Unexpectedly Trekking Gorillas In Uganda

Posted in Travel / The Honey Badger Diaries

Unexpectedly Trekking Gorillas In Uganda

This morning, I woke up with a spring in my step. It’s hard to believe, considering the day we had yesterday. In the background, I have Laurika Rauch singing about the Karoo, Mannejies Roux and her aunt, who would lay a table under a thorn tree, and serve figs and champagne. Her uncle, she croons, has enough diesel but would lose his farm. The drought has taken its toll.


The morning of my Gorilla tracking was so completely different. My alarm, set for 5h30, rang out shrilly. In a drowsy daze, I grabbed my phone and clicked on the big red X to stop the bell clanging everyone in the parking area awake. Yvonne likes a late lie in.

Slipping out of our narrow bed, I tiptoed to the door and drew the gauze aside to peer outside—my weather checks. We were in the tropics, but the weather was seldom tropical. A heavy mist had engulfed us, and warm, fat water drops reflecting lights clung to the awning before the weight of water forced them downwards, plopping like musical notes into small pools of water. It was cold as I slipped out of my pyjamas.

The evening before, I’d laid out my hiking gear, packed my small backpack and set out my walking shoes and hiking pole. In a jiffy, I had my trousers on. I was surprised to notice I must’ve lost weight since the last time I’d pulled these khaki longs on a few years ago. The waist dropped to my hips, and even with a belt tight around my waist, the bottoms were dragging on the floor.

Trinny of London, a fashion guru and Instagram sensation, I follow, had all the answers to fashion flops, so I tried one of her hacks. Easier said than done, and my attempts failed. My easy-to-wear drip dry shirt, my favourite clothing item while hiking the Fish River Canyon, irritated me. My hat sat perfectly. As I slipped on my trainers, I knew they would be soaking, and there’s nothing worse than hiking in wet socks. Chafed heels were a given. I’d have to pack a roll of Elastoplast.

I needed a coffee. Feeling 100% restored I shrugged my backpack over my shoulder and reassured myself that the Gorillas wouldn’t mind this fashion disaster lumbering up to them.

This was such an unexpected event. Not in a million years did I ever think the privilege would be afforded me? But there I was, ready to embark on a Gorilla Trekking adventure in Uganda.


At 6h30 sharp, Moses warmed up his silver bullet people carrier, and off we coughed and spluttered to the main office to collect one of our guides, a lady he told me I’d met the previous day when we’d gone to investigate the gorilla displays.

Which reminded me of our grand entrance. On entering the park’s gate, we’d misjudged our height and mistakenly taken the main gates’ wooden  flushing with us. The crash and creaking of boards sent everyone running. While the construction groaned and swayed precariously, I expected the impressive gate to collapse.

Butch negotiated the cost of the reparations with officials. I kept my fingers crossed that their agreed price would cover any discrepancies that might crop up later. I feared the price of “unforeseen” circumstances.


The glamorous guide Sylvia, decked out in her perfectly fitting official uniform, slipped into the front seat, waved her beautifully manicured hand, and said, “Oh, I remember you from yesterday. Wasn’t it you who crashed into our gate?” Glancing at me.

“Yes”, I stammered, “it was.” At the same time, I was transfixed by her long, shellacked talons flitting like butterflies before my eyes. “Oh, crikey,” I thought. “I shouldn’t be here.”

“Don’t worry!” she said, waving her hand theatrically, “work will start shortly. We have informed the maintenance team. Did your husband negotiate?”

To that, I could reply, “Yes!”


The drive to the meeting point was slow and bumpy in the Toyota SUV as Moses traversed the wet, slick, muddy roads through the BwindiImpenetrable National Forest.

Fortunately, I was soon forgotten as their conversation resumed in the local language. I could sit back and enjoy the foreign sounds, their laughter and the views unfolding before me. I remembered Agandi meant Hallo.

When we arrived, the rest of our party was already waiting, and my melodious “Hi everyone” was met with stoic silence. “Such a lovely day” inspired a few sniggers and grunts. The drivers of safari vehicles parked a little way off were friendlier.

The guides called us together for a briefing and set out the rules for the trek and our one-hour visit with the Gorillas if we found them. Trackers had reported a sighting.

We were to wear masks. We share around 98% of our DNA with gorillas, which means that exposure to human illnesses – even a cold - can harm gorillas as they are genetically similar to us. Still, they haven’t developed the necessary immunities to combat infections.

Once we were near the animals, we were asked to be as quiet as possible. To keep a safe distance, not encroaching on the animals’ space, and giving moving animals a wide berth, touching them was not permissible.

Some porters would carry our backpacks if we desired, guides would walk in front of us, and one or two would bring up the rear. We would snake our way quietly into the forest in a single file.

My son’s voice rang out, saying, “Mum, we are only as strong as our weakest link.” While we hiked in Fern Kloof one year, he was egging me to get a move on.

Looking around me, I noticed I was the oldest hiker, and the sullen glares cast my way indicated I was the weakest link once again. “Oh, the arrogance of youth.” I thought as we set off. Our party was comprised of couples from the UK, a friendly girl from Canada in front of me, an American, a few Germans and, I think, a quiet Russian. Unwittingly, thoughts of the Ukraine always surfaced. 

“Today was one of those days”, I thought. I felt like the square peg in a round hole. 


Down a slippery slope, we marched, stepping or tripping over exposed roots, circling ancient trees, brushing up against familiar ferns, enormous tree ferns, bamboo clumps and wet mosses and lichens. On one or two occasions, someone would stifle a yelp as they slipped or skidded, but we made good progress.

I made sure to be sure-footed, and I thanked my lucky stars I have good knees. Butch’s rugby knees don’t do well on downhills; he always reminds me. These thoughts ran through my head as I shuffled ever downwards at the back of the line flanked by guides, scouts, porters and Sylvia from the office, who was as fit as a bushbuck as she scampered alongside me.

Ever downward, we made our way through this remarkable indigenous forest. Monkeys spied us from branches, and birds chirped. I hoped we could spot a Blue Shouldered Robin Chat or the more common Red-capped Robin-Chat (I believe Robins are my spirit animal, and whenever I see one, I think things will turn out well.) We did hear the screech of a black and white colobus monkey waking up and then swinging from high branch to higher branch in search of forest fruits to eat.

Tree species in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest include the African brown mahogany, Ceiba, Cecropia, and the Ebony tree species. Ceiba Trees are the tallest tree species in the Bwindi forest, almost extending over the canopy.

Impenetrable Forest derives from the extensive stands of bamboo (favoured by gorillas) interspersed amongst the more extensive forest hardwoods. The bamboo and thick ground cover of ferns, vines, and other plant growth severely hinder direct access on foot.


Eventually, the lead scout’s arm shot up after a forty-five-minute hike, indicating we should stop and gather around. In an audible whisper, he told us they’d spotted a member of one of the gorilla families. We were ordered to remove our backpacks, slip on our masks and take only necessities like cameras if we wished. We could, before proceeding, have a drink of water.

We would spend time with the Orozoko Gorilla family of 11 primates: the alpha male, females, teens and a young baby. The tracker informed us.

Quietly, yet impatiently, we removed unnecessary clothing, donned our masks, took sips of water and got our cameras ready. Before setting off, we were reminded of the rules. A surly young Englishman glared at me. Nods all around as we set off once again in a single file.

All around me, the peaty smell of damp earth, lichen and ferns permeated the air. Our boots crushing leaves and the crackle of sticks underfoot were the only sounds besides the swish of leaves and thin branches dancing to gentle breezes below the clouds.

Cautiously, we followed the lead guide while everyone anxiously looked around, hoping to be the first one to spot a gorilla. The guide pointed out a furry bundle with a pot belly, lying nestled in a nest filled with dry leaves, quietly observing each digit on her hand a few meters from where we stood transfixed. Eventually, she turned her head, cradled in the crook of her other arm, and looked at us with large, clear, nutty brown eyes.

A gorilla’s stomach is more prominent than its chest, and its size is attributed to its enlarged intestines, which digest the bulky fibrous vegetation it consumes.

Her actions showed no fear, anxiety or discomfort as she indolently studied us with her bright, intelligent, unaggressive, detached eyes. I wonder what thoughts, if any, went through her mind.

This was where the family would gather for the time being. The guide indicated a small area and reminded us to keep very quiet. He invited us to settle and find a spot to sit, keeping our distance always.

With my camera on, I settled and let my mind come to rest so that I could be present in this moment and enjoy this rare experience. Above me, colobus monkeys rustled the leaves of branches and a Grey parrot called, and there, in the leafy scrub,  was a beautiful red-cheeked cordon-blue making its rhythmic, lazy, lispy chirps.

While we waited for the gathering of the rest of the troupe, I reminded myself of the incredible experience this was because Mountain gorillas live in east-central Africa in just two isolated groups – one in the Virunga Volcanoes (a region spanning three national parks in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)) and one in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, where we currently were, which connects to Sarambwe Nature Reserve, DRC. 

Adjusting my focus, I spotted another gorilla camouflaged by low-hanging branches and a bamboo thicket—a mother nursing a young one.

All our attention was focused on the approaching male, who strutted on stiff legs to intimidate rivals, which was a reminder that they were one of the biggest, most powerful living primates. He was like a man about town, confident in his status and power.

An average silverback gorilla can weigh up to 180kg and measure 170cm tall on all fours. In contrast, female mountain gorillas weigh 90kg and measure up to 150cm.

In an area of about ten square meters, they settled for the day and with sufficient food all around them, we snapped our photos and enjoyed their antics, knowing that Mountain gorillas spend about a quarter of their day eating mainly plants. The bulk of their diet comprises leaves, shoots and stems, but gorillas can also eat larvae, snails, ants, roots, barks and rotting wood (a good source of sodium/salt), which they dig, scratch and pick with deft digits.

Upon noticing us for the first time, this Silverback gave short barks. An indication that they’re mildly alarmed or curious. A porter beside me whispered that they can make eleven communication calls.

It was very apparent that this group of mountain gorillas lived in a very stable family where both males and females nurtured the infant, hugging, carrying, nursing and playing with her.

Gorillas are classed as infants until they reach around three-and-a-half years old and adults from around eight years. 

Males between 8-12 years are called ‘blackbacks’. Then, from 12 years old, they develop a silver section of hair over their back and hips, earning them the name ‘silverback’.  

Mature members will leave their birth families in adulthood to prevent in-breeding.

While I was quietly sitting enjoying my experience, capturing the moment on film - I was also keen to send Butch a short video and a photograph later, the Smart Alec in front of me spun around and, in a stage, whisper castigated me for using my flash. I was mortified and shocked, speechless because I never use a flash. We were all anxious, on high alert, and prone to nervous overreacting.


The main threats to mountain gorillas are:

  • The degradation of their habitat. As the region’s population grows, the land is increasingly converted for agriculture and competition for limited natural resources leads to deforestation.
  • With little other choice, people enter mountain gorilla forests to collect water and firewood, putting gorillas at risk of human contact and illnesses.
  • People also lay snares intended for bush meat, which can accidentally injure these animals.
  • Gorillas aren’t restricted to forests. Sometimes, they venture onto farmland and even village gardens to eat crops like maise and bananas, which can cause conflict among people.
  • Tourism that isn’t well managed is another potential issue, as it can impact the behaviour and health of mountain gorillas.
  • These beautiful animals are hunted for their body parts and meat.

This group was unaggressive and even shy. I found them to be much calmer and more persistent than chimpanzees, though not as adaptable. Intelligence shines brightly in their eyes, and I believe they are capable of problem-solving, as we noticed when one of the guides warned us that the Silverback was preparing to move unexpectedly and that we should move to allow him access to escape.

He looked around for an escape route, pondered his options and, in a flash, made his move. Like a muscled, fit rugby player, he lunged and barreled forward, shouldering a young lady in our party who stumbled. Later, quite shocked she mentioned the violence of the shove while massaging her shoulder.

Whether in jest or deadly serious, she admonished her partner for not “doing something to stop the attack. Did you see what happened?” she asked, her eyes flashing. When he admitted he had, she had this to say, “You could’ve hit him and protected me.” I’m sure that would’ve meant the last punch he threw.

Like any wild animal, Gorillas frequently view people as a threat when they enter their territory. If assaulted, they will defend themselves. They are impulsive, powerful, fast, and streetwise and would mistake good intentions for an attack.


We knew it was time to retreat when Sylvia rolled up her sleeve to check her watch. Cautiously stepped back a few paces before turning and, in single file, returned to retrieve our backpacks, take a sip of water and slip into our raincoats. A soft, spritzy drizzle rained down and dripped from leaves as we started back up the track.

The high altitude would take its toll on me when we trudged back up the mountain. I could feel my age and unfitness as I put one foot in front of the other in a slow slog, clambering over rocks, roots and ravines. Fortunately, we all felt the pressure, and the kindly guides stopped every so often that we could take a breather.

Once back in the parking area, we thanked the guides, trackers and porters for their professional first-class act. Then, in a surprise move, Sylvia thanked us for our contributions to Gorilla conservation, and we were all presented with a certificate!

Without a greeting, we, the tourists, turned around and left in our various vehicles to lodges and campsites. Could it be that the experience overwhelmed us, and we found ourselves contemplating the extraordinariness of it all, or was it just rudeness?

In our self-imposed modern, perfectly orchestrated isolation, we’ve forgotten how to be human.

My English teacher friend Lynda would've said this "Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people." George Bernard Shaw


In Rwanda, we were quoted US$750pp (a very reasonable price) for a Gorilla tracking experience. We decided that was far more than our budget would allow and made peace with the idea of not participating in one. We had experienced so many astonishing wildlife sightings and bucket list items that we were at peace. Only once we were in Uganda and settled at Agandi Uganda Lodge did Moses offer us a more affordable experience, and I succumbed to the offer. Butch declined because of the terrain and his dodgy knee. (just as well I told him later. I’m sure Old Smart Alec would’ve had a snippy remark.)


We walked to the village that evening for supper in a local restaurant to celebrate my diploma and trek.

Children skipped alongside Butch holding his hand, Yvonne, and I photographed life in a busy village and marvelled at the artefacts on display in various shops and stalls. Supper was a celebration of local cuisine served by a shy waitress who couldn’t stop her giggles.

For starters we had soup. The chilli bean pate served with our main course was exciting and something I’ve adapted and served with my Portuguese loaf. Portions were so generous I couldn’t finish my plate, which is not good manners.

During our amble home, I decided once more that I could grow accustomed to this simple, uncomplicated lifestyle.

Finally my favourite Laurika Rauch song - Ek Het (I did)

Ek het gestaan (I stood)
Ek het geval (I fell)
Ek het wat wou (I did what I did)
Ek het gewens (I wished)
Ek het gelag (I laughed)
Ek het gevra (I questioned)
Ek het gewonder (I wondered)
Wat jou pla (what worried you)
En eendag as dit stil word, en ek niks meer nog wil hê (and one day when everything is quiet, and I want nothing more)
Sal ek sonder twyfel in my hart, vir jou kan sê (Without any doubt in my heart I'll be able tell you)
Ek het (I did)
Ek het gestoei (I wrestled)
Ek het gewen (I won)
Ek het versnel (I accelerated)
Ek het gerem (I braked)
Ek het geterg (I teased)
Ek het gehuil (I cried)
Ek het verskil (I differed)
Ek het verander (I changed)
En eendag as dit stil word, en jy niks meer nog wil hê (and one day when everything is quiet, and you want nothing more)
Sal ek sonder twyfel in my hart, vir jou kan sê (Without any doubt in my heart I'll be able tell you)
Ek het (i did)
Ek het gemik (I aimed)
Ek het geland (I landed)
Ek het gesorg (I cared for)
Ek het volhard (I was determined)
Ek het gevat (I took)
Ek het gelos (I let go)
Ek het geslaag (I succeeded)
Ek het genoeg (I have enough)
En eendag as dit stil word, en jy niks meer nog wil hê (and one day when everything is quiet, and you want nothing more)
Sal ek sonder twyfel in my hart, vir jou kan sê (Without any doubt in my heart I'll be able tell you)
En ek het als gesien (I saw everthing)
En ek het als gehoor (I heard everything)
Ek het my hart uit gespeel (I played with abandon)
En ek het soms verloor (and at times I lost)
Ek het gedink (I pondered)
Ek het geleer (I learnt)
Ek het gelief (I loved)
Ek het verlang na jou (I missed you)
En eendag as dit stil word, en ek niks meer nog wil hê (and one day when everything is quiet, and I want nothing more)
Sal ek sonder twyfel in my hart, vir jou kan sê (Without any doubt in my heart I'll be able tell you)
Ek het (I did)
Ek het
Ek het

En ek het  -'n onvergeetlike oggend saam met Gorillas in Uganda spandeer.  (and I did - spend an extraordinary morning with Gorillas in Uganda)


As an after thought below is a link to a short video