Uganda may be called the Pearl of Africa, but it’s another precious element that draws visitors to this peaceful, landlocked East African nation: Silver. Or more specifically, the endangered silverback mountain gorilla.
There are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas in the wild, just one for every 9 million people on earth, and the only place to see them is in the remote, and difficult to access, Virunga Mountains along the border of Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo (DRC), and in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
For those who crave authenticity and destination immersion, Bwindi is where to experience this once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Uganda. Although Rwanda has become heavy with tourist options recently (One&Only, Wilderness Safaris and Singita are all in the process of opening lodges there), fewer travelers are familiar with Uganda, making the destination a luxury travel must for clients who appreciate exclusivity.
Volcanoes Safaris Bwindi Lodge is the premier place to stay for gorilla trekking in the Bwindi region. Praveen Moman bought the land, which nestles against the rolling green hills of the national park, in 1998, and built the pioneering lodge in 1999. Its 20-year tenure offers a special draw not found elsewhere: Gorillas treat the longstanding lodge as though it’s part of the national park, and often come to the property (about once every two months) to look for bamboo shoots nestled in the verdant grounds and nibble on the bark of the eucalyptus trees. While you can’t guarantee this experience for clients, it’s certainly a unique hook for a stay here. We visited recently and found that even though we had to wait to see gorillas in the park, there’s a lot to recommend about the eco-chic lodge to luxury seekers.
A light tap at the door with a call of, “Good morning, good morning, it’s morning,” rising like birdsong outside our secluded safari chalet (called a “banda”) began our first morning at Bwindi. Standing outside was Sheilla, a lodge staff member, holding a serving tray with a silver plunge pot of Ugandan coffee and homemade sugar cookies. It’s 5 a.m. and still dark out, but Sheilla’s smile is luminescent as she asks, “Are you ready to see the gorillas?”
In the eight private bandas, there are no phones for a wake-up call, and gorilla trekking starts at sunrise. Instead, the staff asks before you turn in for the night what time you’d like to wake up and your drink preference, and then delivers it on time and with a smile.
Each of the spacious thatch-roofed bandas are named after local gorillas; the “Bob” banda is the top option for VIP clients. A long, stone stairway leads down to Bob’s secluded setting overlooking a stream below. Surrounded by thick forest, the banda feels like a private treehouse (we even spotted a black-and-white colobus monkey peering in the window). The interior features a 20-foot-high A-frame ceiling and a canopied and mosquito-net draped four-poster bed. A sitting area with a local fabric-draped couch opens onto a private deck with panoramic views of the forest, and the bathroom includes double sinks and a natural stone shower with an exterior glass window that frames views of the forest just outside.
Luxury advisors should contact Betty Nassuna (Betty@volcanoessafaris.com), Volcanoes Safaris Uganda specialist based in Kampala, for all special booking requests.
Stellar Perks and Service
Porters and housekeepers get guests ready for their gorilla trek, fitting them with gaiters (waterproof lower leg coverings) in the pre-morning dusk, delivering boxed lunches to backpacks, and filling coolers with chilled bottled water.
After returning from their trek, guests are met at the resort entrance and the staff convenes to remove the damp gaiters and everyone’s mud-covered boots and then takes the footwear to be cleaned. Guests are then given Croc-like clogs for the short walk back to their room. Every guest then receives a complimentary massage to ease the muscle exertion of hiking through the forest. (Laundry service is also included for guests staying 48 hours.)
Note: By the end of first quarter 2018, Bwindi Lodge will open a new “Rejuvenate in the Forest” spa building featuring a couples massage suite and a range of Forest Ritual treatments using lemongrass, tea, eucalyptus and other aromatic plants grown on site.
Meals are served in the bright and airy main lodge building in the main dining room. Orders are placed the night before, when guests can confer with the chef about food allergies and aversions. Although meals are usually served at a communal table where travelers compare stories about their gorilla experiences, special private dining can be arranged on the lodge terrace or on the banda’s private verandas. For special requests, advisors should contact Mariana Mary Nandawula (email@example.com), lodge assistant manager.
On the entry road to the lodge is Bwindi Bar, an award-winning community service initiative by Volcanoes Safaris and overseen by Nandawula. It teaches local students hospitality skills and serves local tea and coffee, beer and snacks. It’s a casual spot to relax and an opportunity for clients to support the local community if they’re interested.
From Entebbe, internal scheduled and chartered flights are available on AeroLink, which flies 12-seat Cessna Grand Caravans to Kihihi, the bush airport for Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Flight time is approximately 75 minutes. A Volcanoes Safaris guide can be arranged to meet clients at the airstrip for the transfer to the lodge, about a 30-minute drive.
Advisors should request Head Guide Francis Kiwanuka when booking. Kiwanuka has more than two decades of guiding experience, and is a gorilla expert who has visited every gorilla family in Rwanda and Uganda. He will accompany clients to the gorilla trek (although cannot join the hike), and can also guide nature- and bird-watching walks along the river, and organize visits to the local community.
Advisors should note that gorilla trekking in Bwindi park, as well as staying at Bwindi Lodge, is only suitable for fit clients. Trekking in Uganda is more strenuous and difficult than in Rwanda; clients should be able to hike and walk on uneven terrain for an extended period of time. At the lodge, there are multiple rock stairs to reach rooms and common areas. Rainy season makes these extremely slick.
Note that no children under 15 are allowed on gorilla treks, and although there are no age restrictions at Bwindi Lodge, there are also no services for children.
Qatar Airways is a luxurious option to reach Uganda from the United States with flights from J.F.K. connecting through Doha and then on to Entebbe. Qatar just introduced its newly configured business class Q Suites on this route that offer moveable panels and adjustable TV screens to configure into private quad seating cabins as well as the first double bed in the sky. Some other highlights of business class include White Company London pajamas, Brics toiletries kits, and à la carte dining on demand. Business class privileges extend into the airport providing expedited passport and visa lines in Entebbe.
It’s not called an “impenetrable forest” for nothing; the hike to see the gorillas here involves trekking through thick, dense equatorial rain forest. Our ranger literally hacked a path with a machete through the tangled mopane vegetation and stinging nettles for nearly two hours on our visit, and the mud during the rainy season in November seemed intent on sucking the boots off our feet. It was worth the slight physical discomforts, though, for the reward: A face-to-face encounter with one of the most endangered animals on the planet. The gorilla family we were assigned to, the Bitukura, comprises 12 gorillas, and we spotted eight members of the family, including the towering dominant silverback and the incredibly human-like baby of the family, a year-old Gift, who tumbled and played and nibbled on a bamboo shoot enthralling our trekking group.
Gorilla permits are tightly regulated to protect the animals from too much exposure to humans. There are 12 gorilla families in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and only eight visitor permits are issued per group per day. After you reach your assigned family, visits are strictly limited to one hour. Note that since gorillas are susceptible to the same illnesses as humans, park rangers have the right of refusal for sick visitors, or may require that sick visitors wear surgical masks to protect the vulnerable animals. Advise clients to pack long pants and long sleeve shirts, a brimmed hat, gardening gloves (to protect hands from plants), hiking boots and bug repellent. Temperatures fluctuate, starting colder in the morning and becoming hotter and humid, so layering is key to comfort. In rainy season, a raincoat is necessary.
Travelers can apply for permits with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), however they can be difficult to reach. For ease of booking, Volcanoes Safaris offers gorilla-trekking packages, a one-stop-shopping option for advisors that includes full accommodations, gorilla permits, transfers, services of a guide and driver (see above for recommendation), as well as local activities. For high season, plan on applying for permits and booking with Volcanoes Safaris at least five months in advance; for low season, three weeks out is sufficient. Visas are required for entry to Uganda; have clients apply for an East Africa multi-country visa for ease of travel — this allows multiple entries to Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. Clients will need passports valid for at least six months to obtain a visa and will also require proof of yellow fever vaccinations.
Each trekking group is accompanied by a ranger and two guards. Trackers head out earlier in the morning to locate the gorilla family and then relay information back to the ranger. Clients should be advised to bring U.S. dollars to tip the ranger (approximately $10) and the trackers ($5 per person). Porters are available for hire for $20 (cash only) and they are indispensable. Porters not only carry bulky backpacks (clients should carry two liters of water, plus rain gear, camera equipment, bug repellant and the packed lunch that Bwindi provides), but on our especially muddy and physically exerting trek to see the Bitukura group, porters literally pulled us up over ledges, held us up so we didn’t slip down hills, and even gave an occasional push up a vertical climb.
When to Go
Peak season corresponds with the dry seasons of June to September and December through March. During these periods, permits cost $600 per person, per day. During the rainy, low season periods of October and November and February through May, permits drop to $450. (By comparison, permits in neighboring Rwanda are $1,500 regardless of the season).
For the ultimate in trekking, consider booking two days of gorilla trekking for clients, with a day to rest in between. Although the chances of seeing gorillas is near 90 percent, since you can only spend one hour with the gorillas, it will give you additional opportunities for photography.