This article is the result of a collaboration with National Geographic Traveller (UK).
I’ve been watching the silverback in front of me play with his belly button for the past 15 minutes. If I break down the expense of my US$700 (£560) permit, this close encounter has cost me $175 (£560) thus far.
Although gorilla trekking can reach up to US$1,500 (£1,200) for a one-hour viewing in certain countries, making it among the more expensive wildlife adventures, those who’ve navigated the slippery volcanic slopes or battled through thick bamboo to interact with our evolutionary relatives affirm it’s money well spent.
Moreover, my Ugandan experience costs half of what I would pay in neighbouring Rwanda. Around half of the world’s mountain gorilla population, approximately 500 individuals according to a 2019 official census, reside in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This area also boasts 21 gorilla groups habituated for tourism, the highest number in any African region.
However, a trip to the gorilla’s habitat transcends a 60-minute primate spectacle. My adventure started days before I stepped into the forest. After arriving in Entebbe, Uganda’s international air terminal near the capital Kampala, I chose a nine-hour drive to Buhoma, the gateway to Bwindi, over expensive internal flights.
During the overland journey, ever-changing landscapes and glimpses of city and rural life enrich the experience. We travel through congested towns, verdant fields, and undulating hillsides.
On Kampala’s outskirts, market stalls are teeming with lustrous mangoes, oversized avocados, and polished onions. Traveling through districts towards southwest Uganda, I spot calabash fruits drying in the sun next to Mburo’s cattle fields, and stacks of engalabi, cow-skin drums, outside the Mpambire village.
The gorillas frequently roam into farmlands bordering the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RENATO GRANIERI
Finally, the tarmac roads morph into red soil, mountains loom, and smoke spirals from clay kilns. Tea, coffee, bananas, and potatoes are harvested on steep slopes where wildlife, including gorillas, hides.
Upon reaching Buhoma, a short but strenuous uphill walk past the main array of wooden stalls takes me to my base within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Run by Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), this accommodation is part of the NGO’s research base.
“Gorillas often wander into farmlands,” Sharon Akampurira from CTPH explains when we meet to discuss the organization’s initiatives. At the research base’s entrance, farmers sort through sun-dried coffee beans – a part of a fair-trade program implemented by CTPH. This NGO was established by award-winning vet and conservationist Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, aiming to secure gorillas’ future by enhancing local communities’ living standards and livelihoods.
Visitors can tour the laboratory where gorilla samples are regularly tested for microbes, enjoy a coffee at the newly opened Gorilla Conservation Cafe, or stay in affordable and comfortable guest rooms with en-suite facilities. These cost significantly less than luxury lodges, making it an economical way to embark on a gorilla-trekking safari while gaining insights into community conservation.
The next morning, I savour their delicious Gorilla Coffee — a rich and velvety blend — while taking in the sight of cool, moss-green mountains shrouded by misty clouds. Shortly, I’ll be journeying through dense, dark woods.
Into the Woods…
At 8 am, following a briefing at the park headquarters, I’m assigned to the Mubare troop — the first group acclimated for tourism in 1993. Although none of the original members remain — some lost to battles or natural causes, others merged with wild groups — ranger Amos Nduhukire assures me that their nine successors are among the most lively.
Even though habituated to human presence, they tend to stick to inaccessible, elevated hideouts. Trackers have identified their location a two-and-a-half-hour walk away. This hike only intensifies the anticipation and becomes an adventure in its own right. After crossing fields where women in colourful kitenge headscarves harvest crops with hefty scythes, we enter a labyrinth of branches and roots.
As the altitude ranges between 1,000 and 2,000 meters, the trek becomes challenging. I’m grateful for hiring a local porter for $20 (£15) to carry my bulky backpack. Once inside the forest, the uneven terrain complicates maintaining balance, and I frequently accept his hand for assistance.
Damp from the previous night’s rain, the ground is slick, and droplets adorn the leaves. Soft bird chirps and flutters occasionally echo from the tallest tree canopies. My group, composed of seven fellow trackers, whisper excitedly about fulfilling their life-long dreams of seeing gorillas. Will they notice us? How should we behave? Will a silverback charge at us? However, as the terrain becomes more difficult and time passes, we fall silent, preserving our energy and cherishing the privilege of solitude in this vast, thick forest. Then another thought arises: will we even locate them?
Left: Ranger Amos Nduhukire leads the gorilla treks in Bwindi.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RENATO GRANIERI
Right: The Mubare troop, the first family habituated in Bwindi for tourism, goes back to 1993.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREA MORENO
Tales of past trekkers hiking until midnight unsettle us, but Amos reassures us that with improved knowledge and technology, the current experience is significantly different. With a radio, he maintains regular contact with our team of trackers, who have been following the Mubare group since dawn after leaving them building nests the night before. They tail the animals diligently until they settle down for sleep.
“We’re getting close now,” Amos informs us, as I hear grunts from the bushes. Despite months of preparation, I still feel slightly unprepared.
With masks on and a 10-meter distance rule in place to protect the gorillas from human diseases, it’s time for the encounter. This is when I spot silverback Maraya examining his navel.
“They’re not at all shy,” Amos comments as a symphony of biological sounds ensues.
Females ascend trees above us in search of leaves, and young gorillas tumble out from the undergrowth, rolling so close, one even probes my camera lens with his tiny finger. They eat, expel gas, and even mate — an act Amos candidly describes as ‘drilling’ — in our presence.
A team of trackers uses machetes to clear the undergrowth, ensuring no significant moments are overlooked. Some people weep, others chuckle. Most of us just stare in disbelief, almost thrown off balance by nature’s forces… and a couple of mischievous young blackbacks.
All too soon, it’s over. Maraya, exposing the silver streak across his muscular back, lets out a final fart — a loud signal for our departure. Despite the physical exertions, the experience of observing a silverback’s casual antics is worth every ache## A Budget-Friendly Experience with Gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
National Geographic Traveller (UK) brings you this insightful article.
I’ve been watching a silverback gorilla absentmindedly play with his belly button for the past 15 minutes. When you consider the cost of my $700 (£560) permit, this personal viewing has already cost me $175 (£140).
Gorilla trekking, which can reach up to $1,500 (£1,200) for an hour in some places, is undeniably one of the pricier wildlife experiences globally. However, anyone who has braved the slippery volcanic slopes or wriggled through dense bamboo thickets to spend time with these close relatives of ours would assert that it’s worth every penny.
Fortunately, my Ugandan adventure cost half of what I would have spent in neighbouring Rwanda. Plus, about half of the world’s mountain gorillas, approximately 500 individuals based on the 2019 official census, reside in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This area also houses 21 gorilla troops accustomed to tourists, more than anywhere else in Africa.
However, a trip to the gorillas’ habitat isn’t just about an hour of observing their activities. My journey began days before I stepped foot into the forest. After landing at Entebbe, Uganda’s international airport just outside the capital Kampala, I chose a lengthy nine-hour drive to Buhoma over expensive domestic flights. Buhoma serves as the entry point to Bwindi, the starting point for most treks.
The overland route offers captivating views of ever-changing landscapes and snapshots of city and rural life. We pass bustling towns, verdant fields, and rolling hills, with market stalls bursting with fresh produce at the outskirts of Kampala. As we progress towards the southwest of Uganda, I notice calabash fruits drying under the sun and traditional cow-skin drums, engalabi, stacked outside the village of Mpambire.
Gorillas are often spotted venturing into the farms adjacent to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RENATO GRANIERI
Eventually, our journey takes us where paved roads give way to red dirt, mountains rise, and smoke spirals from mud kilns. Gorillas, along with other wildlife, hide within the steep slopes where tea, coffee, bananas, and potatoes are cultivated.
Once in Buhoma, a brief but rigorous uphill walk from the main area of wooden stalls brings me to my accommodation at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, managed by the NGO, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). Here, I meet Sharon Akampurira from CTPH who enlightens me about their work, which includes a fair-trade initiative involving sun-dried coffee beans. This NGO, established by award-winning vet and conservationist Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, aims to protect gorillas by enhancing local communities’ living conditions and incomes.
Visitors have the option to explore the NGO’s laboratory, visit the Gorilla Conservation Cafe, or stay in their budget-friendly and comfortable en suite guest rooms. It offers an affordable way to experience a gorilla-trekking safari while also learning about community conservation.
The following morning, I savour their superb Gorilla Coffee, a rich and velvety blend, as I overlook the mist-draped, moss-green mountains. Soon, I’ll be embarking on a trek through these thick, dark woods.
Into the Wilderness
Following a morning briefing at the park headquarters, I’m assigned to the Mubare troop, the first group habituated for tourism in 1993. Our ranger, Amos Nduhukire, assures us that despite the absence of the original members, the current nine descendants are among the most lively.
The tracking team, having set off at dawn, has located the gorillas a two-and-a-half-hour walk away. This hike, though tiring, only enhances the anticipation, transforming it into an adventure of its own. We cross fields where women in vibrant kitenge headscarves harvest crops before entering a natural tunnel made of branches and roots.
Navigating the forest’s uneven terrain proves challenging, and I find myself often relying on the aid of my locally hired porter who carries my heavy backpack for just $20 (£15).
Throughout the trek, hushed conversations within our group of seven trackers revolve around our lifelong dreams of seeing gorillas. However, as the minutes tick by and the journey becomes more demanding, we fall into silence, saving our breath and appreciating the privilege of solitude in this dense forest. The thought of actually locating the gorillas grows increasingly urgent.
Left: Ranger Amos Nduhukire spearheads the gorilla treks in Bwindi.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RENATO GRANIERI
Right: The Mubare troop, Bwindi’s first group, were accustomed to tourism back in 1993.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREA MORENO
Amos keeps us informed with regular updates via radio from our tracking team, who have been trailing the Mubare group since morning. Their dedication to the cause sees them shadowing the gorillas from the moment they awake until they nestle down to sleep.
“We’re almost there,” Amos informs us, just as I hear grunts from the surrounding bushes. Even after months of preparation, I can’t help but feel a tad unprepared.
With masks on and adhering to a 10-metre distance to protect the gorillas from human diseases, we finally meet the family. That’s when I spot silverback Maraya amusingly fixated on his navel.
Unfazed by our presence, the gorillas continue with their routine activities. Females clamber up trees for leaves while toddlers tumble out of the undergrowth, one even poking my camera lens with his small finger. Amid the mix of laughter, tears, and stunned silence, we stand captivated by the spectacle before us. All too soon, it’s time to leave, making every moment of this arduous journey worthwhile.
Beyond Gorilla Sightings in Buhoma
After the unforgettable gorilla encounter, I recommend spending a few extra days in Buhoma to interact with the local community. One notable local is Evelyn Habasa, the founder of NGO Ride 4 A Woman, a women’s group funded by the revenue from gorilla trekking.
Visitors can participate in various activities at her textile workshop or even stay at the guesthouse adorned with vibrant African fabrics. Doubles start from $150 (£120), inclusive of all meals.
Plan your Trip
Great Lakes Safaris provide a six-day gorilla safari, which includes a private driver-guide, a customised 4×4, accommodations, meals, and activities. The starting price is £875 per person, based on a group of four, excluding international flights. Gorilla permits cost $700 (£560). A double room at the CTPH’s mountain lodge in Buhoma costs from $90 (£70), inclusive of all meals.
Great Lakes Safaris, Conservation Through Public Health, Ride 4 A Woman, Uganda Wildlife Authority, and Ugandan Airlines sponsored this story. Published in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Affordable Gorilla Trekking
How much does a gorilla trekking permit cost in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda?
A gorilla trekking permit in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda costs US$700 (£560).
How can I save money while planning a gorilla-trekking safari in Uganda?
By choosing affordable accommodation options such as the mountain lodge run by Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), you can save money. The lodge is part of the NGO research base, and staying there allows you to learn about community conservation efforts while keeping costs down.
What other experiences can I enjoy in Buhoma, apart from gorilla trekking?
In Buhoma, you can immerse yourself in local community activities. For example, you could participate in a cooking class or learn how to weave a coaster from palm leaf fibres with the women’s group Ride 4 A Woman.
Is it safe to go gorilla trekking in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest?
Yes, it is safe. The Uganda Wildlife Authority ensures the safety of the trekkers. Rangers like Amos Nduhukire lead the treks, trackers keep an eye on the gorillas’ movements, and precautions are in place to prevent the transmission of diseases between humans and gorillas.
How many mountain gorillas can be found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest?
Nearly 50% of the world’s population of mountain gorillas live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This is approximately 500 individuals, according to the last official census in 2019.