By: Kasem Hato
Reading Time: 9 mins 25 Secs
Meeting the mythical mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest on a gorilla trekking excursion is one of my life’s most exhilarating experiences that changed everything I knew about the great apes in Africa. Here is my detailed account of the whole experience.
Suddenly, a massive dark-furred body appeared directly in front of us, barely noticeable among a thick dark bush, perhaps ten feet away. The silverback paused, lifted his head, and looked peaceably in our direction as he inspected his guests. He unmistakably looked patriarchal, with facial features sharp and compact, his body alert like a warning for us to behave as expected while visiting. He seemed to pick me out of the pack, we locked eyes.
My heart raced, I crouched perfectly still, fighting the urge to scramble and leap behind the tree for protection. I didn’t know what the silverback would do next. I didn’t think he would harm me, but I couldn’t help but fear that he would. His strength is irrefutable, his beauty dazzling, his superiority to me apparent down to his every pristine hair. He could be on me in a flash. This was his world. He was as certain as the sky.
“Sssshit,” I whispered in the gentlest possible voice I could, as if by swearing, I could both defend myself against him and also draw him nearer. He raised his massive head but kept his penetrating stare, studying me for several seconds more before turning away without alarm to continue inspecting the other arrivals.
For a moment that seemed to last forever, we were stripped of our civilized rights and engulfed by the musty, cold, misty world of the silverback mountain gorilla; we lost track of everything else on the side of the densely wooded mountain.
It was as if the entire jungle and everything had faded. The only thing that mattered was the great ape’s calm demeanor to let us stay. Those clear and deep reddish brown eyes held us accountable, not only for our presence within his domain but also for our behavior, without uttering so much as a sound or making unnecessary movement.
Then, like a well-practiced security protocol, the silverback granted, there was a startling sound of breaking branches, and suddenly more black-furred bodies appeared. There were gorillas everywhere: in front of us, behind us, and on all sides. That early December morning was no different than any other in this sea of wooded jungle for the Nkuringo Gorilla Family.
I trekked Uganda’s mythical mountain gorillas with seven other tourists from different parts of the world. Patrick, a consultant from the United Kingdom, was a wanderer by nature, and seeing gorillas was just another step in his never-ending journey of discovery.
Jack and Amelia, a retired couple from Australia, were arid naturalists who spent their retirement on safari in other parts of Africa, South America, and Asia. Visiting mountain gorillas in the wild was one of the last great wilderness experiences they had hoped to accomplish. Their family was unsure they were up to the physical challenge of hiking through Africa’s high-altitude rainforest, but Jack and Amelia had no reservations.
Andrea was a young university student from Italy on holiday. Andrea had dreamed of seeing mountain gorillas in the wild as a little girl after reading Dian Fossey’s famous book, Gorillas in the Mist. She beamed with the excitement of walking in the footsteps of the wilderness legend.
Other members of our trekking party traveled from the United Kingdom, New York, and Qatar. Between us, we had a bag of excitement that would lead us deep into the impenetrable jungle to meet the largest primates in the world, the endangered mountain gorillas.
Escorting us were two armed rangers and four local porters carrying our packs, and we all followed an expert tracker guide armed with a double-edged machete and walkie-talkie.
I started my morning early in the southern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, at a small village on a ridge above the expansive and undulating rainforest. I stayed at the splurge-worthy Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, with postcard-perfect views above the gorilla jungle that give you a sense of sleeping right next to the mountain gorillas. That night was one of the longest nights in Africa, and there isn’t any other perfect place to stay for gorilla trekking than the cottage I dwelled in during my gorilla trip.
With my packed lunch in my light backpack, light hiking boots wrapping my feet, and a beautifully customized walking stick courtesy of Nkuringo Walking Safaris. I walked through the pale dawn, grudgingly exposing the surrounding landscape, a stack and seemingly boundless expanse of thick rolling hills covered in ranks of bare trees, to the visitor center about a quarter a mile away.
Patrick was staying at nearby Lake Mutanda Resort. He was up at 5:00 a.m. to pack his things and grab breakfast before catching a ride up the rough dirt road to the park headquarters in Nkuringo.
Jack and Amelia had it easier staying at the closest Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, a few meters from the park headquarters. They had time for a relaxed breakfast and a short walk to the park office.
Andrea, however, wasn’t worried about getting up early. Her excitement had kept her awake the entire night. Coming to Africa to see the mountain gorillas had been such a huge dream for her; she couldn’t believe she was actually here. She tried to explain it to the others at the visitor center in the patched-up English and Italian hand expressions. Watching her face light up was clear how much the gorilla trekking adventure meant to her.
When all the tourists were gathered in a small visitor hall at the park headquarters in Nkuringo, the warden launched the official ritual, which was simple and predictable. He then sent us out of the building onto the manicured lawn and watched the organizers move about and make arrangements.
Soon the parks guide divided us into three groups of eight tourists, assigned our group, the Nkuringo Gorilla Family, and loaded us into a Land Rover to drive us to the trailhead. Slowly, the vehicles bounced and bumped down a rough road with deep ruts carved from the heavy tropical rains of the previous month.
Children by the side of the road chased the truck and waved. They giggled and shouted, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” Then they faded in the driving winds blowing from the spectacular scenery curtained by the massive Virunga Volcanoes looming over everything.
Every thought, however, was interrupted by the constant bumps that tossed us from our seats. The guide’s last words echoed in the jarred conversations, “When we find the gorillas, you will have one hour to spend with them. One hour.”
There was a light downpour as we drove down to the valley river—none of the tourists reacted to the rain; maybe it was that “fruity like old brandy” mood-boosting air that lingered in the rural landscape.
The Rover eventually turned off the main road, down the valley path, and headed straight toward Kashasha River. The driver pulled into an open area near a tea plantation. The light rain suddenly turned into a heavy downpour, and the porters scattered to find shelter as the tourists sat in the Land Rover.
After waiting unsuccessfully for the rain to lighten up, the group decided to get started anyway. Everyone piled out of the vehicle and donned their rain gear. The porters emerged to help carry the group’s lunches, water, and backpacks. After a few minutes, everyone adapted to the rain. We walked about a mile through the tea fields before reaching the forest.
We arrived at the edge of the forest, and almost everyone had questions for the lead guide “Are they nearby?” “Have you heard anything?” “Do they know where the gorillas are?”
The guide gathered us and explained how we should behave when we were with the gorillas. “What do you mean if the silverback charges?” one of the tourists asked, hiding fear with a grin. The guides reassured everyone. They explained that it doesn’t happen often, and if we followed the instructions, we would be fine.
“It’s so thick in there, I can’t see anything,” Amelia said as she chatted to Jack. “Welcome to the jungle, baby!” Jack teased her. We had to walk single file like soldiers on a march through the seemingly impenetrable woods with no visible paths or directions. Somehow our guide and rangers knew precisely where we were going and cleared the way for us. We trekked through the rain, climbing an elevated terrain. The higher we climbed, the heavier our breathing became. Everyone’s thighs strained up the increasingly steep mountain.
Despite our varying physical abilities, we struggled forward together, helping each other along the way. Jack and Amelia were the oldest but regular walkers back home, and they often surprised us, determining our pace at the front of the pack.
Even with the nagging muscle ache and thick high-altitude hiking steep inclines, the enchantments of the woods could pass my notice. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest could really be heaven with its boundless vista of wooded mountains, unmarked by human hands marching off in every direction.
Occasionally, I stopped to take in the radiant productive newborn world alive with a zip of insects and a fussy twitter of birds—a world bursting with fresh, wholesome air. That Rich, velvety lung-filling smell of chlorophyll you get when you push through low branches. We walked through wildflowers, a dazzling profusion blossoming from every twig pushing violently through the fertile litter on the forest floor.
Cheerful nodding wonders almost beyond counting unwrapped as we meandered to an unknown bearing. I listened to meditational and peculiarly clear articulated noises under the forest, the fidgets of wind and leaves, and weary groans of peculiar forest animals. In a brief moment of African twilight, the forest seemed to be holding its breath, still and suspenseful, as we approached with its strange sounds and bustling beneath the mask of a misty dark jungle.
Despite the forest’s enchantments, the arduous trek was starting to wear us out. We had been walking strenuously for an hour or more in the pouring rain. Suddenly, like a showerhead, the rain stopped. A mist smocked across the forest canopy with an eerie feel of the mountain gorilla being close. The guide signaled for everyone to stop, and I could hear our hosts’ recognizable grunts about 50 meters from where we stood still.
Peace Nuwamanya, our female lead guide, asked us to drop our backpacks, grab our cameras, and crouch quietly to where the gorillas were. “Slowly, we have one hour; come with me,” she whispered. “Make sure your camera flash is off, and don’t make sudden noises. Follow me,” Peace signaled to the trekking pack to follow her lead and keep it quiet. Patrick glanced at his macho wristwatch and set the one-hour timer.
I lagged quietly, following Peace’s lead and looking out for the undergrowth to avoid unexpected movement that could startle the mountain gorillas and prematurely end our invite. I occasionally glanced up in the trees and all around, lingering for that first sighting. Patrick glanced at his watch again, like time was sneaking away before he had spotted the forest giants.
I spotted a few human footprints and broken bushes as we wriggled to where we expected the mythical beasts. There they were; the rangers we’d trekked hours to meet. The lead ranger, David, was square-jaw handsome but with a perma-frown and a facial scar that made him look terrifying. Once a poacher, he now uses his tracking talents to protect mountain gorillas.
A team of rangers trek into the misty jungle at dawn and stick with the gorilla group till dusk when the gorillas build nests for the night. Apart from protecting the endangered great apes, they also help navigate tourists to the exact bearing where to locate the gorillas, which explains why Peace talked into the walkie-talkie the whole time and knew exactly the direction we took.
As we approached, David casually shaved dirt from his willies with a machete. The other hand steadied a battered AK47, its wooden butt cratched and battered from a thousand forest expeditions. When I tried to capture his portrait, he quickly shied away, and I waved to say sorry. Ignoring my response, he whispered the good news to our guide, Peace, and pointed to where the gorillas were.
The Nkuringo family is one of 21 habituated (made used to humans visiting them for a short time) groups in Uganda where more than half of the 1000 plus last mountain gorillas survive. The gorilla group lost a silverback (Rafiki) to hunters during the 2020 pandemic lockdown when most rangers were off duty.
Despite the tragic loss of Rafiki, the Nkuringo Gorilla Family has increased in numbers like many other gorilla groups monitored by the conservation groups on the tri-frontier borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC. As informed by Peace, the group had 14 members, with two silverbacks, Rwamutwe (translated as big ego), the boss and Tabu (translated as trouble), several females, and four babies.
Gorilla Conservation powered by gorilla trekking tours is the most successful wildlife conservation program since 1967, when anthropologists arrived in East Africa to explore unanswered questions in human evolution. Thanks to influential conservationists like Dian Fossey, George Schaller, and David Attenborough, and gorilla safari companies like Nkuringo Safaris, who organized my trip.
“Don’t get too close; stay at least 10 meters away from them,” whispered Peace as she tapped Amelia and looked at everyone to ensure all understand the rule.
About 12 feet in front of me, two dark eyes from a young mountain gorilla stared out from an opening in the bush, watching the two-legged apes slowly creep into their untamed world.
The dazzling profusion of decaying, earthy, fetid, floral, fruity, leafy, moist greens masked by the pungent sweat odor from host and visitor apes smoked the air like the clouding mist. We were in a live scene from the movie “Gorillas in The Mist” featuring Sigourney Weaver.
Although I occasionally checked on other group members, I couldn’t get my eyes off the giant silverback, Rwamutwe, as he had chosen me as his favorite with frequent long wondering stares in my direction that sent shockwaves down my spine. In a still moment of African twilight, the woods seemed to be holding their breath, still and suspenseful, as we curiously shared the same space with the free-ranging gorillas bustling beneath a mask of mist forest sounds.
The long flights, the arduous trekking up the mountainside, the unexpected downpour, the nasty mud, the cloudy mist, and the cold—none of that mattered at that moment. Yet, soon some of us hoped for more.
Jack and Amelia listened intentively to Peace’s narrations on the gorilla social structures and life in the wilderness. A ranger moved Andrea out of Silverback Tabu’s path as he tried to reach a green branch close to her. Patrick’s eye briefly strayed from the camera eye only to check the time; he was so engrossed in getting the perfect shots for his art gallery. Two other tourists squatted a few feet from a blackback (a young male) as he grasped large amounts of vegetation and meticulously folded it into a wad to stuff in his mouth. Two babies played and wrestled, flashed grins, and tumbled about like little boys in a sandpit.
With a few minutes left, Peace gathered us for the big reveal. We sneaked around a large clump of stinging nettles, and there she was—a confounding wonder of mother and child taking a nap on a carefully flattened bed of soft leaves.
Watching Kiiza (one born after twins) hold her baby close reflectively and protectively, like my own mother, sent a load of emotions up my spine, electrifying my entire body with uninvited emotions.
“Sorry, time is up.” Peace whispered and signaled for all tourists to go where we had left our porters and bags. We slowly backed away from Mother Kiza and her infant, picked up our bags, and silently walked down the mountain until the guards signaled that we could stop for a snack break just outside the jungle. It was about an hour past midday, but it seemed like we had spent a lifetime under the mysterious dark forest.
We ate our lunch at a small clearing. At first, there was not much conversation. Everyone’s face looked simulated in a way I can not describe. We started making eye contact and asking the most basic questions minutes later into the short break. Some, like Andrea, were simply at a loss for words to describe the experience. The quiet ones savored the experience internally; a sentiment made clear by the huge smiles on their faces that would not go away.
Gradually, conversations grew. The questions flowed: Did you notice how much they are like us? Do they eat all day? With the increasing populations around the gorilla park, will the forest still be here in twenty years?
We cannot separate the fate of mountain gorillas from those of the people living near them. The story of gorillas and people is one and the same—it is about coexistence. My journey into the impenetrable forest to see the mountain gorillas was a journey into a complex world.
I knew many parts of the story before I began, but in writing the story for you, I have been affected by how I relate to the existence of the great apes. Mountain gorillas exist at the edge of survival. They may or may not make it through this century, but if they do, it will mean that gorillas and people have found a way to coexist as they share this tiny space in East Africa.