I was one of those people profoundly touched by “Gorillas in the Mist” years ago when it came out as I’d been fascinated with gorillas since childhood. Seeing them in their natural habitat was a long-time dream of mine that finally got realized last month thanks to a great surprise trip from my husband in concert with award-winning safari company African Portfolio. As high as my expectations were, the actual experience surpassed them all. Flying over the lush, green-forested expanse leading into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, it was hard to believe I was so close to the home of these magnificent creatures.
Mountain gorillas are still critically endangered with only 800 left in the world, all residing in the neighboring regions of Congo (not recommended for tourists at this time), Rwanda, and Uganda’s Bwindi (pronounced by locals as just “Windy”). We chose Uganda for economical reasons (gorilla permits are 1/3 the price of Rwanda) and adventurous ones as there is much more to do in Uganda and it’s a bit more off-the-beaten path.
I had no expectations about Uganda as I knew little about it so I was instantly mesmerized by its beauty; majestic slopes, sweeping coffee and tea farms, endless swaths of green, and some of the most industrious people I’ve encountered. Life is very hard there yet it’s set in against an enchanting backdrop of natural beauty and fantastic agriculture with even the red soils adding to the idyllic scene.
It is there, in the southwest corner of Uganda, that Bwindi lies and where more than half of the remaining mountain gorillas make their home. After all, they need to eat 60 pounds of greenery a day so where better to forage for food than a rain forest?
That rather ominous word “impenetrable” is not to be understated here. Bwindi is truly a dense labyrinth of a forest complete with trees of all kinds (many with their own type of painful thorn), tangled brush and vines that have become one endless web, and insects that have found their own special heaven swarming about in such droves that there is usually a dull hum in the background.
Finding the gorillas therefore is not an easy trek. High altitude, steep vertical climbs on loose rocks, mud slides, and wet tree roots all combined to make this one tough go. I’m embarrassed and grateful to say that at one point I had one porter pulling me in front and one shoving me in back to get me up some of this trek. However, all is forgotten when the gorillas suddenly materialize.
It was magical to see the gorillas going about their natural activities. We saw one of the largest silver-backs (males) in the Park from about 6 feet away pulling leaves off a tree and eating in a constant stream. We saw babies swinging through the trees in carefree abandon, a mother digging in a tree hole for ants (apparently a rare protein for them that they love to find when available), and another male deciding if we were threatening him and his family or not. Mostly, I reveled in their penetrating brown-orange eyes, thick black coats, and their incredibly similar human features and habits. Just to be so near them in their own world was an indescribable delight.
While we could have gladly sat there all day, humans are permitted only one hour with the gorillas once they are located in order to preserve their natural habits and limit their exposure to us. Once back at our lodge, the fantastic Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, everyone was excitedly sharing their day’s stories.
This particular lodge is located within the boundaries of Bwindi which makes for very accessible starting points for the Buhoma treks. There are only 8 cottages at the lodge which makes for an intimate and congenial atmosphere among all the guests. The common area is one of those tranquil places one could sit all day and just look at the view, surrounded by a stillness rarely experienced in today’s world, the heady smells of untouched land, and the pronounced calls of a wide variety of unusual birds including the Blue Turaco.
The gorgeous scenery is only matched by the smiles of the incredible staff at Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp. Their attention to every possible detail, continual but un-intrusive follow-up, and absolute sincerity and commitment in their service was unmatched anywhere else we went (or most anywhere in the world I have been period). It is a lovely place that I wish I’d had a lot more time to just “be” there.
Of course, with all this tranquility interlaced with death-defying treks, one needs a good glass wine or two. Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp excelled in that area as well. The majority were South African wines with a wide variety offered each evening as part of the room fee.
Featured whites included the Four Cousins Dry White (tropical fruit and peach notes), Malan Cape Blanc (crisp, delicate, and fruity), and Van Loveren Chardonnay (fresh citrus, nuts, and smoke).
Reds included the Four Cousins Singles Cocoa Cabernet Sauvignon (mocha, blackberry notes), Van Loveren Merlot (lush red fruit, soft tannins), Van Loveren Pinotage, and the Malan Cape Rouge (raspberry, plum, earthy).
The 2017 Nederburg Rosé was also on-hand. Tasting of zesty strawberry and herbs with a slight pepper crunch, this wine was the perfect refreshment at the end of a hot and demanding hike.
A couple of nights I also splurged on the 2014 Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon (from the Premium wine list). This Stellenbosch red was robust and seductively gripping with blackberry, raspberry, clove, and cedar spice notes. A lovely complement to the cool rain forest evenings, cozy drizzle, and nighttime bird calls.
The 2016 KWV Classic Collection Chenin Blanc was also excellent. I was reminded again what a versatile and high-quality grape Chenin Blanc is with this scintillating wine tasting of tart apple, lime, and peach interlaced with racy acidity.
Another fascinating drink was the Uganda Waragi which is a local gin (40% ABV) made from a unique combination of botanicals including lime peel, nutmeg, and cassia bark. The botanicals combined with the fresh waters of nearby Lake Victoria, lime zest, and Greek juniper berries give this gin strong aromatics and a tangy lime flavor. We were told several times that stories get much better after consuming this drink!
Lastly, it’s well worth mentioning how exceptional the coffee and tea was in Uganda. One of my favorite coffees (which also serves a great cause) was the Gorilla Conservation Coffee Kanyonyi Blend. This is a medium roasted coffee from 100% Arabica beans and is sourced from farms right next to Bwindi. It is named for Kanyonyi which is the lead silverback for the Mubare gorilla family which lives in Bwindi. $1.50 per kilo of every coffee purchased is donated to saving the mountain gorillas. This coffee has a wonderful chocolate undertone and smooth velvety texture.
With true kings of the jungle, beautiful countryside, amazing people, and wonderful food and drink, don’t miss a chance to visit Uganda.