Our Gorilla Trek Well Beyond Gorillas

Article from the series: Attractions of Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern DR Congo

Strange enough, it all started in Prague.

It was summer 2009, my wife Marta and I were in town for our vacations, and decided to pay a visit to the local zoo.

That was the first time we had the chance to meet face to face with the gorillas, and we spent more than an hour marvelling at these magnificent creatures. It was like looking as some not-so-distant relatives… The decision was made right there — sooner or later, we will pay a visit to them in their homeland, the Gorilla Highlands!

Marta and I are good travellers but at that time we had never had the chance to visit any Sub-Saharan African country, and we honestly had no concrete plans to start exploring the continent. But the decision was firm and the gorillas were always there, in the back of my mind.

This story is our guest’s reflection on the Gorilla Trek, a hiking and gorilla tracking experience originally developed for big British student groups. It is an example of a custom-made trip, similar to the one Dutch hikers took in May 2021 but skipping Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and bringing in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park as the final destination. Gorilla Highlands Trails in Uganda and Rwanda allow for many permutations, depending on hikers’ preferences, time and budget.

In late 2012 my new job began taking me to East Africa. I started working at an impact investment fund (we invest in local companies that, along with financial returns, can deliver social and environmental positive impact). I visited Kenya, Tanzania and — drumroll! — Uganda, and I kept coming back on a regular basis.

At that point we had no excuse: I quickly fell in love with Uganda’s vibrant colours, the friendly people, the endless sky… and I began talking to my wife about the trip. She really liked idea, and in fall 2014 we decided that we would spend our 2015 summer vacation in Uganda.

Gorilla Highlands landscape; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Gorilla Highlands landscape
Uganda's skies; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
A very different side of Uganda

Honestly, we were a bit scared about the budget. We are not billionaires and looking at the rates of safaris, organised tours and lodges, we got a little spooked. Could we afford this trip?

Luckily, my research revealed what is now the Gorilla Highlands Experts team. They immediately seemed to tick all the right boxes — a local, independent organisation working in ecotourism and offering very reasonably priced but tailor-made treks in an area that, besides the obvious gorilla tracking, looked to see very few visitors.

Traditional dugout canoe in front of Habukomi Island; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Traditional dugout canoe in front of Habukomi Island

At that point I started bombing poor Miha with dozens of questions about the trek that we wanted to take. He always replied to my emails quickly and very kindly (despite some of my questions being particularly dumb), and the deal was made. He arranged for us a 4-day trek from Lake Bunyonyi to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, passing through forests, lakes and wonderful hills (with some canoeing too!).

In late July 2015 we found ourselves on the banks of Lake Bunyonyi, where Miha welcomed us, gave us a quick brief of the trip and introduced us to our great guide Enock.

Lake Bunyonyi in the Gorilla Highlands; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Lake Bunyonyi in the Gorilla Highlands
Learning from Mrs Annah, a craftmaker; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Learning from Mrs Annah, a craftmaker

The first day was pretty quick and easy. We paddled a bit on the lake, then visited a school, met an herbalist, learned about local artisanship, and canoed again to reach Tom’s Homestay on an island in the middle of the lake.

The second day was the toughest but also the most rewarding. We left Tom’s island early in the morning, reached the shore and eventually crossed Echuya Forest Reserve (man, that’s steep!). We finally walked through an amazing valley were lots of children accompanied us for a long stretch. After crossing even more magnificent hills, we eventually arrived on the banks of Lake Kayumbu, where we camped for the night. Soaring in front of us was majestic Mount Muhavura, a 4,127 m/ 13,540 ft tall extinct volcano!

Through Echuya Forest; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Through Echuya Forest
Lake Kayumbu with Mt Muhavura in the background; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Lake Kayumbu with Mt Muhabura in the background

The third day was as long as the second, but it was far less demanding, as we did not have to cross any forest or climb any hill (actually, we did climb a little one ;-). We left Lake Kayumbu early in the morning, and by noon or so we reached Kisoro Town (back to electricity after 3 days!), where we had a well-deserved lunch at a local restaurant. After our meal we continued to the shores of Lake Mutanda, took a boat and landed on a small island in the middle of the lake. We were welcomed by the very kind staff of Gahiza Island Retreat who prepared a great dinner for us. We camped for the night after spending some time next to a bonfire … amazing!

Women working next to the road to Kisoro; Lake Kayumbu with Mt Muhavura in the background; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Women working next to the road to Kisoro
Lake Mutanda; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Lake Mutanda

The fourth and last day began with crossing Lake Mutanda by boat to get to the north shore of the lake, where we had lunch at Chameleon Hill Lodge, with great views over the lake and the volcanoes (if weather allows; we were not very lucky…). After lunch we continued our trek through hills filled with villages and tea plantations, and we finally arrived at Nshongi Camp, a special little place that we recommend heartily. It was our entry point into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where, the following day, we would finally meet the gorillas face to face!

Climb from Lake Mutanda; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Climb from Lake Mutanda
Mountain gorilla in Bwindi; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Mountain gorilla in Bwindi

It was a wonderful 4-day trek! Six years have already passed and it still seems like a dream to us. Marta and I can’t recommend it highly enough, as the trip was the kind of experience-of-a-lifetime thing that we will tell everybody about for years to come.

Mutanda Island Lodge; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Gahiza Island Retreat

If you can, just go! Uganda is an amazing place that has much more to offer than the (magnificent!) gorillas — the country is safe, and visiting the Gorilla Highlands region on your own two feet will give you a perspective that you wouldn’t be able to get with any other kind of tour! Above all, it will allow you to get in touch with the most precious thing of the whole country — its amazing people.

Enoch Arinaitwe and Mr Jeremiah, a traditional healer; photo by Stefano Barazzetta
Enoch Arinaitwe and Mr Jeremiah, a traditional healer (RIP)

Thanks again to Miha, Enock and everybody else for making our trekking unforgettable!

If you like, feel free to browse all of our Uganda pics here!