Trekking with the Gorillas

One of the questions I was asked the most this summer was about my trip to Uganda.

Having traveled to Kenya and Tanzania the year before, I met people on my tour who had just finished trekking to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda. Their excitement and wonder in which they recalled the experience left me to make a mental note that seeing the gorillas was one thing I needed to do while I was still in this region of the world.

Fast forward a year and some, and I had booked a return flight from Dubai to Uganda, and a week long “Troop to the Gorillas” tour with Topdeck, the same company I had used the year before. The trip would embark out of Kampala (Uganda’s capital city), venture into Queen Elizabeth National Park, and include both a chimpanzee and gorilla trek.

When booking this tour, I had to decide if I was okay with traveling during Uganda’s rainy season. I scoured through the Internet, reading through blogs and various travel forums to figure out how much the weather would affect my experience. In summary, most sites said this: yes, expect wet. Expect a lot of rain. But, you can also expect less tourists and the opportunity to see the wildlife from a different perspective; the rich vegetation that was a result of the rain meant that the chances of seeing the animals out feeding more frequently was definitely expected. So I mentally accepted the rain and set out to do some shopping, knowing I would need to invest in a good rain jacket and other things of the sort to prepare.

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Some of the tidbits from my shopping trip (e.g. a quality Columbia rain jacket, a water bottle, sleeping bag, night lamp, and quick dry towel to name a few).
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I was able to fit everything into these two bags.
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Quick elevator selfie before the big trip!

A lot of people asked me if I was nervous to travel to a country in Africa alone. The phrase I was specifically asked was: “Are you… nervous?

And the answer to that was always… no. I was travelling with a company I had used before. I had been to other countries in Africa before. I had travelled alone before. I had pre-arranged transportation at the airport ahead of time. I had emailed some family with the flight and itinerary so they knew where I should be throughout the duration of the trip. I had spoke to people who had done this tour before. I did my research and felt comfortable with my choices. So I wasn’t nervous to go. Really, I was excited. This was a bucket list trip!

And so I set out to Dubai International Airport. Five and a half hours later, I arrived in Entebbe.

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I had pre-arranged transportation from the airport to the hotel I was staying at for the first night in Uganda. I was able to quickly locate the driver, and we set off on the road to my destination for that night, a hotel called Red Chilli Hideaway.

I arrived, checked in, and made my way to my room. I had a few hours before I was to meet the tour guide for my pre-departure meeting, so I found some wifi and was able to make contact with people back home. When it was time for the scheduled meeting, I headed over to the main lobby. The hotel is open concept, and the corridors were met with a view of the pool, a bar, and greenery in the background.

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Even if I was nervous at all for this trip, these worries would have been resolved in a heartbeat; when I met the tour guide for my meeting, I realized it was Pete, the same tour guide who I travelled with the year before in Kenya & Tanzania! He was such a great tour guide and I immediately knew that the trip would be in good hands.

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That night I met the other people on my tour. As it was off season in Uganda for tourism, we had a small tour of eight people. A mix of women from Canada, Australia, England, Chile, and Germany. No boys on our tour as it turned out. Oh well, gal power!

We ate dinner together. Some of the ladies on the trip had already been traveling with the company before this leg of the tour, and so they shared their travel experiences thus far. We connected over our mutual excitement for the next leg of the trip; gorillas, chimpanzees and more. What I learned in my pre-departure meeting, was that there were optional add ons I could do if I wanted. I signed up for the game drive in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, and for the day trip to Rwanda.

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These were our options for the week.

Soon, nightfall was upon us and we all parted ways for the night.

I awoke the next morning to rain. It was a soft, gentle kind of rain – the kind that smelled good and fresh. We met down by our massive truck (think Megabus styled vehicle), that we would take on our journey throughout Uganda. Our tour guide had laid out a continental breakfast of cereal, toast, eggs, and coffee or tea. So we ate, packed our cookware back into the truck, and geared up for our first long drive of the trip.

That morning we traveled from Kampala to Queen Elizabeth National Park. It was a long drive that took us through hours upon hours of Ugandan countryside. I personally love these long drives; they’re the perfect opportunity to soak up the greenery that I crave while I’m in Dubai, to read, listen to music, and even just to do some thinking.

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At the Equatorial Line they had a few cheezy momentos. Here is our tour guide and bus driver posing at one.

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When we arrived at the campsite, we were thankful that it had stopped raining. Setting up tents and camping equipment is a bit of a task on a dry day, let alone when its raining. We set up our tents, put our rain covers on (just in case).

Having only camped once as a child – my family would never once describe themselves as “campers” (our family vacations were always south to warm places and hotel rooms) – I don’t know when I developed this affinity for camping. But let me state it here for the record: I freaking love camping. I love being surrounded by nature. I love the slow, communal process of cooking over a campfire. I love the hiking, the canoeing, the swimming, and every other activity connected to it. I love dressing up in layers once the sun goes down, and huddling next to the fire for warmth. I hate bugs – but I can accept this if it’s combined with the activity of camping.

So once our tents were out and we had settled into this camping spot, we grabbed some beers and relaxed. Tonight, we had an evening game drive. Tomorrow, we were going to set off and trek to find some chimpanzees.

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Our game drive was lovely. We saw warthogs (my favourite game drive animal) a lion, gazelles, hippos, and elephant!

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The next morning, we geared up for our trek to see the chimpanzees. We were told to wear long sleeved shirts and pants, and long socks as there are various ants that like to make their way up unsuspecting legs if left unprotected.

We were told in advance that there was not a guarantee to see the chimpanzees. And fair enough, we are invading their natural habitat – it’s not an exhibit at the zoo where you can plan to be there for a certain time. Under the leadership of two guides, we were to follow them through the Kyambura Gorge and hope for the best. We trekked through the gorge through pretty dense forest, and watched our guide for any signs of chimpanzee activity. We were trekking for three hours total, and if we didn’t find any in that time, then we would have to cut our losses.

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This was the gorge we were hiking down into.

As we entered the second hour of the hike, with no sign of chimpanzee, I was ready to mentally accept that we would not see any today. I was okay with it, as I was more excited for the gorillas, but at the same time, it’s super tiring to hike for that long with no site of these animals. Luckily, we heard a LOUD noise. Our guide turned to us and said, “When you hear that, you follow me and RUN.” THE CHIMPS WERE HERE. So we ran and followed our guide, who in turn followed the noise. And eventually, we caught up to them. The chimpanzees were quick. They weren’t messing around. They swung from the trees with their long, dangly arms, and crossed as a group from tree to tree. Here is a bad quality photo I was able to snap from that moment.

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You can’t see them too well in this pic, but they’re in the trees. I have better videos if you want to ever see.

The chimps were SWEET, but our time with them was short. They had their own agenda, and we were out of time. We headed back up out of the gorge, and went back to our campsite.

The next morning, we headed to Lake Bunyonyi. This was another long drive, and this campsite was where we were staying while we trekked out to see the gorillas. Again, the Ugandan countryside did not disappoint, as the view was filled with spectacular greenery.

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We arrived at Lake Bunyonyi to the most picturesque campground. Our tents were a stone’s throw away from the lake, which was surrounded by hills all around it.

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That night, I laid out my gear for the gorilla trek in my tent. As I laid back in my tent, and admired the view of the campsite as the sun slowly set, I was overwhelmed by the surreality of this experience. Having lived abroad for going on four years now, there are many parts of this experience that have become normal. I don’t experience culture shock nearly as much as I used to, and travel has become a regular part of my life. But thinking about seeing the gorillas the next day reminded me of how special this experience was. There are only 700-900 mountain gorillas left in the world and they are only found in this specific region. I knew it was on my bucket list for a reason; it was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

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The next morning, we all woke up, giddy with excitement. A quiet energy sat with us as we ate breakfast, and imagined what the day had in store. We all made sure to eat a hearty breakfast, and then got in vans that would take us to the beginning of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

We made use of the last known official bathrooms, before we were to enter the forest, and then made our way to a safety briefing that every person must hear before starting the trek. We learned that we would be accompanied by one trek leader, and two safety officers (I’m not sure of their official title, but these people were there to monitor our safety). They would carry guns, as we were told there were also elephants in the forest, who can get territorial.

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Gal squad embarking on our gorilla trek!

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So then we began our trek. We were SO excited! Our journey started off fairly easy, through paths that were easily walkable and identifiable. But very quickly, this trek got INTENSE. We started crossing mossy and misty logs to cross over streams, and our guide started to chop the path we were taking with a machete, as we no longer had any clear trail markers. This was the most rigorous trek I have ever been on.

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The trek on the way up was rigorous, but manageable. We had walking sticks that helped stabilize us through our makeshift paths. I was fearful of using random trees and plants to help me balance, as I wasn’t sure what was poisonous and what wasn’t. So I managed with my walking stick and repeated the mantra “slow and steady wins the race” many times.

After three hours of straight hiking, we reached a pause. Our guide told us that around the next set of trees, we would see the gorillas. My heart was pounding out of my chest at this point (both from being tired, but now from not being emotionally ready for these gorillas). We rounded the corner, and saw our first gorilla, a beautiful silverback who was laying in the shrubs, chomping down on some leaves. We stared in awe. What a beautiful animal.

Slowly, more gorillas made themselves seen. In total, we saw three silverbacks, a few females, and around five children, one a newborn. It was incredible. One gorilla made himself felt – and I realized this when I felt something drop on me. A gorilla pooped, while still in a tree, and I was caught in a bit of the shit storm. Totally gross, but at least it makes for an interesting story.

Here are my pictures of the gorillas below. They aren’t the greatest, and they look animatronic in some, but here they are.

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Hard to tell, but there’s a gorilla in the background here.

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We stayed with the gorillas for about an hour. The children played with each other. The mothers looked out for the children. The silverbacks just ate. They are majestic creatures, with scarily human like qualities. They share most of our DNA. To sit and observe them for an hour was pure bliss.

But the hour went by quickly, and soon enough we were trekking back down the mountain, which proved to be much more difficult than our way up. While it had not rained for several days, the floor was quite damp and muddy in some places. While we had our walking sticks, I’d often find I’d place one foot down and, even when I thought it seemed secure, the second I’d lift my other foot to move forward, the foot I was planting with started to slide down with the dirt. I fell many times (LOL). We all did. We stopped asking each other if we were okay each time we fell, because we fell so damn much. And by the end of the mountain, we were FULL of mud.

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We headed back to the campsite and hit the showers. The showers at this campsite had been notoriously busy, as other tour groups arrived there around the same time as we did, but no one was back yet, so we RUSHED to the showers. How good it felt to wash away the gorilla poop!

We all met back up shortly after to have celebratory beers. It had been a great day.

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The next morning, we awoke early to go to Rwanda. It was a short(ish) drive from Uganda to Rwanda, and a few of us had decided to go on the trip.

Rwanda is a country that has suffered great atrocities. Only 25 years ago, the country was torn apart due to a genocide that went on for three months. In those three months, an estimated one million people were murdered. I had learned about this in school and my curiosity was what led me to take this day trip.

We left early in the morning and we were headed to Kigali, the country’s capital city. Here we would go to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, and then to the hotel that inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda”.

Geographically, Rwanda is characterized by cascading hills of various shades of green. As you get closer to the city, the dirt takes on a reddish colour, and you see a lot more development.

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When we arrived at the memorial, we were taken to see a short film that previewed what we were about to see throughout the exhibit. I won’t write much more about the memorial place, because it honestly is just really sad. The memorial was powerful.

The one thing I will say about it, is that there was one section of the memorial that looked at the history of other genocides. There were small segments about the Cambodian genocide, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, etc. Looking at each of these genocides, they all start from the same origins. We are divided, and those divisions become catastrophic. It made me think that we, as human beings, continue to make the same mistakes. We have not learned from them. If I could change one thing about education, it would be that we need to explicitly teach children (and each other) how to do good and be good. How to put good into the world. How to help each other and to show compassion. I would argue that these goals should be our global curriculum, and that the other subjects come second. Because clearly, we haven’t learned all that much yet if we’re still having wars and genocides.

So the trip to Rwanda was very impactful. I also saw the Canadian Governor General, Julie Payette, who was visiting on that exact same day, to pay respects to the Rwandan people on the 25th anniversary of the genocide in their country. What are the odds?

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We left the memorial, and moved on to the hotel that inspired “Hotel Rwanda”.

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Eventually, we made it back to our campsite in Uganda. We had a few more hours on the road back to Kampala, and we made our way back to the Equatorial Line pit stop. This time, it wasn’t raining, so we took advantage of the sun and snapped a quick photo at the Equatorial Line.

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Note to self, don’t wear all black while on the equatorial line. It was very hot.

So that was my trip of a lifetime. The next day, I was back at the Red Chilli Hideaway, and headed back to the airport to return to Dubai. Waiting for me there, were my grandparents, and we began the second part of my Spring Break adventure extravaganza.