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Gorillas & Golden Monkeys - February 2019


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Thanks to everyone who made a trip report about their experiences visiting the gorillas in either Uganda or Rwanda. They were extremely useful to my husband and I, not just in terms of helping us to plan our own visit, but to prepare us for what to expect. So now that we have returned from completing 2 treks in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, it's time to pay it forward and share our experiences with others :) (Also by starting this topic it will force me to write up the TR so I don't get lazy). We also did a golden monkey trek in Rwanda which I will add on to this report rather than create its own topic in Rwanda since it was only for one day.


Our itinerary:


Day 1: Commute Day (Flight from Sydney to Dubai to Nairobi). Overnight in Four Points by Sheraton Nairobi Airport Hotel

Day 2: Commute Day (Flight from Nairobi to Kigali + Drive from Kigali to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest). Stayed at Ichumbi Gorilla Lodge

Day 3: Gorilla Trek 1 (Rushaga sector). Ichumbi Gorilla Lodge

Day 4: Gorilla Trek 2 (Nkuringo sector), Half Day Commute (Drive from Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda). Stayed at Da Vinci Gorilla Lodge

Day 5: Golden Monkey Trek, Kigali Genocide Memorial, Half Day Commute (Drive from Volcanoes National Park to Kigali + Flight from Kigali to Nairobi)

We did an AMAZING 2 week safari in Kenya after this with Mr & Mrs @Atdahl, who will no doubt put together an awesome TR on it in the Kenya forum so watch this space!





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Having just done Ruhija I'm looking forward to comparing you're treks especially Nkuringo.

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Looking forward to this!

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Those dark eyes just staring out are really luring us into the report.  I think some site maintenance issues mean I cannot like your post #1 at this time.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Great start!  Now that Safaritalk is back up and running, I’m hopin you’ll pick up where you left off. Very intrigued to hear how things went. 

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Woohoo! I'm very glad ST is back. I will consider the recent issues a digital drumroll for my TR :lol:



Seeing gorillas has always been a big bucket list item of ours and seeing so many trip reports on here, as well as photos on Facebook from other people's trip gave us massive FOMO.

Mr and Mrs @Atdahl had suggested a Kenya trip in February 2019 which we originally weren't sure we could make, but as it turned out we were available and the itinerary was awesome so we tagged onto it.

We were going to be in Africa anyway, a quick Google search suggested that February was a decent time to go gorilla trekking, so it was decided!


Now, because most of the TRs I had read were in Rwanda, and everyone I knew who had done gorilla treks had done theirs in Rwanda, that is where we originally were planning to go.

But a couple of years ago the permits to view the gorillas doubled in price from $750USD to $1,500USD. The permits in Uganda are $600USD by comparison, so for the cost of one trek in Rwanda we could do TWO in Uganda. Even though my impression (that isn't really backed by anything) is that the treks in Rwanda are "better", the price point differential was too much to ignore. Both countries were a similar warning level on the Australian Smart Traveller website too so that was that. We were going to Uganda.


Skipping past all the boring commuting details..


Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is divided into four sectors: Buhoma, Rushaga, Nkuringo, and Ruhija


Buhoma in the north is the most popular sector where all the fancy pants lodges are and the most well-known gorilla families are.


Ruhija is in the east which we hadn't heard too much about, but I believe it has fewer gorilla families and is known for more strenuous hikes.


Nkuringo is in the southern part of the park and fell into the same category as Ruhija - haven't seen much on it, and less families.


Rushaga is in the south, where it was more accessible for us, and apparently now has the most numbers of gorilla groups.



We booked with Gorilla Trek Africa to stay at Ichumbi Gorilla Lodge, in good proximity to the Rushaga meeting point. We entertained the idea of one trek in Rushaga and one in Buhoma, but 1) Buhoma is right on the border with the DRC which we were really chicken about, and 2) it would have meant a longer commute which complicated the timing of the connection to our safari in Kenya. Two treks in Rushaga was fine with us. Even if we got the exact same group again we might get different behaviours etc. I was really just insistent that we try to weasel our way into the easiest groups :lol:


To mentally prepare myself for the treks I Googled everything I could on gorilla treks in both Bwindi and Volcanoes NP in Rwanda to look at videos and pictures of the kind of terrain and foliage to expect.

I needn't have bothered because I ended up psyching myself out and the 2 treks were nothing like I imagined either of them to be. 


A quick note on what to wear:


- Long, lightweight, breathable pants that will protect you from light scratches from shrubbery

- Long sleeve, lightweight, breathable shirt

- Proper waterproof hiking shoes



- Gaiters - I don't think these are totally necessary but apparently protect from fire ants crawling into your shoes and pants

- Gardening gloves - We were told to bring them, and were the only ones in our groups that did. They weren't really necessary in my opinion.


Also a tip: Don't bother with insect repellent. There aren't really any bugs around, and we were told once there that repellent actually attracts bees and wasps!


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Trek 1 - Rushaga sector


I have the fitness level of an Olympic couch potato, so I was nervous about the difficulty of the treks and had psyched myself out a lot by reading reviews/reports where groups had trekked for 10 hours and not found the gorillas, because oh man, that would so be us. But I figured whatever, I am slow.. but I can make it.. eventually. We hired a porter each because we had read that it was a great way to support the local community and to create sustainable incomes tied to conservation. And because, who was I kidding, there is no way I could do a trek carrying my own bag of lunch, water and camera stuff. Turns out that was the best decision ever. 


So we get to the morning briefing session and I could see from the demographic group there that there was no chance of an easy group for us. The vast majority of people looked to be in their 70s. I bet they were all heaps fitter than I am, but damnit, they had age advantage!! Sure enough we were put in the "young" group and assigned the Bweza gorilla family, which at that point in time had not yet been located.


As some background, what happens is that trackers find the gorilla families and stay with them until about 5pm each evening. Early the next morning before the trekking groups go out, the trackers head back to the same position they last left the group the previous day. They then follow poo tracks or signs of broken foliage to try to find them again. Once they do, the trackers then radio the leaders of the trekking groups to let them know where to go.


As it happened, the Bweza group hadn't been found yet so we were just following the trackers' general direction. After about a 30 minute drive, we got to the starting point.

The very first thing we had to do was cross these logs:




Too easy! Not! The logs wobbled, my legs wobbled. And while I wasn't really worried about myself falling off, I was worried that my camera gear would fall into the water.


We walked along this stream for about 30 minutes before we got the the "real" start.






Which involved another log crossing:





To cut to the end, the entire hike was about 4 hours excluding the time with the gorillas (2 1/2 hours there, 1 1/2 back)


Without sugar coating, the vast majority of the way there was straight up a relentless incline. No joke, it was like this:





We were basically holding hands with our porters the whole way up. And there were very few breaks. This was mainly because of the slope and there being no landing or place to stop.

But the good news is that we did it! And I know that if I can do it, then absolutely anyone can. One of the ladies in our group had a knee injury and didn't anticipate the kind of incline we had, and even she managed with the help of her porter. 


So we climb the slope and somewhere close to the top the guide receives a call from the tracker to say that they have finally found the gorillas. They are part way back down the mountain now. Haha of course they are.

15 minutes or so later we are told to prepare to dump our bags and see the gorillas! I scramble to swig down some water and then pull out all my camera gear. I took 2 bodies with me: one with the 80-400mm lens and one with a 50mm. The point of the 50mm was that it has a wider aperture which I had drummed into me was necessary for the gorillas. The official plan was for my husband to carry the 50mm around his neck (he carries a small camcorder), and in case I needed to use it he would just hand it to me. Well that was silly. 


When we found the gorillas we weren't exactly on solid ground. What we were standing on could best be described as a huge stack of slippery, wet vines. I'm far from sure-footed so I didn't really stick with the group because some of them were slipping all over the place and would grab hold of my camera or whatever they could to break their fall which just made me fall. My husband and I were pretty much nowhere near each other the whole hour with the gorillas so there was no way to grab the other camera. Nor would I be carrying a second body with me the second day I decided, because I was struggling enough as it was to keep the first camera safe.


Now the part you're all waiting for.. the gorillas!!


The very first face I see is this little bubba!! Cute or what?!







Mum and bub were sitting behind some foliage but we could all see them. Collective oohs, aahs and wows all around.


In my periphery I could see more gorillas around and trackers and guides were pointing them out to people. It was hard to know where to look, but I'm glad I stayed watching the little one for a while before mother whisked it away out of sight.











Edited by monalisa
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I am really enjoying this!  Having trekked gorillas in Uganda, I feel your pain.  Your descriptions of everything have me smiling this morning.

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Same here, a difficult trek might be a challenge but it´s a huge sense of achievement once you get there. Lovely photos of the baby!

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Really enjoying this @monalisa! My husband and I did the Rwanda gorillas just before they raised the rates (lucky us). Sounds like you had a really tough climb, sounds worse than ours were though our first one was really tough for me. yes having the porters is really a lifesaver! That baby is adorable - good call sticking with it! 

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15 hours ago, monalisa said:

The very first face I see is this little bubba!! Cute or what?!


Yep that's pretty cute! Really enjoying this so far and like you we were around 4 hours hiking but we started by going straight down. I was very jealous the next day when a couple we had met told us the gorillas were right by the road and it took them minutes to get to them. Having done Rwanda and Uganda @SafariChick for me Rwanda was much easier but none of that matters once you get to the gorillas. Also to be fair I was young and fit when I saw them in Rwanda.

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@monalisa, would you be so kind to rotate the sketch for 90degrees anti-cloclwise; I intend to show your report to Zvezda and that sketch might be the only part she would read ... before starting to "give me the look" :D.


But all efforts were paid off by being close to those cute babies, and being able to take some excellent photos!

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Your visual squiggle of the climb is perfect!  The gorilla photos are perfect-er.

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@monalisa, Awesome report and photos so far!  That opening shot of the eyes is just spell binding!


You guys were the ones to convince us to go on our first African Safari and you also might be the ones to convince us to go Gorilla trekking. :)



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@Pamshelton3932 @michael-ibk @SafariChick @Atravelynn Thank you for your kind comments and for following along! :)



On 4/1/2019 at 1:05 PM, dlo said:

I was very jealous the next day when a couple we had met told us the gorillas were right by the road and it took them minutes to get to them. 


@dlo Haha sometimes I think it's better not to know or ti talk to any other groups afterwards. I read a lot of TRs too where people found their gorillas after only 15-30 minutes. No such luck for us! But it just makes the reward sweeter, right? Right?! :lol:



21 hours ago, xelas said:

@monalisa, would you be so kind to rotate the sketch for 90degrees anti-cloclwise; I intend to show your report to Zvezda and that sketch might be the only part she would read ... before starting to "give me the look" :D.


But all efforts were paid off by being close to those cute babies, and being able to take some excellent photos!


@xelas You should selectively show Zvezda all the TRs of people who got the easy short hikes ;) you never know, you could be the lucky ones! It is such a dice roll. 



12 hours ago, Atdahl said:

You guys were the ones to convince us to go on our first African Safari and you also might be the ones to convince us to go Gorilla trekking. :)



@Atdahl Just doing my part to tip you over the edge! Was I wrong about Africa? Eh? Eh?!


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When we did find a flatter spot to take a "rest" I managed to take a picture of the terrain. The foliage is dense and so the guide leading the way wields a machete to basically cut a path through for everyone.





I can now also add the video of the baby gorilla!! I wasn't really paying attention at the time, but I can see now.. it's a boy!! 

And the guide mentions that he thinks he is four months old.



And some more pics






We were told that the Bweza family currently has 11 members, but of that we saw 6, with good looks at maybe 3 or 4 of them.

I think we were just a bit unlucky with the kind of foliage that we found them in. It was dense and because of the pile of vines we were on, it wasn't easy to maneuver to see them. 

I never got a good look at the dominant silverback which was a shame, but still, it was absolutely incredible to just be with gorillas in person. They look and act so human-like, there's a strange feeling of connectedness when you look into their eyes. Everyone back home seemed afraid of them when we told them we were going, but when you see them, they really are gentle giants.


Here are some of the members we saw:


The mother




Youngster sitting in a tree






Adult - I'm inclined to say this is a male blackback but not 100% sure




Juvenile munching on some leaves







Mmm my fave!





This is a silverback, but not the dominant one. Poor old dude has an injury on his shoulder.







Most of the adults stayed pretty well hidden the whole time so I tried to be fancy with my photos and take some detail shots instead which in hindsight am glad I did









This photo shows what the foliage/our footing was like. We were kind of above the gorillas, on a bunch of fallen vines that were very slippery. The dominant silverback is actually not far away, behind the gorilla in this picture, but behind the leaves. The mother and baby from earlier are that vague black furry spot you see on the left of the photo.





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Oh!! I forgot to add this video!

At one point the dominant silverback did briefly come out of hiding to randomly push over a tree with a juvenile in it. No obvious reason why.. just felt like it? 

Now what was I saying about them being gentle giants?!


Tim has helpfully included a slo-mo replay LOL :lol:



Edited by monalisa
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Oh my gosh, that was not nice of the dominant silverback!  Love seeing the videos as well as the photos!

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It felt like only 10 minutes had passed before we were told our hour was up and that we would be leaving. Bye bye Bweza family. Till next time! 


The descent was unsurprisingly a lot quicker than the ascent. The group was back down the mountain in about an hour and then stopped to eat our packed lunches. During lunch one of the porters spotted a three horned chameleon for us!:



It took us about 30 minutes more to get back to our tour guide and car. The certificates were handed out, and everyone was just buzzing.


Here is a pic of the walking sticks that were issued to everyone to use on the hike. We thought they were very cool.





30 minutes drive later and we were back at our lodge, which I will include a picture of before I forget. We had the Turaco room:




Here is a cute tiny lizard that sat next to my shoe:




We showered and then took a much needed rest until dinnertime. 

At dinner we met with our guide again who told us that we would be trekking in the Nkuringo sector tomorrow. Errr.. what?

We were supposed to be doing 2 treks in Rushaga. What happened?

Apparently our guide saw that we had booked Rushaga twice and took it upon himself to convince the tour company to swap out the second trek to a different sector to allow us to see different types of scenery and the chance to trek one of the best families, the Nkuringo family. We were not very pleased that he had done this without consulting with us first. We appreciated his reasoning, but upon Googling the Nkuringo sector I came across a lot of reports of this sector and this family in particular being notoriously difficult. 


When you see this on the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP website, it doesn't exactly make your heart sing:




It was too late to switch us back to Rushaga. I voiced my concerns about the Nkuringo family being too challenging, and that on top of that, we would be tired from today's trek.

He told us okay, he would try to get us the easiest group. There was some comfort...


Trek 2 - Nkuringo sector


The next morning we packed up our things as after the trek we would be heading straight to Rwanda.


After getting to the Nkuringo meeting point for the briefing, I did a quick scan of the crowd demographics. These folks were even older than the last bunch at Rushaga! I saw some very frail women who could have easily been past 90. Good on them for doing the trek!! But my heart sank knowing we again weren't going to get into the easy group. Ah well.. 


We were put into our groups and we got..... Nkuringo! We wondered if our guide had done anything for us to try to change groups. Secretly I think I was relieved though. I was scared but I didn't want my own fears to keep me from experiencing one of the best gorilla families. What's one day in the scheme of things. 

Everyone for this group gathered around and I could hear people discussing whether to hire porters. We piped up, relaying our ordeals from the previous day and encouraged everyone to hire a porter each (they would be sooooo thankful later). Everyone did so except for one couple. Off we went! It took 30 minutes drive to get to the starting point. What was in store for us?

We walked maybe 60 mins on a gentle downwards slope, albeit very uneven surface, before reaching a tea plantation. Tea crops are planted on the borders of Bwindi. We were told that gorillas can't eat tea leaves so this stops them from wandering beyond the park.


The tea plantation was a vibrant, gorgeous green in person. Very pretty spot. It was also very steep in parts. There was a young guy in the group who made it to the end of the tea plantation and exclaimed "that was no joke!".

Too right. I was sweating buckets by the time we reached the forest.







30 minutes walking through the tea plantation and we made it to the forest!



This trek had a LOT more obstacles in terms of fallen trees to be climbed over, thorny vines to duck etc, but turned out to be easier than the one in Rushaga.

This one ended up being about 5 hours long in total, but the uphill portions were much more manageable.


We did have another one of these:





But this time it was only about 5 minutes compared to 90 minutes the previous day.


The craziest obstacle we actually ran into was this river:




I thought we would have to find a way around the river. Nope. In a true testament to ludicrous first world privilege, the porters carried each and every person across.

First the bags went across, then the porters would piggyback or pair up and carry customers across. In one case, a guy needed 3 porters. They surely earned huge tips! 

We all laughed our heads off. This will live on in our memories as one of the silliest and funniest moments of our lives. 

There is no way my husband will let me post photos so unfortunately you will have to use some imagination :lol:


After about an hour in the forest we got the good news that we could get ready to meet the gorillas! 



Edited by monalisa
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My goodness that really is first world privilege. I understand the photo ban. Hot, sweaty, muddy and bum on the air, probably not the best portrait. 😊

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We had found the Nkuringo group!


Our first sight.. a pile of black furry friends in the middle of a clearing. Some of them were grooming, most of them resting. Check out the super relaxed one in the front! 

In the back (top right of the photo) is the silverback. They noticed our presence but could not care less and made no effort to move. 






After the initial rush of seeing them, we noticed that there were actually a lot of gorillas around us. A couple in the trees, a large blackback resting under a small tree, some young juveniles playing nearby. It was hard to know where to look!

Because we were on solid ground this time we were able to move around much more easily to see the different members. The guides waved us over to come closer to look at different gorillas. The Rushaga trek was pretty incredible, but this one was just blowing it out of the water in every respect. 


I wandered over to the blackback, a little apprehensive at first due to his size, and kept perhaps too conservative a distance. In retrospect I wish I had gotten just that tiny bit closer. He really could not have cared less that we were there. He looked too busy daydreaming about something..

I love this pose











I'm tired




He wasn't the silverback, but his size was still awe-inspiring. It is so humbling to be face to face with a wild gorilla and to see how placid and gentle they are by nature. AH-MAZING.


Not wanting to miss out on some of the action with the other members I left the big guy in peace and wandered back to the main group. On my way I heard some rustling in the trees above me.

Who should I spot next?






Back near the main group there were two young ones play fighting, chasing each other, rolling around and beating their chests. It was very cute, and nice to see some different behaviours.










The gorillas in the main group were mostly still laying around










And grooming








I took the opportunity to get some detail photos



What can best be described as a hand-foot




After a while the gorillas started to show signs of getting up to move. This is the blackback from earlier.









Not everyone noticed. Here is one of the guys in our group with hands in his pockets, not realising that there is a huge blackback gorilla behind him and that he is blocking his path :lol:

We told him, he got a bit of a fright and quickly stepped aside for the gorilla to pass.



This one is my favourite. He is so friendly looking.



He is also HUUUUGEE




The family moved to a slightly more obscured spot but we were able to slowly follow them.











So human-like







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Wonderful descriptionsof your treks and you photographed the gorillas so well, bringing out their character.

You really can tell there is intelligence in there!

I think both your treks were harder than the treks we did (many years ago!) but you managed them well and clearly it was worth it.

Well done for convincing other tourists about the value of hiring porters.

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Lovely trip report with some superb intimate photographs of the gorilla families in both treks. 


It seems that you were able  to move around quite a bit amongst the gorilla's. 😊


Re porters I found them essential. I actually had two! and would have not made it without them. Some years ago now and would not be able to do it again so thank you for sharing this and reminding me of the thrill of being up close and personal. 


How did the couple that did not use porters fare? Apart from helping at a personal level using porters does provide income to the local community. 

Thanks again @monalisa

Edited by wilddog
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Wow!  Exquisite photos @monalisa!   I love the detail photos you took as well.  So, interesting.


There is one missing though that I would have LOVED to see.  You know, of a certain somebody "hitching a ride".:)

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You have given me a renewed purpose to try to get to 90 and now I know how I'll celebrate that landmark birthday.  You've also inspired me to continue the calcium pills and light weightlifting.


The gorilla families line up along the water's edge to witness the river crossing, a spectacle of nature.  It can take hours of waiting to see such a sight, but it's worth it.  :D


I suppose the porters feel it is better to transport people than risk someone falling in and getting all wet or ruining their camera.


It seems the silverback knew exactly what he was doing in knocking down the tree with the youngster in it.


Your shots show such emotion in the gorillas' faces.

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