African Overland Tour: Trekking With The African Mountain Gorillas

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Welcome to another chapter of our ongoing review of Absolute Africa’s “The Big Six” African Overland Tour. If you’re enjoying this piece on the mountain gorillas of Uganda (spoilers?), then you can find other chapters of our spectacular 52-day camping trip through Africa at the end of this post.  If you REALLY like this post, or are one of our parents or friends, don’t forget to like, share, and tweet using your preferred social media channels. Have more questions about this experience or anything involving our overland tour? Don’t hesitate to ask in the comments! Let’s roll! 

After leaving Jinja, we headed towards the Kalinzu forest on the western side of Uganda to chase some primates around the trees, as the area near here is famous for primate activity. To get here, we had a challenging drive day through Kampala, the capital city. There is so much traffic in even the secondary cities, when you take a drive through the middle of the capital, it is so congested it can take hours to go miles. Picture Los Angeles traffic with less rules, more breakdowns in the middle of the road, and more trash on the side. That’s what the traffic in Kampala is like. 

Instead of driving the entire 500 kilometers in one long day (don’t worry, there will be days where we drive further), Absolute chooses to break up the drive in Entebbe, a midsize Uganda city on the shores of Lake Victoria which contains a fairly busy international airport. It was at this point our group bulged from 14 passengers to 28 passengers. Doubled in size? Yes, it sure did. The number of people wasn’t unwieldy due to sheer numbers, but, honestly, the truck is not designed to actually fill it’s 28 seats with butts. The seats themselves are fine, but with every passenger comes a large backpack, a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag and pillow, and assorted snacks and drinks (usually including a 5 liter bottle of water). What was once a comfortable pack and ride in the morning immediately became an ordeal, with lockers under seats needing to be packed and repacked. If you are considering taking an overland tour with Absolute Africa, let it be known that their assertion on the website that the “average group is 14-16” and “there is plenty of room for all the souvenirs that you might want to buy” are incorrect. There are many, many, many, many great reasons to take an overland trip with Absolute, but if you’re looking for a roomy ride down to Cape Town, you won’t find it here. OK, enough complaining about the size of the group--tangent over.

We arrived in Entebbe near sunset, and while the option to walk down to the shores of the biggest lake in Africa was available, most of us chose to drink some cheap beers (Nile Specials were our drink of choice in Uganda, no more Tusk-Ehs) and mingle with our new truckmates. Another early morning start and we headed west towards Kalinzu. As soon as we woke up, Renee was feeling ill. We had been lucky so far to avoid any sort of food poisoning thus far through East Africa, but it appeared our luck had run out. And on a day when we would be driving ten hours through the mountains! Yay! Our driver Angelo and tour leader Derek really shined here, allowing Renee to stay lying down in the cab for most of the day and stopping frequently for bush bathroom stops. 

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She was able to summon a smile for a photo opportunity at the Equator where we saw a real life Cornelius Effect (water swirling in opposite directions on opposite sides of the Equator), but she was pretty much out for the count.

As we arrived in Kalinzu, she went to lay in the tent and fell asleep by 7PM. Luckily, it was just a 24-hour bug, and she felt fine the next day.

Unfortunately, we had to miss the chimpanzee trek through the forest the next morning, this optional activity ($50/person) received rave reviews from whomever attended, the opportunity to see chimpanzees in the wild is certainly once-in-a-lifetime, but it wasn’t worth dwelling on because of what was to come in the next few days. Here’s a picture from the chimp trek, if you want to, you can pretend that we went on it.

Photo Credit: Laura "Wax Me Knickers" Aramayo

Photo Credit: Laura "Wax Me Knickers" Aramayo

Instead of the chimps, while Renee rested, I went on a quick tour of a nearby tea plantation, which was interesting but unsatisfying, as the tour guide barely spoke English and couldn’t answer any of our questions. The best part of the tour was when a family of baboons came out to investigate the group. As we packed up our truck and drove away, we saw another pack run onto the campground looking for any scraps we may have left behind. I told you the Kalinzu was filled with primates.

We had hoped to spot tree-climbing lions on our way through Queen Elizabeth National Park (THAT’S RIGHT I SAID TREE CLIMBING LIONS), but we were unlucky, and saw only a huge pack of elephants crossing the road around our truck. I’m being sarcastic, it was the opposite of unlucky, and was Renee’s favorite part of any safari we had been on. They were literally crossing directly in front of our truck, you guys! A lion in a tree would have been cool, but to be able to see more than a dozen enormous animals (including babies!) surround our truck was a highlight of our entire trip.

While in Queen Elizabeth, we took a game cruise along the Kazinga Channel, which allowed for us to see literally hundreds of hippoes and buffalo along the shore, as well as a ton of different species of birds, including pelicans, maribou storks, and kingfishers, who immediately jumped into my Top Ten Favorite Animals I’d Seen On Safari List That Changed Literally Every Game Drive. Our campground that night was called Hippo Camp, because the hippoes came up from the Lake and grazed outside the tents and shelters; we were warned not to leave our tents in the middle of the night, just hold it. Because of this warning and the fact that we had slept in a tent for over two weeks, we decided to upgrade to what appeared to a great cabin with a private bathroom. FUN STORY ALERT: In the middle of the night, Renee woke me up and told me she heard something in the bathroom, to which I responded groggily, “It’s fine, baby, just go back to sleep.” Eventually, she fell back asleep, and when we awoke in the morning, we found our soapdish OPEN and our soap GONE. That means something with the opposable thumbs to open a soapdish had been in our bathroom, and that (we assume) it hadn’t been a hippo. 

Another early morning start (are you noticing a trend?), and we were on our way to Kisoro and the Virunga Mountains. While this was a long drive, the last two hours (from Kabale to Kisoro) through the foothills filled with terrace farms and lake overlooks was among the most beautiful drives I’ve ever experienced. 

We arrived in Kisoro and had a terrific local dinner at Rafiki’s Guest House, enjoying some beers as we were able to sleep late the next morning. After a leisurely breakfast, we took a tour of a local coffee farm ($25/person), seeing exactly how the beans turn into drinkable liquid, even harvesting beans and less than an hour later, drinking the delicious java we had pulled off the tree. When I say it is truly an organic experience, I mean that literally everything, from the harvesting to the roasting to the grinding is done by hand. The taste confirmed why Uganda is the new hotness for coffee beans.

The next morning we were taken in small groups (no more than eight) into Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to trek for the endangered Mountain Gorillas. 

The African mountain gorillas, which live exclusively in the Virunga Mountains of Uganda or Rwanda (you’ll need to submit your passport as you trek, as you may cross freely between the countries), number less than 700 remaining in the world. The Ugandan & Rwandan government get together and issue 40 permits daily, and they’re quite costly ($450/person), but the opportunity to get this close to an animal that shares over 98% of it’s DNA with humans in the wild is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Certain families of the primates have been “habituated”, which means they see humans as a neutral part of their environment as opposed to a predator. The way this is done is the same trackers follow the same family of gorillas every day for up to 6 months, and EVERY DAY the silverback gorillas charge them. EVERY DAY these trackers put themselves in mortal danger, and eventually they grow so used to people that they just start to ignore them. They only habitualize up to ten families at a time, and when you’re doing a mountain gorilla trek, the trackers go out a few hours ahead of you and find the families and lead you and your guides there with radios.

The trek starts at about 8AM (we left the guesthouse at 5:30AM to start on time), and you need to be prepared to trek for up to SIX hours into the rainforest to find the gorillas. Luckily, we only had to trek about 90 minutes through machete-chopped rainforest to find a family of eight gorillas sitting in the trees. 

By law, you only get to spend an hour with the gorillas, and it was the fastest hour of my life. After looking at a silverback sitting and eating leaves for a few minutes, a baby less than a month old who would lock eyes with each male in our group and slowly beat his chest to establish dominance for a few minutes, and a juvenile being playfully knocked out of a tree by his mother and laying on the ground whining until she came down to comfort him for a couple of minutes, and our hour was over. Well, actually, this happened (You'll want to go fullscreen):

Then our hour was over. Once in a lifetime. 

Like these pictures? Be sure to check out our Uganda photo album on Facebook for hundreds more!