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Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality

Suneesh Menon finally achieved his lifelong dream to see mountain gorillas in the wild

Chantelle Stork – one of our Africa Travel Concierge experts – recently helped 47-year-old Suneesh Menon realise a lifelong dream to see the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.

Chantelle says it was an absolute pleasure helping Suneesh. “He knew exactly what he wanted from the start and was very polite right through the planning stages of his trip.”

Together, Chantelle and Suneesh took two and a half months to build this tailor made Uganda Safari to suit his every need. Here is his personal story:

Planning started in May, two and a half months before I departed. (you have to start planning early, as permits to trek the gorillas are extremely limited and in great demand). Chantelle at Discover Africa worked through all the nitty-gritties of planning and booking the itinerary.

Day one – my holiday begins at the Karibu Guesthouse Entebbe

The flight to Entebbe was uneventful as was the meet and greet at the airport and the transfer and the stay at the Karibu Guesthouse.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

The Karibu Guesthouse Entebbe

Day two – arriving in Bwindi and meeting the locals

The adventure began the next morning. After checking in at the Aerolink flight to Kihihi, we boarded the small Cessna flight into the bush. The pilot welcomed us (yes, no fancy air-hostess on this flight), briefed us and off we went.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

Seeing the runway from the pilots view, one marvels at technology when the engine is opened up and the plane gracefully takes off banks left and heads to Kihihi.

Landing on a dirt strip was exciting and when you realise that the gentleman you were chatting with all through the flight actually owned the airstrip and a golf course and a resort and so much more, you realise how understated and friendly Ugandan’s really are and that this is a special place.

Patrick (the man) was waiting in his four-wheel drive vehicle and after a rather exciting one hour drive through some rather challenging dirt roads, I was at the amazing Buhoma Lodge which is actually inside the Bwindi Impenetrable Rain Forest, one of the last few habitats of the Mountain gorillas and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The realisation that you are on safari dawns on you pretty quickly. No TV and hold your breath, limited Wi-Fi! Thank goodness my out of office message said, “I would have little or no access to my mails.”

Buhoma Lodge is designed like a tree house and is very tasteful. Looking onto the Impenetrable Forest, the views are to die for. Definitely a top choice. The service was amazing and the food, lets put it this way I put on some weight even though I was there to trek.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

Stunning views of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest from the Buhoma Lodge

Titus (I don’t know when he slept as he was there when I went for breakfast and dinner) played an excellent host and kudos to him and the management for making my stay memorable.

The afternoon was spent visiting the surrounding community and the Batwa (pigmy) people, the original residents of the forest who were displaced when the forest was designated a national park.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

A rather moving experience as they have not adjusted to the modern ways and one feels, long to be back in the forest. I guess they are paying the price for the decimation of the Mountain gorilla population by earlier generations of outsiders.

I also happen to have an interest in animal conservation and later in the day I managed to visit Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a wonderful organization whose founder and CEO Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka (I managed to meet her in Entebbe) works with the community to ensure a healthy population of both humans and gorillas. A remarkable cause!

Day three – seeing the mountain gorillas for the first time

Day three began early. A 06:30 wake up to the sound of rain. Normally I’m a good packer, but it completely slipped my mind that I was coming to a ‘rain’ forest.

So I prayed that the rain would stop and voilà it did. I arrived at breakfast casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and realized how under prepared I was. All the others looked like the cast of ‘Out of Africa’! Khaki’s, hats, leggings, ankle protection for ants, gloves, waterproof jackets, trekking shoes etc.and here I was armed only with my camera!

Chatting with the people who had done the trek the previous day, the lack of gear and the fact that the place is called ‘The Impenetrable Rain Forest”, I was getting a bit uneasy. I’m not the fittest person around, you see. Anyway, the lodge gave me a backpack with a packed lunch and a walking stick, so off I went for the briefing. You are one of eight people assigned to one of three habituated (it’s the process where the gorillas get used to humans) gorilla families that one is allowed to pursue.

I think Patrick anticipated my apprehension and managed to get me assigned to the Mubare gorilla family, the oldest and relatively easiest family to track and get to.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

After the briefing (the do’s and don’ts, safety precautions etc.) the trek began.

Seven cast members of ‘Out of Africa’, the rangers and me. The pace was gentle and the people were friendly. We walked for around 45 minutes stopping on the way to see some birds and plants and getting to know each other (wonderful people).

When the lead ranger announced that the trackers (two park trackers leave a couple of hours before the tourists do and they do all the hard work of figuring out where the gorillas are) had found the Gorillas excitement swept through the group! Chatter became subdued, the terrain became greener, steeper, crossed a few streams and then suddenly we stopped. We had arrived.

Obeying the brief we received, we got rid of our backpacks, shut off the flash on our cameras, became extremely quiet and the ranger started creating the path for us with their machetes, cutting through thick vines and vegetation to get to the gorillas.

A few minutes later there was a murmur and vigorous pointing and there he was. The Silverback aka alpha male (aka the boss). Just sitting there like he was expecting us. He didn’t even bother to look at us as we jostled for position taking pictures from every angle possible.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

Thank goodness for digital cameras as I would have been through a reel of film in the first few minutes and we didn’t even see the rest of the family, with another 58 minutes to go!

Slowly there was rustling in the forest around us and dark shapes started appearing all around.

One by one most of the family appeared. A lot more clicking. A few leaves fell on our heads and there were two on a fig tree right above our heads. More clicking. Some whispering. A tracker had found the elusive newborn and mother hiding under a bush.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

A rare sighting indeed, as mothers are generally very shy and very protective. Straining ourselves we catch a glimpse of two big eyes looking at us. The baby. A magical sight and hope that we just might be able to save these magnificent animals after all.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

All this time the rest of the family continued to eat, groom one another or just sit there. After a while I think they got bored of us and some of them decided that it was time for a nap, so they just lay down and went off to sleep. Of course we continued to be amazed that we were in such close proximity to one of the most endangered animals on the planet, one of our closest relative in the animal kingdom and that they were wild and could easily rip our heads off if they chose to.

And like it began, the Silverback suddenly got up and moved into the jungle, followed by his family. Its like he knew our one hour was up (it was one hour and ten minutes actually) and our encounter was over.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

Day four: meeting the Habinyanja mountain gorilla family

I trekked for a second time the next day as well. Much more difficult trek, through much steeper inclines, thicker forest to see the Habinyanja family that has a lot more young and juvenile gorillas making them a lot more entertaining.

The entire family was feasting on figs on a tree and then climbed down to give us the show of a lifetime-playing, fighting, eating, grooming etc.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

To sum it up, two days, two families, two treks in extremely different terrains, two completely different experiences, a wonderful lodge, disconnected from the world, wonderfully organized by Chantelle and her team at Discover Africa, all amounting to a lifetime of memories that I will treasure.

Mountain gorilla safari dream becomes a reality by Suneesh Menon

Will I come back? Will I recommend it to others? Definitely, there is so much more to see and do in this country that one visit is not enough. Hopefully my next time will also include some conservation related work. And yes, it may be a good idea to come kitted out as well. I was lucky, it didn’t rain in the ‘rain’ forest!!

Now I have to sort through the zillion pictures that I have taken and learn to stop beginning every conversation with “when I saw the gorillas…” Happy travels.

Suneesh’s travel notes

  • The trip lasted five nights and six days. (25 July 2014 – 30 July 2014)
  • Day one: Upon arrival at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, Suneesh was transferred to the Karibu Guesthouse Entebbe (three-star rated accommodation) where he overnighted.
  • Day two: Transferred from the Karibu Guesthouse Entebbe to Entebbe International Airport to board a 7:45am flight to the Kihihi Airstrip, which landed at 9:30am. Suneesh spent the afternoon visiting the Bwindi Village and spent the next three nights at the Buhoma Lodge (three-star rated accommodation).
  • Day three: The mountain gorilla trekking begins. Suneesh managed to see the Mubare gorilla family.
  • Day four: Included another mountain gorilla trek and saw the Habinyanja gorilla family.
  • Day five: Transferred back to the Bwindi Airstrip to catch a 9:45pm flight back to Entebbe International Airport and arrived there at 11:25pm. Overnighted at the Emin Pasha Hotel in Kampala.
  • Day six: Transferred back to Entebbe International Airport to board his flight home.

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