• Wed. May 24th, 2023

Gorilla trekking in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park is one for the travel bucket list

Seeing gorillas in the wild – close enough to look them in the eye – feels like something only David Attenborough gets to do. But in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, Africa it’s not only possible but it was surprisingly easy.

Setting out with our ranger Amos there’s a tension in the air – will we get to see these amazing creatures up close? They are wild animals after all, and it’s not guaranteed.

But we were barely walking for 20 minutes when we unexpectedly spot a family of seven gorillas, including two babies – Kasil and Miracle.

At first they are in the thick of the rainforest and hard to spot – the forest is called impenetrable after all – but after a rest they come out into a more open space and we see them in all their glory.

Looking a gorilla in the eye is an experience like no other. We’re a 98 per cent DNA match to the primates and you can feel it. They are spectacular.

Our family were so relaxed in our presence. They didn’t approach us and we were told to stay at least 10 metres away, but we were close enough to observe their behaviour. We stayed with them for well over an hour and even saw one of the female gorillas breastfeed her baby.

We also experienced the wonder of seeing a silverback trudge around in full view. They are huge, powerful creatures but also have a calmness about them. I’d been lucky enough to see chimps earlier in the week and the gorillas certainly felt more predictable.

The rangers know these gorillas like they are family. They track them every day and analyse their behaviour even when tourists aren’t there. Gorillas are essential to Uganda’s future and keeping them safe and thriving is a tricky balance.

The endangered gorillas provide much needed tourism but they can also cause destruction for locals by ransacking crops which has seen them poached. However, after being educated on gorillas and other wildlife, many former poachers now work for Uganda Wildlife Authority to help keep these precious creatures protected and growing in number.

Although wild, the gorillas at Bwindi have been habituated which means over two years they have slowly been exposed to the presence of humans in the form of park rangers. This means they aren’t fazed by tourists who wander through their habitat. We were safe but one of our rangers Simon had a gun in case of any extreme emergencies – although he’s never had to use it on the gorillas, just to warn some wayward forest elephants.

We were particularly lucky to find our gorilla family in such a short space of time – it can involve hours of trekking to spot them but the forest is beautiful and the hike also means an opportunity to encounter monkeys and elephants.

Our accommodation, in the nearby town of Kanungu, should also be added to any keen travellers list. Ride 4 a Woman is a guesthouse, charity and all around amazing place established by local women Evelyn Habasa.

She grew up in the area but moved away to the capital Kampala to go to university and planned to never return to live. But her mum told her women in the area needed her to help lift them up – and that’s how Ride 4 a Woman was born.

Initially a bicycle hire place which trained women to repair the bikes, it was a chance encounter with a Melbourne woman that saw it change forever.

Evelyn met Patricia Salau in the town as the Aussie woman was buying kitenge fabric to take home to make quilts. Evelyn didn’t know what quilting was, so when Patricia got home she sent her pictures of the quilts. A year later, Patricia came back to Uganda to teach local women how to use a sewing machine.

Today, over 60 sewers and basket makers are employed by Evelyn and they contribute to a thriving shop where beautiful African fabrics can be turned into quilts, skirts, pants, place mats – and anything else you desire. The women are mainly widows, single mums or domestic violence survivors. As well as getting a much-needed wage for these women, the shops funds other essential projects.

Ride 4 a Woman provides clean drinking water to the entire town, offers domestic violence victims safe refuge away from the town and has a microfinance program where women can get funding to start a business.

I met mum-of-two Ashari who opened a grocery store thanks to the funding. This kind of initiative is giving women an income and power in the family dynamic that they may never have experienced otherwise.

Staying with Evelyn at Ride 4 a Woman leaves you feeling hopeful and inspired. She describes it as a “home away from home” and that is spot on.

The accommodation varies from relatively basic but perfectly comfortable, to more high-end rooms with a terrace and fancy bathroom.

Each night there’s a buffet meal of traditional Ugandan food including millet bread, yummy peanut sauce and tooke (green banana) mash.

Although projects like Evelyn’s are helping women, Uganda has a long way to go in other areas. It recently passed a bill imposing the death penalty on LGBTQI+ people, something to bear in mind when considering a trip to the country.

Seeing gorillas in the wild and staying at Evelyn’s place are the perfect match for any traveller who loves wildlife and also wants to experience Ugandan culture and hospitality.

If you want to see gorillas in the wild then add Uganda to your bucket list right now.

Riah Matthews was in Uganda as a guest of Uganda Tourism Board and Uganda Wildlife Authority

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