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Getting to know Uganda's gorillas

Gorillas in my midst – A&K's Sara Hinds gets up close and personal with Uganda's gorillas

Bwindi National Park, Uganda 

I'd seen many documentaries on the plight of the endangered low-level mountain gorillas. I’d had read Gorillas in the Mist, the remarkable and moving novel by Dian Fossey. Nothing prepares you for the real experience. Remembering the excitement and exhilaration of my first gorilla in Uganda encounter still makes me smile today.

Our spirits were already high when our A&K guide Arthur met us at breakfast on our first morning. We were full of anticipation about the day ahead. We'd also been lucky enough to encounter tree-climbing lions the evening before.

The drive to Bwindi, along untarred, rough and bumpy roads, was remarkably comfortable thanks to the suspension in the customised A&K 4x4 Land Cruiser. The landscape was beautiful. The view through the windscreen offered a horizon of forested mountains and low clouds – it looked magical. It was early morning. We passed groups of children walking to school. Many were barefoot or wearing mismatched pairs of wellington boots, but all wearing smart and clean school uniforms.

Colourful roadside markets and food-stalls were setting up as the day started. We didn't see any other tourists during our journey. When we stopped for a bite to eat we felt very welcomed. How lucky to just sit back at lunch and experience the colours, sights and smells of everyday Uganda.

Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, Uganda

Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp

On reaching Bwindi, we took a walking tour of the village with a local guide. Visiting both the school and the A&K Philanthropy-sponsored Bwindi Community Hospital, before returning to our lodge. Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp was our base. There were views over vast Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. As we sat around the fire pit after dinner, looking out to the forest, talk soon turned to the gorillas – the reason we were here. The sense of anticipation was huge.

The next morning, armed with good walking sticks, we trekked back past the school and started our ascent. There are five gorilla families in the area, at varying distances from the camp. I was with a small group visiting the Mubare mountain family of nine gorillas. The rangers had been out early and knew where the family had slept. There were no set paths so the guides hacked their way through the forest, us close on their heels. As we climbed through the forest it was hot, and the climb quite steep. Forest ants and stinging nettles the size of my hand made me grateful for the long-sleeved shirt and gloves I'd been advised to wear.

Two hours into the trek the guides fell quiet. We ground to a halt and heard a rustle in the trees ahead. We were in gorilla territory. As we stood, a huge silverback made his way through the thick vegetation to sit and stare at us. Completely unfazed by our appearance, he sat and studied us. Gradually other gorillas appeared, large and imposing. Mothers with babies clinging to their chests peeped out from the bushes.

The Uganda Tourist Authority permit allows visitors an hour with the gorillas. For this hour, I was completely transfixed as we watched the majestic silverback sauntering past just inches away. As we watched them there was little question that we were guests in their home. I find it hard to express the feeling of being accepted in this way, with more gorillas slowly appearing from the bushes around us. It was a very humbling experience. I feel very honoured to have experienced such a close-up and personal encounter with such beautiful but tragically endangered animals.

My week in Uganda really opened my eyes to a colourful, bright, chaotic, beautiful country – one full of optimism and 'getting on with life'. The Uganda people are friendly, warm and very happy to talk to visitors. Arthur, the A&K guide who accompanied us, soon became a good friend. He chatting to us about the history of the country, and daily life in Uganda today. The time we spent with the gorillas, the tree-climbing lions and the opportunity to interact with local school children are all experiences that will stay with me forever.