Tracking Gorillas

December 8-9, 2008

Sticker Shock

When Pnina and I planned our year-long trip, we tried to choose countries that we thought would be fairly inexpensive. From past experience we know that you can go pretty far on $20 a day in places like India and Thailand, and we kind of expected to find the same throughout Africa.  It turns out we were wrong. While some travel expenses are not too bad (accomodation, food, transit), the prices we’ve encountered for all the attractions really caught us by surprise. After a few weeks we were starting to get used to the idea that we need to pay $50-$100 (or sometimes more) per person per day to visit the big national parks. But nothing prepared us for just how expensive it is to exprience one of the highlights of central/east Africa: tracking mountain gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda costs $500 per person for the one day visit (the price would be the same in Congo but at the moment a civil war is preventing tourists from visiting gorillas there).

We didn’t know much about the gorillas before we started the trip. We didn’t even know it was a thing to do. But the more we traveled, the more we met other tourists who previously saw the gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda and all of them raved about the experience. The consensus was that yes it’s outrageously expensive, but you just have to bite your lip and do it because it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things.

So, slowly, we started to get convinced that we should also see the gorillas. The rational was that if we skipped it now and sometime later in life decided that we really want to see the gorillas then we would need to pay for the flight again, and in all likelihood the price for the gorilla permits will only go up.  There’s even a chance that mountain gorillas will go extinct.

At first we thought about seeing the gorillas in Rwanda, the place where Dian Fossey did the majority of the research that lead to her Gorillas in the Mist book. The couple we met at Lake Nkuruba (Mike and Sarah) saw gorillas there, and they said that besides seeing the gorillas they also got a nice long trek through the jungle “for free”. But when we started working out the logistics it turned out that it would be a pain – the Rwandan wildlife authorities required us to first visit Kigali in order to get the permit, only to then U-turn and head back north to the Volcanes National Park. A better alternative for us (based purely on our location) was to get the permit in Kampala and head over to Bwindi National Park instead, so that’s what we did.

To pay for the gorilla permits we visited the big Stanbic bank in Kampala. We pulled out as much money as our collective ATM cards would allow, and hi-tailed over to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) office to hand over the money. I don’t think I ever held so many bills in my life.

Shahaf holding $1000 in Ugandan Shillings - the price of 2 tickets to see the gorillas at Bwindi

Shahaf holding $1000 in Ugandan Shillings - the price of 2 tickets to see the gorillas at Bwindi

If you happen to be sick on the day you’re scheduled to visit the gorillas then you’re kind of screwed.  The guide will remove you from the group and you’ll have to travel back to Kampala for a 50% refund.  I understand the motivation for keeping sick humans away from the gorillas: since our genetic make-up is so similar, it’s easier for human diseases to transfer to gorillas.  But I don’t agree with the 50% refund policy.  The prospect of losing $250 may encourage visitors to hide their sickness, which is definitely not something the park should encourage.  On the days before our gorilla trek Pnina and I loaded up on vitamin C and got paranoid about every little potential itchy throat we thought we had.  Luckily we stayed healthy.

With the permits in hand, we started heading west. We had a couple days to burn before our appointment with the gorillas. We spent them in Kabale (see previous post).

Gorillas in the Mist

We picked up Dian Fossey’s book, Gorillas in the Mist, while in Nairobi. Back then we weren’t sure we would actually visit the gorillas, but we figured we should pick it up just in case. We wrote a brief blurb about it on our reading list page, but I figured I’d go into a little more detail as a backgrounder for anyone who (like me before I read the book) doesn’t know much about Fossey or the gorillas. By the way, I should mention that while Pnina did manage to finish the book before we met the gorillas, I didn’t quite make it. This is me cramming the night before:

Shahaf struggling to finish reading Gorillas in the Mist the night before our appointment with the gorillas.

Shahaf struggling to finish reading Gorillas in the Mist the night before our appointment with the gorillas.

There are three kinds of gorillas in the world. The rarest kind is mountain gorillas. Today there are about 700 left in the world, and luckily the number is increasing. These mountain gorillas reside in just two places: 1. Bwindi National Park, which is fully contained in Uganda, and 2. the Virunga Mountains, which are located at the intersection of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda (each country has a different name for its slice of the park).  Bwindi has about half the gorillas.

Fossey spent 13 years establishing a gorilla research center starting in 1966. Her project was partly inspired by the success of Jane Gudall’s research on Chimpanzees in Tanzania, which was already going for 3 years when Fosey got starated. Fossey started in the DRC, a country that was called Zaire at the time, though prior to that it was called DRC (those flip-floppers!).  But after just a few months a civil war in the DRC forced her to abandon her first site and relocate to Rwanda. Her second camp, which is still running today, is located between two of the Virunga mountains, Mount Visoke and Mount Karisimbi, hence the name of the camp – Karisoke.

Fossey’s goal was to spend as much time as she can observing gorillas in the wild to learn abot their behavior. But she was forced to spend quite a lot of time trying to protect the gorillas from various forces: a few poachers who were looking to trap gorillas, a lot of poachers who set up traps for other animals but often hurt or killed gorillas inadvertently, local cattle herders who kept encroaching on the national park, and so on.

Gorillas generally live in groups that vary from around 5-20, give or take. There is always one leader, an elder male. When male gorillas mature they start to get white/gray hairs on their backs and other parts of their bodies, which is why they are called “silverbacks”. The leader of the group is a silverback, and there’s sometimes a second non-dominant silverback. The leader has the benefit of mating with all the mature females, and the responsibility of protecting the whole group. He decides where the group will migrate at different parts of the year for food.

Other interesting things about gorillas…

Gorillas build nests! Kind of weird. I think they do this largely to keep warm at night, but also for comfort. They build a new nest every night, and often they also build day-nests for naps.

Fossey and the other researchers generally identify gorillas by their nose-print — each gorillas has a unique nose. The rest of the body is all hair so it’s not as useful for telling one gorilla from another.

Gorillas eat their own shit, and sometimes each other’s shits!  If I recall correctly, they do this because deep down in their digestive tracks they generate some useful nutrients that aren’t easily found in nature.

Infantacide – male gorillas from one group will often kill the babies of another group in order to then acquire their mother as another mating partner.

There are two kinds of mountain gorillas – the “habituated” kind and the wild kind. The habituated gorillas are the ones that have gotten used to human presence enough to tolerate visits from tourists like us. At Bwindi there are four habituated groups. Each group can be visited by up to 8 tourists each day. That means that up to 40 tourists can meet gorillas at Bwindi every day. That’s probably one reason why it’s expensive (though we still don’t understand why it’s so expensive).

Three of the habituated groups are located in the northwest of the park, next to a village called Buhoma. The fourth group is located in the southwest of the park next to a village called Nkuringo. When we signed up for gorilla tracking, the most convenient opening was with the Nkuringo group, so we took it. The lady at the UWA office said that seeing these gorillas will likely require a more stranuous hike, and that sounded just fine to us! 🙂

Heading to Nkuringo

Going from Kabale to Nkuringo was a two-step process. First we grabbed a shared taxi to a midway point, the town of Kisoro. Our taxi was a small sedan, but that didn’t keep the driver from cramming 7 adults and two children. One passenger shared the driver’s seat with the driver! That’s a new one. Also, Pnina sat on my lap the whole way, which was OK except that I really had to pee!!

Along the way we saw a passenger bus flipped over in one of the tight turns:

Bus flipped over on the windy roads on the way to Nkuringo.

Bus flipped over on the windy roads on the way to Nkuringo.

From what we heard, this bus driver had just finished a night-drive from Kampala to Kisoro, then immediately turned around to go back with a new set of passengers. He was probably tired and anxious to get there, so he drove too fast. When he reached this turn, he realized that he would head down the mountain-side if he didn’t turn the steering wheel hard. So he did, and the bus flipped over. Luckily nobody died, but several people were injured. We picked up one of these stranded passengers, so that brought our total to 8 adults and 2 children, still in our tiny sedan.

From Kisoro we hired a private taxi to take us the remaining 2 hours to the Nkuringo – there was no shared ride available.

Though the drive was a bit rough, it included some of the most beautiful views we’d seen so far on the trip. This whole area in south-west Uganda is green hills and terraces as far as the eye can see.  It’s hard to stop taking photos.  We later discovered that this terrain also spans most of Rwanda.

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Nkuringo has one budget accomodation – the Nkuringo Camp. It’s a nice place – a few bandas (bungalos), and a chain of rooms. It’s located on top of a hill, a short walk from the park.

Meghan and Hope

At the camp we met two American gals: Meghan and Hope. It turns out that they were scheduled to see the gorillas with us the next day.

Shahaf, Pnina, Hope, Meghan - getting ready to see the gorillas

Shahaf, Pnina, Hope, Meghan - getting ready to see the gorillas

Both are Peace Corps volunteers, so it was interesting to get another angle on how (and whether) the peace corps works. For example, Hope works at an orphanage. Her goal was to help augment the sources of revenue for the orphanage, so the children would have better food, more school supplies, etc. She worked with a nun to set up a small chicken farm, worked with others to plant trees in the field around the orphanage, and so on. Not long after she arrived she learned (with no advance notice) that the little financial aid that the orphanage was getting from charity was going to be cut off, so all of a sudden she was struggling to figure out how they were going to buy food for the children. Because of the emergency, she gathered money from her close family and friends in America, enough to help the orphanage get by while they figured out other sources of revenue. By doing this, she said she kind of violated the spirit of Peace Corps. The Peace Corps specifically do not give their volunteers any funds to carry out projects. As a volunteer you go to a village, talk to the locals to figure out what should be done, and then work with them to figure out how to make it happen (including where the money comes from). The villagers are often surprised to find that these volunteer Mzungus don’t come with big wads of cash.

Hope and Meghan attended some NGO gatherings in Kampala, and they said that they now have a very negative view of how funds are spent by giant charity organizations.  These NGO’s talk about literally billions of dollars donated to Uganda, but it’s not clear where all the money goes (likely, most of it ends up in the pockets of various members of parliament). They also said that the Ugandan Peace Corps volunteers who took a position on education work are some of the most frustrated volunteers. Apparently the Ugandan government decreed that volunteers cannot directly teach classes but rather must spend their time helping Ugandan teachers improve. So, OK, these volunteers gladly set up all kinds of seminars on teaching techniques, but no Ugandan teachers show up! So they feel stuck (for two years!), not able to make a difference. That must suck.

Top of the World & Clouds

Our first day there, one of the guides at the camp, Bosco, took us on a short hike up to the Top of the World – a nearby hill. If this sounds familiar, it’s because when we visited Lake Nkuruba there was another Top of the World hill there. I guess it’s a popular concept. Like at Nkuringo this was simply a big hill with views of the surrounding area. Instead of a radio antena, this hill had a soccer field at the top. If it was a clear day, we would see parts of DRC clearly, but this day was a bit hazy. Still, this area around Nkuringo (like most of southwest Uganda) is just gorgeous.

Bosco & Pnina heading up the hill to the "Top of the World"

Bosco & Pnina heading up the hill to the "Top of the World". Bosco loves this hike because he gets the best cellphone reception here.

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Beautiful hills forever...

Beautiful hills forever...

On the way back from the hill Pnina and I headed over to check out a fancy $450/night hotel called Clouds that had just opened a few months prior. On this day they didn’t have a single guest, but they still had a big staff who were all eager to chat with us. We spotted a bawo game on the table, so we started a game with one of the guys from the staff. The board and the rules were a little different from the flavor of the game we learned in Malawi, and the name is different too: Ugandans call it “omweso”. But it was easy enough to pick up. In bawo it’s interesting how the game can really change in just a single move – one minute you’re clearly in the lead, the next minute you’re nearly dead. The game went back and forth for a while, and eventually I lost.

Shahaf playing bawo with the staff at Clouds Hotel

Shahaf playing bawo with the staff at Clouds Hotel

The view from Clouds Hotel

The view from Clouds Hotel

$450/night gets you this comfort way out in the sticks of Uganda (we didn't splurge)

$450/night gets you this comfort way out in the sticks of Uganda (we didn't splurge)

Meeting the Gorillas

The next morning it was time to finally meet the gorillas. We woke up at 7 and headed over to the wildlife office with Meghan and Hope. At this point it still wasn’t clear if we would have other tourists with us. We simply waited about a half hour, and when no other tourists showed up, that was that – it was just the four of us (yay!).

Calling our activity gorilla “tracking” is not quite right.  The park has rangers whose job is to relocate the habituated gorilla group each morning.  To do this they start at the place where the gorillas were last seen the day before, and then they follow the trail of footprints, day-nests, dung, and other signs.  When they locate the gorillas, they radio to the guide and tell him exactly where to go.  In other words, the park rangers do the real tracking and we just go straight to the gorillas to observe them.

When we arrived at Nkuringo we heard that in the last few days our gorilla group had been wandering very close to the edge of the park, to the point where the previous day’s group was done visiting the gorillas by 11 AM. Oh no!  That put a wrench in the plan Pnina and I had to get both a gorilla visit and a nice trek in the same shot.  The night before our visit we prayed for the gorillas to go away deeper into the forest.  Unfortunately they did the reverse – they came even closer to the park border. It only took us about an hour to reach the gorillas, and most of that time was spent outside the park. Nuts.

Actually, the park doesn’t have a “boundary” in the standard sense. There’s no fence or anything like that. But there’s clearly a point where villages stop and and forest starts. For example:

There is no fence to mark the edge of the park; there's just a point where trees stop and farms start.

There is no fence to mark the edge of the park; there's just a point where trees stop and farms start.

In the past the local villagers encroached illegaly over the park boundary, cutting down forest to clear the land for farming. Eventually the government forced them to clear back, and allowed the forest to regrow. So, there’s a band of “secondary” forest all around the perimeter of the park, surrounding the “primary” (virgin) forest. The virgin forest is special in that it survived some ice ages that claimed other forests in the world, so the vegetation here is uniquely old. The gorillas we met were so close to the edge of the park that we never did enter the primary forest.  Still, the secondary forest was plenty “thick”. The word “bwindi” means “impenetrable” in some local language (not sure which), so when they call the park “Bwindi Impenetrable National Park”, they are calling it “impenetrable impenetrable”, which from our perspective is very appropriate. You would definitely need a serious machete to make your way through this forest. Luckily, when the gorillas go through the forest they carve out tracks that are fairly easy for us humans to tread. It’s pretty amusing – the gorillas literally barrel-roll down the steep hill, taking down all vegetation in their way.

Unlike chimps, gorillas are very peaceful (especially habituated gorillas, I guess). The gorillas we saw were spread over an area maybe 30 meters diameter, and they had no issue with us entering their circle. Park rules state that visitors must keep at least 5 meters from the gorillas; this means that we can’t try to get closer, but if the gorillas choose to get closer to us, that’s OK. We heard from other travelers about some crazy experiences during their gorilla encounters, e.g. having the siilverback bluff-charge them, or having a curious young gorilla head over to tap their shoulders or grap their shins. We had no such luck. The gorillas didn’t approach us too much. On the other hand, we did see a pair of newborn twins (very rare).  Also, a few of the young gorillas put up a show for us, beating their chests, climbing branches and bouncing around. Meanwhile most of the gorillas just focused on eating leaves and branches or grooming each other. It was amazing how many flies collected around every gorilla.

Anyhow, on with the photos…

Walking down the steep hill, through the last few farms, and into the park.

Walking down the steep hill, through the last few farms, and into the park.

It was still pretty steep when we reached the gorillas.  We mostly stuck to the paths created by gorillas rolling downhill.

It was still pretty steep when we reached the gorillas. We mostly stuck to the paths created by gorillas rolling downhill.

Pnina is excited when we reach the gorillas

Pnina is excited when we reach the gorillas

Most of the gorillas were downhill from us.  This meant that we mostly saw backs and we looked for those moments when they faced us.

Most of the gorillas were downhill from us. This meant that we mostly saw backs and we looked for those moments when they faced us.

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One of the silverbacks in the group

One of the silverbacks in the group

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Another park rule is that visitors cannot stay by the gorillas longer than 1 hour. It’s amazing how fast this hour blows by. Before we knew it, it was time to hike back up.

So is it worth the money??

Hmm, tough question. It was definitely a great experience, but $500 is just so much money. By comparison, I think we enjoyed our time at Chimfunshi just as much, and it was less than $500 and lasted well over an hour. I guess we would say that if you have the money to burn, go ahead and do it, but otherwise it’s skippable.  If you choose to skip the gorillas, you should still head to this area around Bwindi.  The vistas here are just amazing.

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3 responses to “Tracking Gorillas

  1. Yay for dates! And yay for gorillas! Always amazing pics.

  2. i am so jealous of you guys. dian fossey is one of my idols (yeah, i know she was crazy) and i have always wanted to see her gorillas…your photos gave me goosebumps. thanks so much for sharing!!!

  3. Pingback: Entering Tanzania / Arusha « Honeysun

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