“The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people.” These words were spoken by Dian Fossey, the American primatologist who lived—and died beside gorillas—so there should be a grain of truth in that statement. There’s no denying that gorillas have dignity. You can see it in their firm, majestic stroll; in their imposing, soulful gaze; and in their, unhurried, kingly bearing. Watching gorillas chest-thumping on Nat Geo and frightening animals with their intimidating posture is a fascinating spectacle. Yet nothing compares to the feeling of seeing the gentle giants eye-ball to eye-ball from a hair-raising close range. If you’re planning this once-in-a-lifetime experience, Bwindi Forest, named by CNN as the most beautiful place on earth, should be your unquestionable destination.
Set deep in the” Pearl of Africa,” as Uganda was referred to by Winston Churchill, Bwindi Forest is home to more than half of all the mountain gorillas on the planet. Uganda itself is the dream of travelers, dotted all around with many fascinating things to see and do, and a climate to die for. Bwindi is usually a show-stopper. That’s the reason you better start planning for your next trip to Uganda.
Bwindi Forest: The Tangled Haven of Mountain Gorillas
In the local Rukiga language, spoken by 1.3 million Ugandans, “Bwindi” means Impenetrable. That’s the reason the name Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is an unnecessary repetition. However, in the case of this forest, the name is a needful repetition. And to answer Shakespear, there’s something in a name—especially in the double name of this forest. In Bwindi, 128 square miles of lofty trees are densely interspersed with thick, virtually impenetrable foliage. This intertwined labyrinth sits on a rolling, uneven landscape, punctuated by hills and valleys, and gloomily shaded by outspread canopies that almost touch the clouds for height. The terrain of this forest is difficult with stretches that are steep, deep, and slippery.
Bwindi Forest is home to over 220 tree species which is more than half of the total number of tree species in the whole country. This includes the ebony tree species, one of the most expensive woods on the planet, and the quintessential image of the African’s deep-toned beauty. Also called “The place of darkness,” Bwindi is frighteningly dark, especially at night. About two-thirds of Bwindi has an elevation of over 6,000 feet above sea level. For bird watchers, Bwindi offers a colorful feast featuring over 340 species of beautiful birds of which at least 311 are found nowhere else on the planet.
- Bwindi Forest Location: Bwindi is located in south-western Uganda in Kanungu District on the edge of Uganda’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
- Direction: The forest is 500kms (approx. 311 miles) from the capital, Kampala.
Gorilla Trekking In Bwindi Forest
If you want to see mountain gorillas, you really don’t have many options. You’ll have to make the trip to Bwindi. All mountain gorillas on the planet live either in Bwindi or in the expansive Virunga mountain range that spans the three countries of Rwanda, DRC, and Uganda. Of these two destinations, however, Bwindi has the largest number of mountain gorillas, is more accessible, and has more affordable gorilla trekking packages. While Bwindi is open all year and travelers can see gorillas at any time of the year, the dry months of June to August are usually perfect. There are several tour companies you can work with so you’ll want to compare their prices, online reviews, and number of gorilla trekking permits. For accommodation, there are also several hotels and lodges, in serene environments surrounded by breathtaking vistas that charge as little as $50 a night—for bed and breakfast.
The mountain gorillas in Bwindi are habituated. That means they’ve been gently introduced to the presence of human beings as part of their forest community. Therefore you should not fear that they’ll view you as dangerous intruders and break all your bones with one power-packed punch. Instead, brace yourself for a warm welcome. If you’re lucky, even a hug. Just blink first—and lower your head—if you find yourself in extended eye contact.
At Bwindi, there are four sectors; essentially demarcated trekking areas. Rushaga, the most famous and best, is located on the southern borders, a 3-hour drive from Kigali—its best access point. Of the four, Rushaga has the highest number of mountain gorillas. Also, only Rushaga offers a thrilling, close-up gorilla habituation experience, one of the most surreal animal encounters you’ll ever have—at a tidy sum of $1,500— for up to four hours. For stunning, panoramic scenes, with amazing hilly cascades at every turn of the eye, no sector holds a candle to Rushaga. Still, the Buhoma sector in the north will be gentler on your calf muscles as the terrain is gentler and gentle giants are easier to spot.
There’s also the Nkuringo sector, a tough, hilly section beside Rushaga but which offers the chance to interact with the Batwa people, the native pygmies who used to live in this dense jungle. Then there’s the Ruhija sector on the east, a cold, majestic quietness of sliding ridge after sliding ridge where nature’s gloom is gloriously beautiful. Ruhija has few gorilla families (only three), but not a few attractions. It’s is a bird-watching paradise. Lake Bunyonyi, one of the safest in Africa (no crocodiles or hippos) is at the heart of Ruhija. In the local language, Ruhija means a “Place of many little birds.” True to that, the lake is home to some unique 200 species of birds. Also, within Ruhija is Rwamunyonyi peak, the highest point in the whole forest, known for its freezing coldness. Natives call it the “hill of many birds.”
Gorilla trekking at any of these sectors is usually a game of chance. You can spot a gorilla family after only 20 minutes of setting out. You can also take 6 hours. Nature is sometimes unpredictable. Once you meet them, you’ll have one hour with them—to observe them and take pictures. Make no mistake, that hour will look like a minute. A trekking permit goes for $700. The experience, however, makes that figure look damn cheap.
Gorillas are powerful. Their bite is twice as powerful as that of a lion and is the most powerful of all primates. You have the chance to witness this incredible power and poise at the Bwindi (Impenetrable) Forest.