-Ohohahahohoa. Omax is making some weird sounds, almost like he’s imitating the primates we are about to visit. -This is how we communicate with the trackers when we’re are getting close.
Planning to go gorilla tracking in wet season felt like a game of chance. I read everything I could find. Most information I found advised to go in the dry seasons June – August and December – February. However, there was a few upsides to come during the rains too. Firstly, wet season means low season fewer tourists. It is both easier to obtain tracking permits and one could be lucky to be in a tracking group of less than the maximum eight people. Secondly, because of the chilly temperatures, one could be lucky to find the gorillas at a lower altitude close to the starting point.
The downsides were quite obvious. Rain means muddy and slippery paths, making both ascents and descents harder. Hiking in rain jackets in a humid and hot environment is damp. Just like humans, animals like to hide from the worst showers. Including the gorillas. Heavy rain finds its way through more or less everything, even backpacks with rain covers. And maybe most importantly, rain makes photographing difficult.
Let us just say I came prepared for the worst but hoped for the best.
Tracking gorillas from Rushaga
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994 and is home to approx. half of the mountain gorillas in the world. And to no surprise, our furry relatives are the main reason to why tourists come here.
There are different entry points for tracking gorillas and Rushaga is one of them. Depending on the season and time of booking, you can request where to go from. More on how to plan and book further down. Doing our gorilla trek in wet season meant we had more options. Rushaga was ideal for our adventure-filled two weeks in Uganda, as it was close(ish) to Lake Bunyonyi where we were heading next.
From Rushaga there are five troops of habituated mountain gorillas, including the Bweza which we had permits to meet. Gorillas being habituated, means they over years have become accustomed to humans and are safe to encounter.
What was it really like, gorilla tracking in Uganda in wet season?
On the morning of our trek, we woke up to a fantastic choir of the forest: birds, insects, and black and white colobus monkeys were all busy before the crack of dawn. A cup (or two) of coffee while admiring the light rising in the Gorilla Valley Lodge’s garden, I was ready for everything – rain or no rain.
Did we worry when it started to drizzle as our guide Omax started his brief? A bit. At least all cameras were rushed into dry bags. So, what next? Did the sky open fully? Nope. As we ascended into the forest on a nice and dry path, cameras came back out and rain jackets came off.
The day in the rain forest actually turned out to be the driest day during our entire Uganda tour!
At the time Omax had started communicating with the trackers using weird sounds, we had been out for approx. 2 hours. While 2/3 of the hike had gone gently uphill on a nice and wide single-track trail, the last 30 minutes had shown us why it is called the impenetrable forest. We were walking and climbing straight uphill through the bushes, just following the trackers voices. This section was a bit muddy, but nothing worse than you should expect on any hike Norway no matter the season.
Meeting the Bweza’s
Soon after we walked into the two trackers, Owen and Roland. It was time to put on facemasks and leave everything but our camera gear with our porters, Samu and Apollon. It was finally time to meet Chief Bweza and his family.
Clinging on to the bushes as we maneuvered along the slippery slope you could probably both see and feel our excitement. And suddenly, there he was! A 200-300 kg massive body sat between the bushes just a few metres away, showing off his distinct grey patch on his back. The silverback.
Where were the others? Apparently the 16 other family members had already started to move on to a new place to eat. The dominant male was just waiting to follow them. In a couple of minutes’, he was off too – at a speed and grace that almost seemed impossible for the large, bulky body.
And we? We followed. Sliding down trying to hold on to whatever we could, be it leafy branches or the tracker’s hands. It was so steep that the juvenile gorilla’s method of just rolling down the hill made more sense than trying to stay upright on two feet. But down we came, all limbs intact.
For an hour we sat in the middle of a clearing in the forest, just watching the troop eat and interact. One juvenile showed off, swinging on branches, falling, slapping his chest. Training to become a silverback in 10-12 years’ time.
I lost track of time. Moved whenever Omax or the trackers showed me a better spot to watch and photograph. Tried to be in the moment but also save it to my camera’s memory card.
It felt like only a few minutes had past when mr. Bweza again got up and started to move further uphill. I looked at Omax, where we following? He shook his head. Our time with the mountain gorillas was almost out, with no time to follow them again.
The perfect conclusion to our wet season gorilla trek
As the gorillas moved away, one of the trackers waved on us to come closer. A mother was still nursing her baby and in no rush to break up their quiet moment.
It struck me how similar we are. Gorillas and humans. In fact, we share 98% of the same DNA. Seeing the relationship between mother and child made it even more real. This is the reason why wearing facemasks, staying home if feeling unwell, and keeping at least 7 metres away from the primates are mandatory. Their immune system is not accustomed to human viruses and what is a simple cold for us, could endanger a whole family of gorillas.
Omax counted down the seconds. It was time for us to leave the Bweza’s alone and get out of the forest. The perfect ending to a perfect wet season gorilla tracking adventure – without any signs of rain.
Why you should hire a porter for the day
Instead of scrambling back up the slippery slope to where we departed with our porters, Omax cut his way through the walls of bushes till we met the trail leading to the tracking station. Here we met up with Samu and Apollon again, who had looked after our belongings and walking sticks for the last hour.
Samu helped Fatima, and Apollon me. We had been advised to hire a porter for the tracking. Not only was it lovely not having to carry the backpack filled with water, rain proof clothes, and food, but I found great company in Apollon. During our hike he shared stories about his life in the area and was interested in what Norway was like. Always with a large smile and a helping hand ready if needed.
Being a porter to tourists is one of very few opportunities to earn some extra money in this region. It costs a minimum of 15 USD, and you pay directly to your porter. We had read that 25 USD was normal and that is what we paid the equivalent in Ugandan shillings. Well worth every penny!
A rotation system makes sure everyone interested in being a porter gets their turn. Apollon told me that pre-covid he usually had two days of porter work a month, now it was down to one. Fewer tourists may be an upside to the tourist’s experience, but a downside to the local economy.
What to think of when going gorilla tracking in wet season
Since Bwindi is a rain forest you should always be prepared for rain, and these tips apply to any season. What was most important to me was to be able to keep my belongings dry. Most importantly my phone and my camera gear, but even the extra clothes I brough would be a hassle to dry.
I brought lightweight dry bags of various sizes and packed everything, except for the water bottles, in them and had one ready to put my camera in if needed. The dry bags doubled as packing cubes for my main luggage. In addition, I brought a rain cover for my backpack.
For myself, I brought a lightweight Gore-Tex jacket and rain pants. The jacket doubled as wind jacket and was nice to have on chilly mornings. My old Gore-Tex hiking shoes was not 100% waterproof, but as always when hiking I put on thin wool socks which keep me warm even when wet. Gaiters was great both for keeping safari ants off my legs and mud off my pants.
Since I had planned to hire a porter for the trek, I also brough a hip pack just large enough to carry a bottle of water, my phone, canon eos m50 camera, and an extra lens.
A hat is great for keeping water, sun, and insects of your head, and gardening gloves allow you to grab onto whatever as you scramble through the bush. There is no need to bring your own walking stick as they have plenty for loan.
How to plan your wet season gorilla tracking experience?
In wet season you can be more spontaneous and opt to book your gorilla tracking permits closer to your departure date. In dry season, on the other hand, it is wise to book as early as 6 months in advance. The is no guarantee to obtain a permit at any given time, as spaces are limited to 8 people per habituated gorilla family a day. Find the date, get the permit, and book the rest of your tour around that.
There are different ways of booking the gorilla permits. If you opt for doing it individually, you must contact the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) in Kampala. They can hold your booking until you have made the payment via bank transfer. Make sure you consider enough time to get to the forest for your trekking experience, driving in Uganda takes more time than Google Maps think. Especially in wet season as the dirt roads into the mountains can get muddy and slippery. If you do not want to get up in the middle of the night, book a hotel near the station you are tracking from.
I would, on the other hand, recommend to book via a travel agent. We got our whole itinerary tailor-made by Whitecrest Tours & Travel and couldn’t be happier. Simon Peter arranged everything via WhatsApp and secured our permits before settling the rest of our program. He actually did this twice for us, first in 2020 and then in 2022.
This way you can just sit back and enjoy the views of the colourful country, while your driver makes sure you get where you are supposed in time. I was really glad I was not the one behind the wheel on our long and bumpy drive from Mabamba Swamps to Rushaga the day before tracking.