Bespolka Home Page Uganda 2001 Home Africa 2000/01 Home
Previous Day   Next Day


The Travel Journal of Jacqui and Lars


Uganda - 6 February, 2001



Location Latitude Longitude Elevation

Travel Distance

Start Kisoro S01º16.964' E029º41.041' 1,916 m
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (entrance) S01º21.251' E029º37.148' 2,340 m 15 km (pick-up truck)
Tracking the mountain gorillas - Nyakagezi group S01º21.239' E029º36.361' 2,353 m 1.5 km (walk)
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (entrance) S01º21.251' E029º37.148' 2,340 m 1.5 km (walk)
Finish Kisoro S01º16.964' E029º41.041' 1,916 m 15 km (pick-up truck)


23,701 km

2,781 km


Weather: Very mixed.  Began cloudy with occasional drizzle and cool. Cleared up while watching the gorillas and became partly sunny and warm.  Then throughout the day varied with clouds, sun and rain.  Cool/cold at night.


The Mountain Gorillas of Mgahinga, Uganda


Daily Journal Entry:

Today we head off to see the mountain gorillas that are located in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in the south western corner of Uganda.  This is an experience that only a few get to enjoy and is something that we will remember for the rest of our lives.


Mgahinga Gorilla National Park:  Mgahinga is a national park established in the south-western corner of Uganda and covers the northern slopes of the three northernmost Virunga volcanoes.  The park borders on the Republic of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with both of these countries protecting their portion of the Virungas in the Parc National des Volcans and Parc National des Virunga.  The three parks together form the 434 km² "Virunga Conservation Area", with Mgahinga's 33.7 km² encompassing just 8% of this area.


The park has gone through a long history of mixed use, including being used as farm land.  It was only in 1991 that the park was gazetted and the people relocated from the farm land that is now slowly being returned to its natural state.  The primary purpose of the park now is to protect the few remaining mountain gorillas.  There are estimated to be only about 600 mountain gorillas left in the world - all contained in the three countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo (none have survived in zoos).  There is only one group of mountain gorillas in Mgahinga that is habituated to humans.


The Mountain Gorilla:  Gorillas are the largest of the great apes, the group that includes chimpanzees and orang-utans.  Genetically, humans, chimps and gorillas are very closely related, with humans sharing 97% of the same genes with gorillas.  There are three sub-species of gorillas - the western lowland gorilla, the eastern lowland gorilla and the mountain gorilla.  The mountain gorilla is the rarest of the apes. Mountain gorillas were first "discovered" in 1902, when a German officer named Oscar von Beringe shot two of them.  His name, ironically, was attached to the subspecies - Gorilla gorilla beringei.  


The mountain gorilla is found in only two small populations - about 290 in the Bwindi forest and 300 in the Virunga volcanoes.  They have never been reared successfully in captivity and there are none in zoos.  There is only one mountain gorilla for every ten million people on earth.


Gorillas are vegetarians, eating mainly leaves, stems and bark.  The plants they eat - bamboo shoots, giant thistles and lobelias, and crunchy wild celery - contain lots of water, so they do not need to drink for much of the year.  They must eat huge quantities every day - over 20 kg for an adult male - and they often look bloated.  They spend about 30% of their time eating, 30%  moving and foraging and the remaining 40% resting.


Gorilla groups will be on the move constantly, usually looking for food.  They will move about one kilometer in a day.  Every night they will make new nests, usually grouped around the dominant male.  Gorillas usually live in family groups, averaging about 12 in size.  A silverback male (so called because he will have silver hair on his back) will lead the group, but it is possible to have other silverbacks in the same group - often related to the leader.


It is interesting to note that the mountain gorilla has to be habituated to humans prior to allowing tourists or researchers to visit them.  This is a time consuming task and the process can take up to two years.  The trackers will, every day, go visit the gorilla group and slowly get them used to the presence of humans.  After first, the gorillas will remain hidden, but over the months the trackers will be able to see more and more of the gorillas.  At the end of the process, the trackers can approach to within 5 meters of the gorillas with out scaring them off.


Uganda01_Gorilla01_ParkEntrance_2128_Web.gif (213084 bytes)

Tracking the Mountain Gorilla:  We are up early to grab a bite to eat, get ready and prepare our pack lunch.  A pick-up truck comes to collect us shortly after 7 AM.  We head up to the entrance to the park, arriving around 8 AM.  After signing in, we are given a short briefing on the tracking that we will do today, including the rules.


Uganda01_Gorilla03_Landscape_2130_Web.gif (180725 bytes)

We head off at 8:30 AM.  At first we hike along a stretch of former farm land that has recently been added to the park. They are rehabilitating it and allowing the forest to return.  It will take time, but it is an important buffer zone.


Uganda01_Gorilla04_Hike_2131_Web.gif (294207 bytes)

Shortly before 9 AM we enter the actual rain forest.  There are no established trails here, so we need to follow trails that have just been hacked out of the jungle.  Quite often we have to stoop down and squeeze our way through parts.


Uganda01_Gorilla05_Nest_2132_Web.gif (328397 bytes)

Within 10 minutes we find one of the nest from the night before.  There is fresh dung in the nest.  We then hear the noises of the gorillas - they are nearby.  They have not moved very far.  The food is very good in this area.


Uganda01_Gorilla11_Juvenile_Tree_2140_Web.gif (240176 bytes)

At first we only get short glimpses of them through the trees and leaves.  We walk around trying to get a better view, but no luck.  The gorillas move around in the underbrush and we can hear some in the trees with an occasional glimpse of a juvenile.


Uganda01_Gorilla12_Bigingo_2142_Web.gif (285193 bytes)

The guides take us through the clearing and, after hacking away some branches, there right in front of us is Bigingo, the male silverback who is the leader of the group.  He is 42 years old and his name means "Father of strong arms".  We can just see him through the branches.


Uganda01_Gorilla14_Bigingo_2145_Web.gif (280226 bytes)

We watch for a while as he continues to eat.  All of a sudden he gets a bit agitated as we are taking our pictures.  He sits up and gets on all fours and all of a sudden he charges us making loud noises at the same time.  The guides tell us to stand our ground, but not to look him in the eye.  The 200 kg gorilla stops one meter from Lars and the others.  It was incredible.


Uganda01_Gorilla15_Bigingo_2146_Web.gif (278508 bytes)

Bigingo hangs out in that spot for a while looking at us and moving around a bit. 


Uganda01_Gorilla16_Bigingo_ChallengeMark_2147_Web.gif (295833 bytes)

After a while, we hear another gorilla in the tree.  Bigingo walks back a few meters and then there seems to be a bit of a challenge going on between Bigingo and the other silverback in the group - Mark.  Bigingo lunges up the tree for a short while, making grunting noises at Mark.


Uganda01_Gorilla17_Mark_ChallengeBigingo_2148_Web.gif (251025 bytes)

Mark hangs out in the tree.  After a while, Bigingo heads up the slope and away and Mark comes down from the tree. 


Uganda01_Gorilla23_Mark_Lars_2154_Web.gif (245496 bytes)

 Mark sits there for a while and watches us as we watch him.


Uganda01_Gorilla31_Mark_2163_Web.gif (230268 bytes)

Suddenly, Mark reaches up and grabs a tree that is as thick as my wrist and he pulls it down on us.  As it comes crashing down on top of us, we need to bend over and duck.  There are branches all over us.  Afterwards, Mark sits there and looks like he is having a good giggle at our expense - they seem very human at times.


Uganda01_Gorilla33_Mark_Juvenile_2165_Web.gif (267860 bytes)

We then are able to watch a couple of juveniles playing in the tree above Mark.  They seem to be having a great time.  All of a sudden, the branch breaks and one of them tumbles down.  Mark is then joined by the other juvenile, who tries to play with Mark.  After a while, both of them head up the slope.


As we still have time left in our one hour, we had up after them.  On the way, we go examine the tree that Mark has pulled down on us - it is amazing that he was able to pull it down with so little effort.


Uganda01_Gorilla36_Mother_Infant_2168_Web.gif (275154 bytes)

When we get a short way of the slope, we find most of the rest of the group.  We first see a adult female mother with her infant that is suckling. It is an amazing sight seeing this little gorilla holding on to her mother.


Uganda01_Gorilla40B_Infant_2315_Web.gif (258919 bytes)

After a while, the infant scrambles off her mother and wanders up to a nearby tree, where he plays for a while.  He would twirl around and then he would pick up twigs and grass and throw them in the air.  He looked like he was having a great time.  He then wandered away.  During this time, the mother had also walked by us - quite close.  She was missing one hand (lost in a trap) and she limped a bit as she walked by on all fours.


Uganda01_Gorilla44_Mother2_Juvenile_2176_Web.gif (308246 bytes)

We then walked up the slope a bit further and found another adult female lounging on a sloping tree.  She seemed to be having a nice rest.  After a while, one of the juveniles walked up to her, over her and then up the tree.  After hanging out in the tree for a while, he came back down and joined the adult female.  It was a great sight.


Our hour was then up and we needed to head back.  It was a fantastic time.  It was amazing to be able to get up so close.  While with the gorillas we also experienced some of their other habits.  Their would be hooting and hollering.  We would hear them farting all the time - they are apparently full of gas given their diet and single stomach.  We were able to see 8 of the ten members of the Nyakagezi group.


Uganda01_Gorilla54_Group_2187_Web.gif (183359 bytes)

We then wander back the way we came, coming out at the old farm land.  We take a few minutes to get our stuff organised and to take a group picture.


Uganda01_Gorilla55_Entrance_Jac_2188_Web.gif (247230 bytes)

We are back at the park entrance at 10:30 AM.  After relaxing for a while and signing the guest book, we head off back down to the camps site.  By this time, Jacqui seems to have turned into a gorilla!!!!


Uganda01_Kisoro_Campsite_2190_Web.gif (195443 bytes)

We take it easy for the rest of the day, not doing much.  Having lunch, napping, watching some videos, etc.  Dinner is roast chicken, potatoes and coleslaw.  After dinner, we wander into town and one of the local bars and have a drink and play some pool.


As we walk the street, we have an excellent opportunity to watch some volcanic activity going on in Congo.  One whole section of the night sky is lit up bright red from what we are told is a lava flow at one of the volcanoes in Congo.  It is an amazing sight as the sky looks like it is on fire.


Previous Day   Next Day
Bespolka Home Page Uganda 2001 Home Africa 2000/01 Home

Copyright ©2001