FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.
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Come Face-to-Face with Mountain Gorillas on a Trek in Uganda

by Kristy Alpert

Feb 22, 2024

© HEL080808
| DREAMSTIME

Africa / Uganda

Not a word was spoken as I settled into a cozy spot on the outdoor terrace just outside the main lodge at Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge in Uganda. The air was so still the ice in my single malt seemed to echo off the forest in the distance as it clanked against the glass. I sat among a handful of fellow adventurers, each sitting silently beneath the night sky for one collective goal. Moments earlier, we learned a troop of mountain gorillas had made their way down the mountain near our lodge, and we left our meals to instead sit in eager anticipation of hearing the guttural grunts of the primates below. The chills on my arms never left me that night, even as I made my way up a stone pathway to my personal banda (guestroom). Thankfully, sleep came quickly for me that night as I drifted into dreams of what my next day would bring.

© ANDREW DOYLE
| DREAMSTIME

Like many people who venture to this remote southwestern village, I was in Bwindi with the goal of peacefully seeing the elusive mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. I had long dreamed of what it might feel like to sit eye-to-eye with one of the most beautiful and intelligent animals on the planet, and my moment had finally come to trek through Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest in hopes of making my dream a reality. I joined a small group of seven other hikers early that morning as we strapped on ankle gaiters and verified we each held an authentic gorilla trekking permit (purchased for $700 prior to travel from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, or through a reputable tour operator). The permits are intended to help protect the mountain gorillas and fund gorilla conservation efforts, and they allow a small number of visitors to spend one hour in the company of one family of mountain gorillas.

Permits in hand, we entered the impenetrable forest, unsure whether our journey to find our family of mountain gorillas would take us 30 minutes or seven hours. My guide actively encouraged me to hire a local porter to help me on my hike; and despite my insistence I could do it alone, hearing the $20 fee would create employment opportunities for locals, I gladly welcomed Danny to join me on my trek. He handed me a pair of trekking poles, which I also insisted I wouldn’t need, and we made small talk while sludging through a muddy trail at the base of the forest. It was exactly 30 minutes into the hike when I realized Danny was right about the poles, and my guide was right about Danny. He steered me away from a nest of giant biting safari ants, and literally heaved my body up steep rocks and helped me safely navigate as we crossed over dense brush I later learned were treetops.

The excitement grew as we neared a clearing where we believed the gorillas would be, and that same sense of quiet I had experienced the night before was upon me again as the crunch of fallen leaves serenaded the last hour of the hike. It was Danny who helped me spot the first gorilla in a thick bed of vines, the silverback’s kind amber eyes peeking out through the fronds of a fern. I stayed with him for five minutes before he disappeared deeper into the forest. My heart pounded with excitement after our brief encounter as I trudged deeper through the forest.

© KRISTY ALPERT

I continued on until we came across a young mother with two juvenile gorillas, playing and munching in a clearing. I sat down in an open area to watch the young gorillas teasing and tussling each other, and I was so entranced in their game I didn’t notice another member of their family sneaking up to sit right next to me. I was no more than 4 feet from this gorgeous creature, who seemed to mimic how I sat. My heart pounded out of my chest until I caught sight of his face, and we locked eyes. A sense of calm washed over me as I gazed into his iridescent amber eyes. We stared at each other, both unsure what the other would do and yet both curious about the other. After a few minutes together, he exhaled deeply through his nostrils and walked back to his family, which was when I finally looked up at our group to see them all gawking with jaws dropped.

The moment is one I think about often, and my own jaw now drops as I look back on those pictures my fellow hikers took and relive the incredible memory of trekking through such a mysteriously beautiful forest. Spending time with that family of gorillas was one of the best hours of my life, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be among the few who can describe the air, the smells and the beauty of Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest.

INFO TO GO
Getting to Bwindi proves no easy feat. I came by car, driving roughly three hours from Queen Elizabeth National Park, where I had spent a few days photographing the tree-climbing lions. The easier route is to fly into Entebbe International Airport and then take a domestic flight or book a charter flight to either Kihihi Airport (north of Bwindi) or Kisora Airport (south of Bwindi). Many tour operators will pick you up from the airport to transport you to your hotel and outfit you with what is necessary for your impending trek.

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