Bwindi Impenetrable National Park covers an area of 321 sq km all of which is forested with areas having bamboo and shrubs. The forest lies on steep slippery valleys with ridges and hilltops. The weather in Bwindi is ever chilly because of the immerse canopy, you are advised to carry some warm clothing for evenings and long sleeved shirts/trousers for trekking. For the ultimate experience to anyone who chooses to trek the mountain gorillas or search for birds, butterflies or shrubs, you need to be in good physical condition to go up and down the terrain. It lies at an altitude between 1,160m-2,607m above sea level.
Bwindi Impenetrable forest is divided in different trailheads for those who want to track gorillas. The gorillas habituated for tourism are in different families based at different trailheads. When you choose to visit Bwindi, be sure to know which trailhead you have been allocated before yFou rush to book your hotel. After knowing your allocated trailhead then you can book the hotel in that location. Currently 21 gorilla families have been habituated for tourism and only 8 individuals from 15 years of age are permitted to visit a gorilla family per day. It is important to book your gorilla safari way in advance to avoid disappointment. The trail heads include; Ruhija, Buhoma, Rushanga, Nkuringo and Nyondo.
In addition to gorillas, Bwindi is a prime birding spot which was named Africa’s number one birding spot by Africa Bird Club. It is home to over 350 species of birds which include 23 Albertine Rift endemics and 14 of which are recorded nowhere else in Uganda. The species include; African Green broadbill, Handsome Francolin, Mountain-masked and Collared Apalis, Black billed Turaco, Purple-breasted, Blue-headed and Regal Sunbirds etc. The parks is home to 120 mammals’ species but are rarely seen as they hide in the thickets, they include; Elephants, duikers, buffaloes, golden cats etc. It has 11 primate species which include; black-and-white monkeys, L’Hoest’s monkeys, De Brazza monkey, Baboons, Chimpanzee and of course the gentle giants of Bwindi: the Mountain Gorillas. It is home to over 200 butterfly species and 400 species of trees.
Access to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: There are scheduled/ charter flights from Entebbe International Airport. Otherwise, you can drive from Kampala and the route depends on the trailhead you are visiting, Kampala – Kabale – Ruhija, Kampala – Kabale – Rubuguri/Nkuringo, Kampala – Ntungamo – Rukugiri – Kihihi – Buhoma/Nyondo. You can also fly-in with the scheduled flights from Entebbe to Kihihi.
The activities to do while you visit this park include; Gorilla tracking, Bird watching, Nature and waterfalls walks, Mountain Hiking, Mountain biking, Community walks and Cultural experiences.
The Mountain Gorilla Tracking is definitely one of the activities which should not be missed out, when visiting East Africa:Uganda and Rwanda. But even if you are excited now, please keep in mind, the mountain gorillas cannot be visited without a permit for each tourist, because there are only a few of these ‘brothers’ left, they are highly protected and cared for, lest any act of sheer negligence should wipe out even the few remnants. So make sure to book the permits with us in advance due to the high demand. Gorilla tracking can be done throughout the year, though we have observed that the peak seasons are June-September, and December-February when there is relatively less rainfall in the forest. The Gorilla’s home is an extremely rugged network of steep hills and deep valleys, with dodgy, slippery inclines. It is therefore no easy job trekking the hills in the wet season though, thanks to the proficient guides and strong porters in the park, it has been made possible to visit the gorilla any time of the year.
What exactly are the mountain gorillas?
Gorillas are ground-dwelling and herbivorous apes that inhabit the forests of central Sub-saharan Africa. Gorilla is a genus and is divided into two species that include the eastern and western gorillas. It is als estimated that there are either four or five subspecies. Gorillas are the largest primates whose DNA is similar to that of humans, with a range of between 95 to 99% basing on what is considered, and they are the next closest relatives to human beings after the chimps and bonobos. Gorillas’ natural habitats cover forest and have a wide range of elevations. The mountain gorilla inhabits the virunga landscape within the albertine rift, ranging in altitude from 2,200 to 4,300 metres. Lowland gorillas live in dense forests and lowland swamps. The mountain gorilla is an ape of unmatchable magnificence, and soon enough, just like it is with the less popular attractions in Bwindi, the rest of Uganda’s wildlife attractions will be merely basking in the gorilla’s reflected glory. You are probably wondering why the Gorilla is so popular. Scientists observe that the Gorilla is the closest relative of the human race, possessing 99% human DNA. But this alone could not be sufficient to win the Gorilla the fame it presently enjoys. The actual source of the Gorilla’s popularity is a combination of its closeness with human kind, and its endangered status as explained above. In the 1980s, the known population of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) in the Virunga Mountains had dwindled to just 240 individuals, as lost habitat, hunting, disease and other threats had exacted a costly toll. By late 2018, though, more than three decades of “extreme conservation” involving the day-to-day protection of gorilla families appeared to be having an impact: A 2016 survey of the gorillas living in the Virungas revealed an increase to 604 animals. As of 2017, the total population of mountain gorillas had been estimated at 700 individuals, which made their status citically endangered according to IUCN. (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Currently, according to the 2018 census of the Bwindi-Sarambwe population, which straddles the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the mountain gorillas are now standing at an estimated 1063 individuals, which has elevated their status to endangered. Particularly in Uganda, the mountain gorillas currently occur at an estimated 459 count, and existing in 50 groups or families. Of these 50 groups, 21 have been habituated for tourism and are available for gorilla trekking. These 21 groups are found within various gorilla trekking sectors. Buhoma has 5 gorilla habituated groups; Rushegura, Mubaare, Muyambi, Katwe and Habiyanja. Ruhija is considered the most remote sector of all the four and has 4 groups; Bitukura, Mukiza, Oruzogo and Kyaguliro. In Ruhija, there’s also a three hour hike to visit the Mubwindi swamp. Rushaga has 10 groups namely; Kahungye, Mishaya, Bweeza, Nshongi (has 36 members including 5 silverbacks), Busingye, Kutu, Mucunguzi, Rwigi and Bikingyi. Nkulingo which is about 10km from Buhoma has 2 groups; Nkuringo and Christmas.
Visiting the virungas for gorilla trekking can be as humbling as it is exciting. Visitors often narrate how unforgettable the experience of close eye contact with a gorilla is, how they were spellbound by the gentility of the adult Gorilla and the cheekiness of the showy young ones, how they were ‘humbled’ by the manner in which Gorillas create order in their families and take care of their offspring, how in just a few hours they got so attached to the forest to a point of not wanting to leave.
The Tracking process begins with obtaining a gorilla tracking permit at the Uganda Wildlife Authority offices in Kampala. Permits are issued out basing on the available slots in the Park’s 21 gazzetted gorilla groups. The cost of permits varies a lot and increases nearly every year. hese permits should be secured several months before if possible to avoid missing out getting one for a desired date. Permits can be paid for up to two years in advance, although its highly recommended to book at least 2 to 5 months before your gorilla trekking safari since there’s usually a high demand on the permits, basing on the seasons. Gorilla Trekking permits should be under your own names and never allow to use permits that are not under your names. A gorilla permit in Uganda will cost US $700 from July 2020. The price has been increased from US$ 600 to 700 per permit for Foreign non residents, and US$500 to US$600 for Foreign residents. However, it is still at US$ 600 till July. In Rwanda, the gorilla trekking permit is at US$1500. Because the gorilla is closely related to human beings and can easily contract human diseases, the number of tourists visiting the park on a given day is highly limited. If you are a foreign tourist, you do not have to visit the Uganda Wildlife Authority to obtain a gorilla tracking permit.
Now the Gorillas are very mobile fellows who don’t stay in one place. They walk around the forest looking for fruits, and shoots, and roots, and shelters to rest. The distance of the Gorillas from the starting point of your trek is likely to be the length of your hike; Tracking the gorillas can last from a few hours to a whole day, depending on how far the gorilla group being tracked has moved since it was observed nesting up the previous evening. It also depends on where the Gorillas are feeding from that day. You will spend one hour with the gorillas after reaching them. However, due to a few inconveniences, your guide may allow you a few more minutes. Mountain gorillas prefer being in their own company doing their wild activities like eating, mating etc. rather than being surrounded by humans for a long time. This is why the time is restricted to one hour
Precautions & Advice for gorilla trekking
Individual tracking is not allowed, rather the park authority assigns guides to each tracking group to help them locate the gorilla families and also to ensure that the trackers adhere to all the tracking rules and regulations. You also need to be aware that the recommended distance between trackers and the gorillas is 7meters, although gorillas can move closer to you. There is nothing to fear even in this case. You just have to follow the instructions of your guide; which in some cases may be to slowly move down to a squating position. You are encouraged to maintain the distance are not allowed to touch them. If you must sneeze or cough, cover your face and turn away from the gorillas, as they can catch cold and coughs from humans.
Even though Bwindi’s various trailheads can be reached by vehicle, there are no roads within the park itself, making exploration majorly possible on foot. Bwindi is aptly named the ‘impenetrable forest’; paths pass through dense vegetation and can be steep. You are thus advised to take advantage of walking sticks offered at the start of a walk.