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Published: June 16th 2007
When I first arrived in to East Africa, I came jam-packed with a mental list of things I wanted to do. Tracking mountain gorillas was not on the list as it costs $300~$500 just for the permits into the national parks in Rwanda and Uganda, and that was a shocker coming fresh off the India trail where I was traveling at $10-15 a day. I justified my decision with the thought, how special could it be... with 97% DNA similarities and weighing 440 lbs, they're just bigger, hairier versions of us. The pains of shoestring backpacking!
A day later after talking with other backpackers I met at the hostel in Nairobi, I concluded that HAD to go track the gorillas! I had to sacrifice going to the Serengeti for the wildebeest migration *sniffle sniffle* off my travels due to the financial hit, but shoestring backpacking is about choices, and I had decided that I MUST go see them! Being that there are a little over 600 mountain gorillas left in the world, all of which are living in East Africa, when else would I have this amazing opportunity?
**I'm going to write in detail (as I normally do anyway)
for anyone who is interested in tracking the mountain gorillas for as cheap as possible (I think I broke world records on this! Wahoo!), which I recommend as a must if you visit East Africa, as it'll be one of the highlights of your life, beyond the obvious milestones.
The process was a bit difficult b/c gorilla tracking is limited to only three options: (1) Uganda
: $375 for the permit, and starting from July, it goes up to $500. So this is the most popular place to track them, and it's considered the safest place to do it. However, b/c this is the most popular choice, the permits are booked for weeks and months in advance. The lady at the Ugandan Wildlife Authority laughed at us when we asked for the permits on the "soonest available date." (2) Rwanda
: $500 just for the permits, so that option ended right then and there. And everything in Rwanda just costs more than the surrounding East African countries. (3) Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)
: $300 for the permits, so financially it is ideal. However, it's a big gamble with your safety and even life. With the hardcore guerrilla and rebel activities
and political turmoil going on in the DRC, it is by far one of the most dangerous region in Africa, and only a few years ago, "Africa's World War" happened there with eight African countries involved, resulting in the death of nearly 4 million people. Additionally, a group of four tourists were kidnapped (three were never found again) while tracking gorillas in 1998, and a park ranger was killed in May 2007, etc etc etc. It has a pretty bad saftey record and it is highly advised not to take this option.
Around this time, I met Megan, a talented artist and graphic designer from Chicago, who's on a yearlong travel blitz around Asia, Middle East and Africa. She was also interested in the gorillas, so we decided to go for it and track them in the DRC. Whatever, we're saving $200 on the permits alone!!
We arranged everything through our hostel, Backpackers in Kampala, who is the official info center for tracking gorillas in the DRC. We were told to get on the 6 a.m. bus from Kampala (Uganda's capital) to Kisoro, the nearest town to the DRC border, located in south-western Uganda. From there,
we were to find our way to Golden Monkey Guesthouse, from which "Daniel" would take over as our informant. Shady shit I know...we literally went over there not knowing anything except the things I listed above. (cheapo FYI- to save the $10/person booking fee to Backpackers, you can just call Golden Monkey and find Daniel through them).
The bus to Kisoro left Kampala at 6 a.m. and took about 9 hours, and it was a crowded, congested, disorientating journey with people squished to the max along the aisles, with elbows in my face for the first two hours, and at every rest stop, our bus was surrounded by people selling bananas and random gadgets from radios to clothes pins and everything else in between-- sodas, samosas (fried Indian dumplings), chapatti (greasy, yummy African version of flat Indian bread), etc etc etc. It was complete utter madness, but in a good way. The energy and the life you see everywhere is invigorating! Once we reached Kabale, two good changes occurred: (1) half the people got off the bus, creating breathing space, and (2) the ride up the mountains from Kabale to Kisoro was one of the most stunning landscape scenery
I'd ever seen... lush, mountainous farmland engulfing Lake Bunyoni, and hills and hills of cultivated terraces... ahhh.. it was magical! It reminded me a bit of Nepal, but it seemed a little more moist, tropical and hilly here. By the time we reached the tiny town of Kisoro, it was pouring like mad, and naturally, the boda boda touts were inflating the price to get to Golden Monkey. We waited for the rain to reduce to a drizzle and ended up walking to the guesthouse, being greeted with "Muzungu! Muzungu!" ("white person") by the locals. To them, anyone who is not black is considered a muzungu, as they use the word interchangably with "forienger."
We waited all night for Daniel to get back... which he eventually did at midnight after a series of unfortunate events. There were 30 people tracking gorillas and they were split into four trekking groups: fast, medium, slow, slower. In one of the groups, an elderly couple trekked so slowly that they reached the gorillas at 4 p.m. when they should have
reached them at noon; then it started to pour, which reduced the speed even more; by the time it was 7 p.m., they
were walking through the dense forest in pitch black darkness
; they eventually reached the DRC/Uganda border after 10 p.m. to find the immigration office closed so they had to wait for the officials to come and open up again; finally, they crossed over to Uganda and drove through a terrible 15 km stretch of bumps and potholes in the dark! All this in the pouring rain! Yikes, what a terrible day to track gorillas! I can't think of a trek being worse minus a guerrilla or a gorilla attack!
Megan was already asleep so I went to Daniel to get briefed on our plans for the next day. The price break down went like: GORILLA FEES
::a:: $300 gorilla permit
::b:: $30 DRC visa
::c:: $15 Uganda transit visa
::d:: USh 50,000 ($32) transport from Kisoro to Uganda border--split cost w Megan
::e:: $100 transport from DRC border to Parc National des Virungas --split cost w Megan OTHER FEES
::f:: USh 20,000($12ish) for bus from Kampala to Kisoro
::g:: USh 10,000 ($6ish)/night for accommodation at Golden Monkey
The costs of transport (d and e) are to be split amongst the group, so it would be between
Megan and I to pay for it since we were the only two tracking gorillas. So I used my fine tuned negotiation skills (thanks to India) with Daniel and managed to knock off $30 and get the price down to $70 for the both of us. In the end, everything cost a little over $400 per person, and I think that's pretty good considering that packaged trips to see the gorillas in Uganda cost anywhere from $600 to $1,200 based on the estimations I got from two companies. Each permit allows you to spent exactly one hour with the gorillas once you reach them (more than an hour might give the gorillas stress), so this would officially be the most expensive hour of my life, minus rare extravagant shopping sprees back home in LA!
We groggily started out the next morning at 6 a.m. and reached the border as the sun started to show some life through the mystic foggy morning. We could barely see the volcanoes far off in the distance, and we were surrounded by lush landscapes and the early morning chill. We got ready to check out of Uganda and head for the...drum roll... DRC!!!
We waited around for a while doing nothing and I'm not sure how the time managed to pass so fast, but by the time we got the DRC visa and crossed from the Ugandan border town of Bunagana to the DRC borer town of Bukima, it was nearing 9 a.m. We were in an ancient 4x4 accompanied by two (very very cute) soldiers armed with machine guns b/c this area is still considered unstable and unsafe. That made me feel a bit nervous!
The DRC side is really different from the Uganda side, although they are just neighbors. The thing about crossing international borders overland is that things look pretty similar, like when I crossed from India into Nepal, Vietnam into Lao and from Kenya into Uganda, things still looked more or less similar. However, in my crossing from Uganda to the DRC, I could immediately see that life here is on a far lower economic standard, poverty seemed more apparent in the villages and the precious little children and adults didn't smile as much as those you see in Kenya and Uganda (smile land!). Actually, I didn't see much smiling at all on this side of the border.
I thought about how these people have lived through and continue to live through atrocious realities and I almost feel guilty for being there, privileged and lucky in the 4x4 and armed guards, and selfishly relived that at the end of the day, I have my comfy bed back home.
We were dropped off a kilometer away from the park entrance as the road conditions got too deteriorated to drive on, and was escorted by the two cute armed guards. Then the children started coming out from the fields, homes and bushes yelling "Muzungu" "Jambo" and "How ah you?!!?!" Once we reached the national park, we parted ways with the two cute guards and Daniel, as he transferred us over to our gorilla tracking guide, and two new armed guards-- one who stopped occasionally to smoke pot. "Umm sir, can you shoot guerrillas or violent gorillas while you're stoned?"
Before we went into the part, we went into an office where the park ranger briefed us on a lot of safety rules like don't touch and don't feed. Also, don't cough or sneeze because these gorillas are susceptible to human diseases.
Since it had rained so much
the night before, some parts of the walking trails were sticky, squishy mud. I didn't have my trekking shoes with me (it was being held hostage in a storage locker in Nairobi!), so I had Megan's strappy, sturdy sandals. SANDALS! Can you believe that? Trekking through the jungle with sandals and socks? It wasn't exactly my brightest nor proudest moment. Megan also made fun of me b/c I was carrying my green shoulder bag/purse for the trek-- I looked more like a person ready for shopping than trekking. But I was a determined shopper!
The trek was a bit rough, mainly because of the dense vegetation, sharp twigs, and the muddy trail. It really is an impenetrable forest, and the smells, sounds and sights were amazingly fresh, fresh, FRESH! This is what green smells like! During the trek, we met four other guards and rangers, so our team of body guards expanded to a comfy seven, four of whom carried machine guns and two others had machetes to cut through the dense vegetation. We were super duper lucky to track the gorillas on this day, because just the day before, it was pouring rain and these seven guards were
split for those 30 people tracking the gorillas, whereas on this clear day, it was just Megan and I.. meaning that all the guards stayed with us! Three armed guards for each of us!
So we walked, and w a l k e d, and w a l k e d...... I would've enjoyed it a lot more if I had been in trekking shoes, but I had to often look down to make sure I wasn't going to get stabbed by a twig!
We reached the base of a steep, slippery hill and one of the guys broke off some thick branches for Megan and I to use as walking sticks. We walked and slipped for 30 minutes up the hill, and just as I thought "Are we there ye...", one of the rangers said, "Two more minutes..."
We walked through dense bushes and I spotted the silverback (alpha male) first because he was the biggest and most commanding of the group. My body tensed up from instinctual fear... how else would you react when you are face-to-face with a massive gorilla in their 'hood? I noticed the others scattered around: three mates, two young adults
and three babies. Right as we all made our way into the opening, they all stopped to look over at us... there was one group on the left just hanging out; the silverback was being groomed by his main mate (wifey #1); the babies were goofing around; and there were some more hiding in the bushes.
I'm not sure if it's my imagination, but the babies seemed like they wanted to entertain us or something, and they starting rolling around and goofing off in hyperactivity as soon as we came, or maybe it's not always about me and gorilla babies are normally like that. The babies came close up to us and even touched my bag and my leg (cute!!), until the guard started making some noises at the baby to shoo him away, and warned me to step back because the proximity to the baby might irritate the silverback & co. The grown ups on the other hand, were less enthusiastic and had this expression like "oh, there are those monkeys again." At some point in this initial encounter, the silverback turned around to presumably show us his back and let us know who's da boss. SUPER COOL!
We were able to get super close to the gorillas, and at one point, I was one foot away from the female gorilla (scared the sh!t out of me) as it walked past me, and I sat 3 feet away from the silverback to take a picture. Something about his big belly and gentle nature reminded me so much of my dad, that I was tempted to just crawl on his lap and see what would happen (he cuddles me, or crushes me).
Megan kept track on her watch to make sure we got our full hour (which I recommend others to do as well). The gorillas hung out for about 40 minutes and then moved into the bushes, and we followed them. The kids were swinging on the tree vines like Tarzan, and the silverback ate for about 10 minutes while the others were just scattered around. Then they all moved again, and we followed the silverback to have some quality time with the pops. He just sat there looking so incredibly peaceful... wow, words can't even begin to explain the feeling of seeing a 200+ kg mountain gorilla in front of your eyes, witnessing the similarities
they have to us and realizing that despite their massive size, the gorillas are gentle creatures. I even got all teary-eyed when I saw the silverback grooming a baby.
As we were leaving, we saw another group of gorillas (from the same family) and got to spend some bonus time with them before starting our trek back. With the excitement of having seen the gorillas, we were pounding our way through the forest and reached the entrance in only two and a half hours. Our middle man, Daniel, seemed a bit shady and he told us to give him
the tip for the rangers, and he would distrubute it accordingly.. uh yea right. So before we reached the park entrance, we gave all seven guys an equal tip.
Thunder started during our walk back to the 4x4, and by the time we bid farewell our (super cute) transport guards, it started to drizzle. Once we crossed back to Uganda, we hopped on a boda boda (motorcycle) and rode through the sprinkle. That also made me think about how shady Daniel was b/c the USh 50,000 was for car transport to and from Kisoro to the border, and boda
bodas are WAY cheap. Later Daniel and the boda guys got into a fight as he underpaid them... shady man! But I guess everyone is just trying to survive.
After the gorillas, Megan and I went to Lake Bunyoni in Uganda to unwind. When we mentioned to the owner of the campsite that we went to the DRC, he was utterly shocked and told us that the owner of Backpackers had stopped doing the gorilla treks b/c (1) a ranger was killed in May, (2) two silverbacks were beheaded and their hands amputated, and (3) a German tourist was robbed of everything he had... including his clothes and droped off naked at the border. For Megan and I, we had a wonderful and safe experience -- for which I'm extremely grateful, but I guess the dangers are there. Regardless, I would do it again. Yay for mountain gorillas, these beautiful, cuddly creatures! 😊
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