It was 4 am and time to get up. Yesterday was an exhausting day and after 10 hours of drive we had to find another place to camp as our first choice was unreachable due to some heavy rains and mudslide on the road. As it was still dark the rainforest around us was just about to wake up with random voices echoing somewhere in the heart of the jungle. As we were sleeping in tents we could easily hear all the sounds from our surroundings.

Camp – Bwindi National Park

Our driver picked us up with an old minivan that looked like it would not make the 3-hour drive up to the mountains of Bwindi National Park. The landscape was thoroughly controversial. Here we are in the middle of Africa’s oldest forests which are surrounded by small districts of agriculture and farming tardily consuming the ancient forest’s out of their way. With hills that steep you wouldn’t even think farming would be an option but here people don’t have a choice as some of them are among the poorest people in Uganda.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park comprises over 330 square kilometres of jungle in southwest Uganda next to the borderline of Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. It is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site and can only be reached by foot. The forest is truly impenetrable jungle where you have to be prepared to move ahead very slowly due to thick vegetation. Bwindi is one of the richest ecosystems in Africa and almost half of the world’s mountain gorilla population can be found here with its 400 individuals in total. The overall population has been estimated to be around 880 and mountain gorillas are not found in captivity. That is also the reason why I am here.

Gorilla tourism is said to be the biggest revenue to Uganda. It might be true as the gorilla permit costs 600 USD and it allows you to hike into the forest once with a guide. If encountering gorillas, the maximum visiting time is one hour. Part of the contribution goes to the protection of gorillas by e.g. having armed guards in the park against poaching or other crimes. Gorilla conservation has been controversial among local people but now they are slowly realising the potential of gorilla tourism as a source of income.

There are only a few gorilla families living in the area in the Bwindi National Park and they have been habituated to people over the years. Therefore it’s safe to visit them even though they are wild and the biggest male in the family, silverback, can weight almost 200 kg. The visiting policies are quite strict: only a group of 8 persons are allowed to see one of the gorilla families in a day for one hour, allowing altogether only around 70 people entering the forest each day. This is a compromise that allows the animals to live a free life while generating essential income for the conservation.

After our bumpy drive higher up to the mountains the sun had risen and the forest was in its full life. We reached the base where we were informed about the upcoming day and guided how to behave once in the forest. People were divided in groups and then we started our once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The hiking group.

The gorilla family that my team was going to see was called Mishaya, named after the silverback leader of its family. According to the park rangers, this family had moved quite far, so at first we had to drive almost an hour to the other side of the mountain. There we started tracking the gorillas and I must admit that it was the most challenging hike that I have ever done. We were up in 2,500 meters and the air was humid and misty. It was showering rain and the forest floor appeared to be pure mud. When it got wet from the rain you could easily get stuck on each step as your feet went 30 centimeters underground and getting through the vegetation was very exhausting.

Bwindi is one of the richest ecosystems in Africa and almost half of the world’s mountain gorilla population can be found here with its 400 individuals in total.

Our guide was leading us with a gigantic machete and making the path accessible in front of us. After two hours I found myself wondering is this really going to be worth it? It was hot and sweaty, my shoes and pants were covered in mud and my backpack with the camera gear really started to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t even know if my clothes were wet from the rain or the sweat. The path was rolling hills, following the topography of the mountains. Ascending was steep and many people fell down in the slippery mud. After 4 hours of tracking and the desperation filling our heads the guide finally raised his hand and told us to stop and be quiet.

Steady through the foliage.

We had finally found the gorilla family and it sure felt amazing! All the sudden we could see these black peaceful primates right in front of us and they didn’t seem to mind our presence at all. We took out our cameras and gently approached them.

Seeing these animals in their natural habitat was an experience that I will never forget. There were several female gorillas with small babies that made me feel very happy. Here they were living in their sanctuary, hopefully unaware of all the clearcuts around them.

The group of gorillas was constantly on the move and so were we, as we tried to stay as close to them as allowed. It wasn’t easy hence the dense forest and the low visibility due to the trees and shrubs growing thickly everywhere.

When following the animals we ultimately came across with the family leader, the silverback male. He had actually built a nest and was sitting on it. I had no idea that these animals build nests so it was really mind-opening to see that. The nest looked like a small podium and vegetation was cleared around it. The nest was made of different kind of branches and leaves and evidently seemed to be very good quality as it was holding a 200 kg gorilla in it.

At first I felt quite intimidated to be 3 meters away from this gigantic beautiful thing. As he was yawning I saw the massive canine teeth and realised that if he wouldn’t be satisfied with our presence we would have absolutely no odds in our favour in case he would charge.

After observing him for a while I found him very humane. It was raining and he placed his arms around himself like to avoid the water getting on him. He was picking his nose and licking his nails like there would be something to eat under them. Watching this gentle giant felt really peaceful and I find it hard to understand why some people want to kill these beautiful creatures. At one point Mishaya, the silverback, looked straight into my eyes and it almost felt like he was reading my mind. It’s hard to explain, but I felt a connection that you can experience with wild animals only when they let you do it on their own terms. It’s a pretty magical feeling and I’ll never want to forget that.

Our 1 hour time limit was running up faster than I had expected. I felt like I would have stayed there forever but sadly we had to start our exhausting journey back to the base. During the hike my mind was filled with thoughts about these animals and what kind of life were they living and if they were happy? Can they feel similar happiness to ours? They seemed satisfied with what they had – the forest and each others. Not taking anything unnecessary out of it and giving back what the forest needed. A perfect symbiosis. It made me think more critically about my life and the things that I have, or the things that I think I need. Hopefully this wasn’t my last encounter with these magnificent animals.