Seeing the gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was the highlight of my September 2000 trip to Uganda. The Impenetrable Forest comes by its name honestly. While the gorillas move with ease through the dense vegetation and up and down the steep and slippery slopes, it is quite a different matter for humans. Even with machete-bearing trackers and porters to carry extra gear, it is a difficult hike, made all the more challenging by the 5,000 to 7,000 feet of altitude. As the hikers work their way through the forest, they rarely hear, let alone see, any wildlife at all. It is hard to believe that the forest could be home to these great and gentle creatures.
Suddenly the trackers give the sign that the gorillas are in view. Walking sticks, and all other non-essential items, are left with the porters. The chase is on. If the gorillas are settling in for feeding or resting, the hikers take up their positions and the cameras come out. I was not so lucky. On three separate days, with two separate groups of gorillas, once we found them they continued on the move and rarely came out from the dense undergrowth to offer a clear view.
There are two groups of gorillas in Bwindi, known as "M" and "H" groups (abbreviations for longer names). In order to see the gorillas, it is necessary to have a special permit from the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Only six permits are available per day for each group. At the time I visited (September 2000) the permits cost $250 per day (I heard the price was going to increase, perhaps to $500, in 2001) and the proceeds help to protect these endangered creatures who continue to lose habitat each day. Because of an incident in 1998, when several tourists were kidnapped and killed by terrorists crossing into Uganda from neighboring Rwanda, demand for permits had declined substantially and I was able to get three permits for three successive days (although after the second day I was so worn out that I began to wonder whether three days was too much, but I survived). The Uganda government now provides well-armed guards to accompany each group, not for protection from the gorillas, but from guerillas (Bwindi borders both Rwanda and the Congo). During my hikes, soldiers carrying AK-47s and three extra magazines of ammunition were stationed at the head and rear of each group.
The trek begins by hiking into the mountains to where the gorillas spent the previous night. Each day, they abandon their makeshift nests and move on in search of food. The trackers attempt to pick up the trail from the previous night's resting place. Once the gorillas are found, your time with them will be strictly limited to one hour. In addition, one must stay at least five meters (about 17 feet) from the gorillas, which are susceptible to human diseases to which they have developed no immunity. "M" Group is the smaller of the two with about eight gorillas; "H" Group is said to contain more than twenty, including two silverbacks who are brothers, but I never saw anywhere near that number as the group was spread out through the dense forest.