There are certain places—show-stopping hotels, Award-winning restaurants or local dive bars, incomparable vintage shops—that are worth planning your whole trip around. The Impenetrable Forest Gorilla Trek in Uganda is one of those places.
When we hit hour two of the total three that it took to track down a group of gorillas in western Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest National Park, I noticed more than just the sensation of fire ants gnawing on my calves and mud seeping between my toes. (Turns out, both the forest and my hiking socks were more penetrable than promised that day.) I noticed that, to my surprise, I felt really, really good.
I consider myself relatively out of shape. Nothing severe, but at least out of shape enough to imagine being carried out of a Pure Barre class on a stretcher before the warm-ups are even done. That’s why, after two hours of mountain climbing in oppressive humidity, the last thing I expected was to feel healthy and able and, dare I say, even eager. As if trekking through a real life rainforest wasn’t enough—breathing in the purest and most nourishing oxygen my blackened city lungs have probably ever tasted—there was, of course, the promise (or almost-promise—nothing is guaranteed!) of seeing endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, something only a controlled amount of people get to do each year. All of that proved enough of a distraction to keep me going.
Finally at the top, our group of eight hikers, several life-saving porters, and one guide spent our allotted hour with the four gorillas—three females and one silverback male—we had trekked so far to see. As I watched them eat their weight in shoots and nettles from my position in the thickets seven meters away, I accidentally made and held eye contact with the silverback, something someone in my adolescence once told me was a major no-no. A shot of adrenaline pierced my body and my heart began to race—have I made myself look like an aggressor? Is this vicious beast going to attack?!—but short of a few grunts and moans, the gentle giant didn’t seem all that interested in or aware of our group. Myth: busted. But even though I was freaking out, I was able to take stock of a few things: how the brown in each of their eyes was so rich it was almost red; how the silverback’s coat made me think of outer space, as though dust from the stars had fallen and collected on his back.
The magic of spending time with gorillas in the wild will stick with me for the rest of my life, as will the knowledge that, when it comes down to it, I’m stronger than I once thought.
Why it’s worth the trip: Though it recently transitioned from “critically endangered” to just good-old-fashioned “endangered” thanks to the joint work of environmentalists and local communities, the mountain gorilla remains a vulnerable species that lives in rather isolated and heavily protected forest regions. Outside of Uganda, these animals can only be found in the Virunga Volcanic mountains that stretch into Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. And though the population is currently on the upswing, rapidly accelerating climate change and habitat destruction remain a threat, so the possibility of seeing them in the wild will likely not exist forever.
You’ll like it here if: You’re passionate about the environment and interested in learning about the relationship between the village of Bwindi, at the base of the forest, and the inhabitants of the forest itself.
Price breakdown: An 8-day gorilla safari with Let’s Go Travel starts at $2,856 per person. LGT also curates unique travel and safari opportunities based on your specific interests. Visit their website for a cost estimate.
The crowd: Everyone over the age of 18 can participate in a gorilla trek, and there are varying degrees of difficulty to accommodate different ability levels. The Uganda Wildlife Authority is very strict about keeping the gorillas healthy, however; if you have a cold or a cough, you may not be able to participate in the trek as you could be putting the gorillas at risk of contracting diseases.
How to prepare: Bring a raincoat, thick hiking socks to tuck into your hiking pants, hiking boots, lots of water, a camera, and insect repellant. The Uganda Wildlife Authority will have hiking sticks for you to borrow and porters on staff that you can hire to help you carry your bags—and in my case, to keep you from walking off the edge of a gulf when you get too distracted looking at the pretty plants.
Pro tips: Be quiet, be respectful, and be present. Take some photos but don’t forget to put your camera down at some points. Relish the time to simply observe and appreciate. Be humble—even with a walking stick and the help of a porter (I highly recommend both), you will probably fall on your ass or slip on a rock or get thwacked in the head by a thorny branch and look like a maniac as you bleed from the head! That’s ok! It’s still worth it!
While you’re in the area: Don’t forget that there are plenty of humans who also live in this region, many of whom would love to educate you about their communities and their histories. Shop for handicrafts at any number of roadside stalls and at Ride 4 A Woman, a local-owned-and-operated collective that provides employment and financial support to women who have survived abuse. Here you can watch some of them work and meet the artists responsible for the handmade crafts on which you will no-doubt be loading up before your trip home.