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JulieM

Habituation Gorilla Trek - Uganda 2016

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JulieM

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To Gorilla or not to Gorilla, had been my question in late 2015...

 

http://safaritalk.net/topic/15609-to-gorilla-or-not-to-gorilla-that-is-the-question/

 

...and the answers had been overwhelmingly for us to "go for it"!!

 

So we did.

 

While researching the trip, I stumbled across this post on Kabiza's website:

 

http://kabiza.com/kabiza-wilderness-safaris/gorilla-habituation-experience-rushaga-area-bwindi-forest/

 

and I was sold! The chance to spend FOUR hours with the family, rather than the one, which everyone said flew past too quickly, was one I couldn't pass up. It meant that we would travel to Uganda for our gorilla treks rather than Rwanda, where I had originally thought we would go. We had to sell a couple of kidneys to cover the cost (well, actually, funny story - I fractured my humerus 3 months before we left and the insurance payout paid for it....) but we thoroughly enjoyed it and I am very pleased that we took everyone's advice and did the trip. Our preparation saw us shed a combined total of 30kg in weight, and had us walking 4 mornings per week with some bushwalking at the weekends, and while my broken arm did limit my preparation near the end, we both managed the experience physically very well. I am still working through the photos, but thought I would make a start.

 

 

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Kitsafari

what a pensive gentle look from a silverback! love it. and waiting for the next instalment........

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JulieM

As mentioned, we travelled with Kabiza Wilderness Safaris. They had been recommended by others, and while there are other companies who you can travel with, they didn't seem to have as much information about the habituation experience as Jon at Kabiza had. We corresponded by email without any issues and the trip went without any problems (well, that could have been foreseen or that were the fault of the organisers anyway! More on that later...).

 

The trip to Uganda came after a 15 night trip to Zimbabwe (trip report not yet completed), which had been an incredible adventure organised and led by the legendary Doug MacDonald. At the end of the trip we flew from Mana Pools to Harare, and then back to Johannesburg where we overnighted before our flight to Kigali in Rwanda the next day. Jon recommended that we fly to Kigali and then drive across the border into Uganda, as that was still quicker than driving up from Entebbe. There is probably a charter flight that we could have taken, but that would have added to the expense considerably I'm sure. We were picked up at the airport by our guide for the trip, Gerard, at around lunchtime and headed straight out of town. The immigration officers seemed a little miffed that we were just heading straight to Uganda, both at the airport and at the border crossing - sorry guys - Rwanda next time!

 

Photos from the road:

 

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What people say about Rwanda being so clean is certainly true and it was also so much greener than dry season Zimbabwe had been. The drive to the border took about an hour and we enjoyed seeing the countryside. It was also interesting to go through a border crossing. We live in Australia and I grew up in New Zealand - both island nations - so changing countries for us normally involves crossing the sea. Added to that, you change from driving on the right hand side of the road in Rwanda to driving on the left hand side in Uganda - I'm glad I wasn't driving. There was a bit of a queue at the Rwandan office, but none at the Ugandan office, and the crossing took about an hour (more time was spent by Gerard organising the vehicle paperwork). It was also good for us to see how the border crossing worked, as we are hopefully going to be doing a multi-country 4ish month trip around Southern and East Africa in 2018, which will obviously involve multiple border crossings.

 

From the border to our accommodation took another couple of hours, for a total journey time of about 4-4 1/2 hours I think. The first thing Gerard pointed out to us in Uganda were some crowned cranes, but they really were a bit far away for a decent photo. As we approached the Gorilla Valley Lodge where we were staying for the next three nights, we got a nice view of the volcanoes at sunset.

 

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Getting to our lodge involved travelling along a dirt road, and this road would become my enemy over the next few days. By this time it was dark, it was raining and the road was slippery. I was, quite frankly, terrified. Gerard noticed my tears and tried to reassure me, but I was so happy when we arrived at the lodge in one piece!

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amybatt

Oh, I'm so looking forward to this report! I remember your planning discussions!!

 

@@Kitsafari, I had the same thoughts about that gorilla shot! I thought "he looks like a thinker!" Wow.

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kilopascal

Really excited to read about your trip as I will be doing this next November. Can't wait to read more.

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Atravelynn

I have wanted to see a gorilla habituation report. I didn't realize or I had forgotten that this was post Zimbabwe. I'll be looking for that report too. Nice waving at you in Mana Pools. I also spied you through binos from a distance a time or two in Mana Pools. No wonder you needed a quick repair for your arm. Judging by the photo, you were in good shape and could hold the camera still!

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madaboutcheetah

Thanks for this @@JulieM - 4 hours sounds amazing!!!

PS - I hear this can be arranged in Virunga DRC too (Ignore the other thread where they say, it's dangerous etc etc.,) ..........

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JulieM

It was lovely meeting you, albeit it briefly @@Atravelynn. The arm did hold up well, although by the end of the day I sometimes had to get hubby to lift it from around my neck because I didn't have any strength left! Thank goodness for image stabilisation on these big lens though!

 

I'll continue with the report tomorrow - long day at work and no photos processed to go with the words at the moment sorry....

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JulieM

So apart from the death-defying road, Gorilla Valley Lodge was a nice place to spend a few nights. It consists of a series of little houses - two separate rooms per house - set on a hillside. We were in number 6 which was one of the lower ones, and it was quite a climb up to the restaurant which was on top of the hill. When we got puffed just walking up to the restaurant, we became even more nervous about our couple of days ahead!

 

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Our room

 

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The view from the restaurant - the stairs head down to the rooms

 

Like @@bushbaby, we too were nervous about our trek the next day. Would we be able to keep up? Would my healing fracture hold up? Would we make it, or would they need to send for the dreaded stretchers to rescue us??! Luckily I was pretty tired after our busy day, and we did manage to sleep!

 

For the habituation trek we had to be at headquarters by 7am, which meant leaving at 6.15am. We were woken at 5.15am, had breakfast at 5.45am and left on time, with a camera bag containing two cameras, spare batteries, spare memory cards and lenses, my monopod, and another bag with our raincoats, lunch, water and plasters of all descriptions! My camera gear consisted on two Canon 5DMarkIIIs, one with a 24-105mm lens on, and the other with the 100-400mm version 2 lens (which is a cracker by the way!). I don't have a "fast" lens, but I know that I can crank the ISO up on the MarkIIIs so I wasn't concerned. I took the monopod in case my arm didn't hold up.

 

We met up with the rangers, porters, trackers and the other couple who were doing the trek. They were a pair of fit-looking Austrians, who were in their mid-50s. I remained worried that we wouldn't be able to keep up! Hubby and I hired a porter each, and the tiniest lady porter ended up carrying my camera bag, which was by far the heaviest bag of the lot! Her name was Private. She didn't complain at all, and seemed to have no trouble at all with it. And so, all ready with our trousers tucked into our socks and with gaiters over them, we headed off. The first part of the trek was up. Up and up and up a dirt road. It wasn't toooo steep, but we certainly got puffed, but fortunately the four of us all got puffed at about the same rate so we would stop and catch our breath before carrying on. After about 30-45minutes on this road we headed into the forest, which was also up, but before too long it became a much more gentle undulating track. It was muddy and wet but we had no trouble on this bit. All together it took us 2 hours to walk to the spot where the trackers had found the gorillas. Here we retrieved the cameras, had our last bit of water, put our gloves on and headed into the thick thick forest where there was no track.

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Atravelynn

"the dreaded stretchers" is a phrase that strikes fear in my heart

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JulieM

As we headed off the track and into the thick forest/jungle, I had thought the trackers said we had another 30 minutes to go before we found them. Oh well, off we go - I thought. But I had misheard - they were only 30 metres away. First we saw the nests they had used the night before and they looked very comfortable! We spotted their dung, and then, at last, our first sighting of the silverback. He was way up a tree - probably 10 metres or so up. As we were watching him, we could hear the approach of a swarm of bees. It was getting louder and louder and headed his way. We knew they had made it to him when he started rapidly descending his tree!

 

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You can see the bees surrounding him.

 

What followed was 4 hours of immersion in the jungle, watching and following the gorillas as they went about their day. This group (whose name I don't think I ever heard) was quite large, with (I think) about 14 members - a silverback, a couple of black backs, quite a few babies and some females. We never saw them all together, partly due to the thick bush and partly because they weren't all habituated yet. The silverback, the babies and a couple of the females were not bothered by us at all and the head ranger described them as well habituated already. This group has been being habituated for 12 months already and they have another 12 months to go before they become one of the regular families. We were able to spend a lot of time watching the silverback as he fed and wandered around and we watched the babies playing happily in front of us. As they moved, the ranger and trackers would move us to the best spot to see them, and clear as much foliage as possible from in front of them with their machetes. On one occasion the silverback objected to having the foliage cleared and went to charge the tracker, but was quickly repelled by a bit of a noise from the tracker. I loved hearing the ranger and trackers making the low rumbling sound as they got near, and I especially loved watching the babies play. It was difficult photography, with the low light and thick foliage, but I was there for the experience and the photography was secondary to that, so I wasn't complaining. Here are some of my favourites from the day, with more to come as I process them.

 

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Botswanadreams

Wonderful pics. Thanks for sharing.

I think it was amazing to spend this long time in the forest watching the gorillas. It's a privilege to have this opportunity now but a very expensive one.

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TonyQ

@@JulieM

Wonderful photos - and descriptions. The last picture of the youngster looking right at you is superb. I have have been looking forward to hearing about this trip. I am glad your broken arm didn't interfere too much!

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AKR1

Beautiful pictures. Interesting background on your choice between Rwanda and Uganda- 4 hours with the Gorillas rather than one at a cheaper cost per permit is a compelling reason indeed. Thanks for sharing.

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Sande David

Thank you for this report about your habituation gorilla trek experience in Uganda! The pictures are stunning! I like the poses from the young gorillas. The 4 hours with the gorillas is very much worth it and it is well better than doing two of the normal gorilla treks if one wished to have more time with the Gorillas. Rushaga (my favorite) is the least visited of the five trailheads of Bwindi Forest National Park and yet it is the most beautiful and also has the most number of habituated Gorilla groups in the park. But it is understandable because of its remoteness and poor roads at the moment. However with this new activity being done only here, more visitors will be visiting this stunning area.

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JulieM

Thanks everyone for your kind comments! It really was amazing to have such a long time with them!

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JulieM

After about an hour, we could see the rain coming in. Just in time, the porters arrived with our bags carrying our raincoats. It turns out that gorillas don't like getting wet any more than we do, so they all huddled under the thickest of bushes until the rain settled again after about 20 minutes. It would rain twice during our 4 hour stay and again we were glad that we had so long, so the rain didn't ruin our time.

 

Here are a couple more photos from the day:

 

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After the second rain shower, this well habituated female came out from the bushes right in front of us. I was able to crouch down and was only a couple of metres from her. After a few minutes I think she decided she'd had enough of me, and she got up quickly, showing me who was the boss as she left!

 

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Incredibly, the four hours was over. As many people say about the one hour visit, the four hours went just too quickly and I could have happily stayed another four! It had been truly magical and I loved every moment of it, even while clambering and slipping around the wet muddy jungle! We headed back to the track and after putting some distance between us and them, we stopped and had lunch (even though it was mid-afternoon by then, we hadn't interrupted our visit to eat). Everyone sat down and enjoyed a rest. The two hour trek back to headquarters went quickly, but walking down I couldn't believe that I had walked UP that far - I must have been running on adrenaline all those hours before!

 

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These were the son and daughter of one of the trackers - they were helping the rest of the family in the fields.

 

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At headquarters we were presented with our certificates, we tipped the porters and gave the head ranger the tips for the rest of the team, and we bought ourselves a wooden gorilla mask which is hanging proudly on our wall as a reminder of the day. Tired but happy we headed back along my dreaded road to the lodge, followed by a lovely shower and dinner. At dinner we found out that one of the other couples from the lodge had visited the Nkuringo family that day - renowned as being the hardest trek in Bwindi - and TWO of the other people had been stretchered out when they just couldn't go any further! We were booked to do that trek the next day.........

Edited by JulieM

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amybatt

Fabulous photos, Julie, especially the gorillas but also the landscape! Gorgeous!

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JulieM

Having heard about the couple who needed to be stretchered out of the Nkuringo trek, and having had a pretty full day ourselves, I was getting very nervous about trying to undertake that trek the next day. We had a chat with Gerard to see if we could be allocated to a different family instead. It was also raining, and had been since the latter part of the afternoon, and so my fears about the already slippery and scary road were intensifying. Thankfully, after a few hours of trying, Gerard was able to contact the head ranger who agreed that we could be re-allocated to a different family. We just needed to get ourselves to headquarters the next day and it would be sorted. One problem down!

 

When we got to breakfast the next morning, after a solid night of rain, we were informed that there had been a landslide over the road from the lodge to park headquarters and the road was blocked. Gerard wasn't sure of the extent of the problem, or whether we'd be able to get around the landslide to get to headquarters. My anxiety levels shot through the roof! I did not want to drive down that road, only to find it blocked, have to somehow do a U-turn next to the plunging cliff, and then return to the lodge. In tears now because I was so afraid of that road, we tried to negotiate a solution with Gerard. We had heard that the trek to visit one of the local families actually started at our lodge. "Why couldn't we be allocated to that family, and not have to drive anywhere??", I asked. Well, apparently "we have to check in at headquarters and they have to see your passports" was the answer. But, but, "they saw them yesterday, and the landslide is making that a little difficult" was my response. Gerard, bless him, decided to walk our passports to headquarters, a few kilometres away, and see if we could visit the local family. Phew! I was hopeful, and very excited that I wouldn't need to travel on that road again!

 

We decided to head down to our room while we waited for Gerard to return with news. As we headed down the path and onto our verandah, we heard some rustling in the trees. Thinking maybe there were some forest elephants in the area, we stopped and waited, listening for more sounds. More rustling followed. Then, to our vast amusement, we heard a very prolonged release of a certain type of wind - gorillas!! Next thing we knew, a mother with her baby on her back emerged from the forest, and headed up a tree! Focussing entirely on this pair, and the fact that I didn't have my long lens, I completely missed the silverback who was only a few feet from them! We couldn't believe our luck - the gorillas had come to us!! And we were all by ourselves to see them!

 

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We watched the silverback emerge and come within a few metres of us. Have another look at one of my earlier photos, and in the bottom right hand corner you'll see a dark patch - that was the silverback!

 

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He proceeded to demolish and consume the banana tree just behind him before they headed off back into the forest. Just then the trackers arrived, and unfortunately asked us (via the manager of the lodge) to go up to the restaurant rather than stay and watch the gorillas, because apparently they'd get into trouble if the ranger found us watching them before we'd had the safety briefing. Or something like that. We were excited though, having had a sneaky sighting of the gorillas, and also knowing that our trek that day would be very easy!

 

About half an hour later, the ranger and some porters arrived. They had also walked from headquarters, and yes, we would be able to visit this family. We had the safety briefing, and even though we knew that the family were literally "just there!", we hired our porter Private from the day before and headed into the forest. There were another 5 people from the lodge who also joined us for this visit, and they too very generously hired porters, knowing that this income is essential to these people.

 

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amybatt

Holy cow! That's incredible! Lady Luck was certainly smiling on you!

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SafariChick

What a fantastic trip report and photos - I'm green with envy! But also recognize the hard work you had to put in to have these experiences - except maybe for the unexpected sighting right by the lodge - amazing! Can't wait for the rest of day 2. And it was great to meet you and your husband briefly in Zim @@JulieM !

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Sangeeta

Holy cow! That's incredible! Lady Luck was certainly smiling on you!

 

Nicely said, Amy, I agree :D Here's hoping Lady Luck is as kind to you.

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JulieM

What a fantastic trip report and photos - I'm green with envy! But also recognize the hard work you had to put in to have these experiences - except maybe for the unexpected sighting right by the lodge - amazing! Can't wait for the rest of day 2. And it was great to meet you and your husband briefly in Zim @@JulieM !

We sure were lucky! I hope you have a great time on your gorilla trek too.

I really enjoyed meeting you as well - how cool is it to connect to people internationally who have the same interests?!

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JulieM

So we all headed off down the track into the forest. All of, oh, maybe 50metres later, we were able to grab our cameras and head into the forest to visit with our gorilla friends. I can't remember how big this family was, and because they were in thick bush we didn't see them all anyway.

 

We firstly spent some time with this black back:

 

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I was intrigued by his very human-looking hands!

 

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The light was much harsher today than it had been the day before, and so I think I had better photos from that day. I didn't take as many photos this visit because of the light, but also so I could really relish the experience without the camera in front of my eyes.

 

This baby was happily playing while his mother lounged around in the sun. The ranger explained that because of all the rain the night before, they were probably still cold and wet, and so were warming themselves in the sun. Junior was not going to lie down and rest - he was very happy playing around on this branch! We spent most of our hour with this little guy.

 

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My husband loved watching the baby!

 

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At one point, as the trackers were trying to clear a better view next to the mother, she suddenly took great exception to their presence, hopped up and chased them away.

 

There was another female sitting quietly in the bushes nearby.

 

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The silverback made an appearance too.

 

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And then, all too soon, our hour was up. The hour had flown. It had been lovely watching this family and we had been so lucky that we had been able to see them. We headed back to the lodge carpark, received our certificates and by 10am it was all over! We waved goodbye to Private and the others, who then had to walk a few kms back to their base.

 

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It had been a fun morning. Of the two treks, obviously the 4 hour habituation trek had been by far the better experience. I would rather do one habituation trek than two ordinary ones. The views we got of the gorillas was every bit as good even though they weren't all habituated and having the luxury of time meant you could really relax and enjoy the experience. It is eye-wateringly expensive, but I would rather spend my money having these kind of experiences than driving the flashiest car, or having the biggest house. If you can, do it.

 

We spent the rest of the day just relaxing. It was the end of our three week African adventure, so being able to just sit on the verandah reading, having an afternoon nap and doing a leisurely pack before heading home was very nice.

Edited by JulieM

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Zim Girl

Loved this report!

 

I think your photos on this post were wonderful despite the light. I loved the one of 'the female sitting quietly'. Beautiful.

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