips for the team would be given to the head ranger to distribute amongst the group. It is also worth noting that the pack lunch provided by your lodge is likely to be enormous; there was no way that I could finish it all, and multiply that by all 8 tourists in the group, that is a lot of extra food. If you have extras that you would like to share with the rangers, trackers and porters, that is to also be given to the head ranger to share amongst their whole group.
There is a tracking team that goes out at first light to try to locate the gorilla families prior to the tourist groups setting out. While they may not find the families before the tourist groups set out, they will be able to find tracks and other clues as to the whereabouts. On my first trek, we set off on game trails through the forest, and walked for approximately 45-60 minutes prior to meeting up with the trackers to go to the sighting. On the second trek, we started out on the same game trail but quickly had to create our own, down the side of a steep hill through very thick jungle. The rangers were hacking a path for us with machetes, but it was difficult going and a very different experience to the fairly gentle up and down walk from the previous day. The bonus for the second day though was we found the family in a nice level area, making viewing an easy experience. On day one, we were perched on the side of a fairly steep slope trying to watch the group for a portion of the sighting.
When you get to the gorilla family, you have one hour to spend with them. The rangers will ensure that you stay safe during this time, that you don’t get too close to the gorillas and will lead you to different viewing places depending on the terrain and the movement of the gorilla families. On my first trek day, the juvenile gorillas were very active playing in the trees and roughhousing, but the adults were settled and relaxing. On the second trek, the reason we had to navigate such difficult terrain was the adults were not yet settled, and the trackers were concerned that they would be on the move again soon, and wanted us to hurry as much as possible to avoid missing them.
The rangers will provide information on the family during the sighting and answer questions that you have. One of the interesting bits of information my first ranger provided was the gorilla families are very aware of how much time the tourists are allowed to spend with them, and generally start getting bored and moving off very close to the hour mark of when the tourists arrive. I found this to be the case on both treks, though the second time, they began to wander at about the 45 minute mark, and we were allowed to follow a bit through the bush, which was an exciting experience. Once the hour is up, the trek back to the starting point begins. Depending on timing, you’ll probably stop for a pack lunch break. I was fortunate to trek on two dry days, so lunch breaks were the only time I needed my rain poncho; I used it for sitting on while having lunch.
Speaking of weather, mountain gorillas live in tropical rainforests, so rain is a definite consideration. While there is a chance of rain throughout the year, they do have a set rainy season as well. Definitely include the weather in your research on the best times to go on an adventure like this. I was in Bwindi the first week of September, and I believe that October is the start of the rainy season. It had been dry when I went for several days, so the trails were dry and I was lucky enough to trek under fairly clear skies. There are still a lot of fall hazards when it is dry though; leaf litter on the trails when going downhill can be very slippery, and trekking through thick jungle and being unable to see your footing can be hazardous. I did take a tumbled on the second trek, as we were heading downhill and I thought the ground was one place, but it was about a foot lower than expected. No damage done but I slid down a hill a good 20 feet or so on my butt, and actually took my porter down with me (sorry again!)
When I made the decision that I was going to go and try to see mountain gorillas, I did a ton of research online. I looked at reviews of treks in both Uganda and Rwanda and in the end, on the advice of my travel agent, went with a Uganda based itinerary. All the research in the world doesn’t make up for actually being there, as no matter how many photos you see or stories you read, you won’t know how it feels until you experience it yourself. I have been wanting to create some posts around my gorilla tracking experience for some time, mostly as an opportunity to share some photos and video clips, but also as an opportunity to share my experience.
I’m breaking this up into 3 parts; Planning and Gear, Trekking Day and Photo Considerations.
Planning & Gear
I have used a South African based travel agent, Rhino Africa, for all my adventures into Africa. When I decided that gorillas were going to be my next adventure, I got in touch with Rhino and they had one of their East Africa specialists work with me to come up with the itinerary that I wanted. As a solo traveller, it can be a little tricky, as the tour that I wanted to do would only run with a minimum of two people. My travel agent found a date when other people had already booked, and I jumped onto that tour. I booked a 10 night itinerary through Uganda run by Wild Frontiers. The tour started and ended in Entebbe, and took in Bwindi, Ishasha, the Kazinga channel, Kayburo Gorge and Kibale Forest.
Booking with a set, guided tour made the process incredibly easy. They took care of the trekking permits, airport pickups, all the accommodation and food. I basically just had to show up and enjoy myself, which is something I really like on holiday. I would rather do all the planning and thinking in advance, and then be able to enjoy myself when I am some place new and exciting.
I was very nervous during the planning and preparation stages of my trip; this was an adventure into the unknown I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle it physically. While I wasn’t the absolute last to be picked in gym class back in the day, I wasn’t far from it. My trip left on August 31st, and I spent the 8 months prior to leaving really focusing on improving my conditioning to the best of my ability. I already walked a fair bit, but I added in hills at least once a week, some time on my bike and other strength training.
I decided very early on that I wanted to do two gorilla treks, since the time we had allotted in Bwindi allowed for that option. I had my travel agent coordinate the second gorilla trek permit approximately 8 months in advance of the trip; if you are going on an adventure like this, definitely make sure to coordinate all your permits well in advance. There were 7 on our tour, and only 2 of us had pre-booked the second day trekking. The balance of the group did try to purchase permits last minute, but all 24 available permits for the day were already sold.
In the Buhoma region of Bwindi there are 3 habituated gorilla families that can be viewed, and while there are no guarantees where each family will be on a given day, they do have typical territories. I asked in advance to go to see the group that would be the least strenuous walk, as even with the planning, I was still worried that I wouldn’t be fit enough and didn’t want to be holding my group back. The tour group I was with had a couple other people with various injuries and conditions, so in the end, we all asked for the easiest group and were accommodated. But, I went to see the same group the second day, and the experience was completely different (more on that later).
The majority of the articles and blog posts I read prior to my trip mentioned good, study hiking boots for the gorilla trekking, and one suggested bring rubber boots. While the rangers, trackers and porters all tend to wear the latter, I would suggest that hiking boots are the way to go unless you are used to walking up and down hills in rubber boots. I found the stability of the hiking boots to be incredibly beneficial, especially when we started having to trek through very thick forest with difficult footing. I made sure to get waterproof hiking boots in case I needed to cross any streams or trek during the rain. But while you are thinking about your footwear, don’t forget about socks. I spent some time discussing socks with a coworker that is an avid hiker, and on her recommendation picked up some lightweight wool hiking socks for the trip (which have quickly become some of my favourite pairs). Regardless of material, make sure that you have socks that are long enough to tuck your pant legs into, as there is a good likelihood you will come across safari ants during your walk, and that is the best way to keep them from marching up your legs and biting you.
Due to all the thorns and branches, it is recommended to wear long sleeves as well as long pants. I would suggest to pick the materials wisely, as the long sleeve top I took was made of some type of synthetic material that didn’t breathe well, and was quite hot to wear. Some people had gaiters for the trek, they weren’t something I owned and I decided not to purchase them just for the trip. A hat, a poncho or a packable raincoat are good to have as well. One of the best tips that I read was to take a pair of gardening gloves, as the leather palms offer some protection if you need to grab branches (or the ground) to steady yourself. They are definitely an item I would recommend to take along. The lodge I stayed at had a few pairs available to borrow, but there are no guarantees. They also had walking sticks that could be borrowed, and while I hadn’t used trekking poles or walking sticks before, I found them really helpful when going up, but more especially downhill.
I took both my Nikon camera, a GoPro camera that I had a head mount for, and a back up camera in my backpack. If you are taking a second camera and want to have it with you at your sighting, make sure to get it out of your bag, as all backpacks are left with the porters prior to getting to the gorilla sighting. Also, if you are taking a larger camera like a DSLR, a harness might be worth considering. I purchased one prior to my trip and was so grateful for it on walking safaris and on my trek. It not only took the weight off my neck, but more importantly, it kept the camera from bouncing. There are tons of different types available, I chose this one as it was lightweight, small for packing, and made in Canada.
Here’re a few clips from my GoPro from the two days of trekking. I’m the first to admit it’s pretty crappy as I had the camera on while I was busy taking photos (or walking), but it does give a different perspective to the experience.
The end of the year is a great time to reflect on the path that has been travelled over the year, and the ones that you hope to travel on in the coming year. 2016 has been an interesting, and really good year. The photos below encompass some of my thoughts about the various paths that I am on.
There are times when the path is clear; you know where you are going and the way is easily defined. If you have to retrace your steps for some reason, it’s easy to get back where you started.
On some days, the path might seem barren and you feel all alone, but you never know what might pop up ahead.
Sometimes others will doubt that you are on a path at all; they will question your direction and your vision. But you know exactly where you are going.
Sometimes you need to create your own path. You can’t see where you are headed, and if you try to turn around, the way is just as obscured. Going on intuition is the only way forward.
Sometimes the only thing to do is take a break, rest, and return to the path later on. This is especially true when you have no idea what you are doing, or where you are going!