Altitude blues easily forgotten

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Journeys to mountainous regions are said to be safe for pregnant women, at least up to 2500m. If one is going to higher altitudes (max. 4000m), physical exertion is not recommended and should be avoided to the maximum. It goes without saying that adequate fluid intake is, in every circumstance, absolutely vital. Being in the early stages of pregnancy and with the above in mind, we agreed that the sensible thing to do was to cancel our original plans of hiking in the Ugandan Rwenzori Mountains. Although we initially considered this as a setback, we quickly got excited by the various other possibilities of combining nature, wildlife and outdoor activities in this beautiful country. Although still at a height, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was the perfect destination to tick a highly ranked personal bucket list item: gorilla trekking.

If you are put off by the price you pay for gorilla trekking (up to 600 USD in Uganda for 1 hour), you could look at it this way: their habitat is extremely fragile and threatened by deforestation, agricultural over-exploitation, human conflicts, etc… Every time you walk in this forest you leave a footprint. Luckily, only about 80 people per day are allowed to trek gorillas in Uganda. So by purchasing a permit you contribute to the conservation of mountain gorillas and their natural habitat.

For convenience sake, most people opt to stay close to the starting point of the trek, but you can prefer – as we did – to stay further away and try to combine multiple places at once. Next to that, the accommodation around Bwindi is quite highly priced for (moderate) quality. Therefore our morning started off well before sunrise and we were set out for a long, exciting day. The pre-arranged driver took us for an hour and a half ride by private car (not a terrain car) from Kabale to Ruhija. This scenic route – although mostly in the dark – with its lushly outstretched and mountainous landscapes brought us to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA)’s head office in the park. Once the group of trekkers was complete we received a debrief about the day ahead, the possible but unknown outcome of the trek (and conditionality of reimbursement when unsuccessful), the potential physical implications, the do’s and don’ts,… We welcomed this pre-departure briefing, as you want to be as informed as can be and definitely not mess with these mountain giants!

Gorilla Trek2

Around 9 o’clock, an hour after scouts had set off to track habituated gorilla families, our journey began. These scouts regularily communicate their (and possible gorilla) locations via radio transmission. Spirits were high once we descended from the dirt road into the dense and humid forest. But we quickly understood that this could well become a great physical challenge. You just do not know how long the trek will be you have signed up for, nor what lays ahead. Along the way, you encounter dung announcing the presence of mountain elephants, there are also wild (not habituated) gorillas around, you find slippery and muddy undergrounds (especially in wet season), altitude drops and lifts, viciously biting safari ants that climb up your leg under your trousers, etc. Next to that, you hear stories about people (unsuccessfully) trekking for eight hours. However, do not let that put you off. This is wildlife, which you cannot predict. You can only plan ahead as much as possible and be flexible when the time comes. Guides are working hard to trace the families and make your experience as comfortable as possible.

Fortunately my pregnant body was not put through a lot of strain. The diverse group of young and old(er) trekkers, and thus a good mixture of physical capacity present for the trek, made it very bearable.  And it might just be your lucky day, as in our case, we quickly reach a group: after forty-five minutes the guides stopped for a short break, as we were close and would soon enter the allowed proximity zone of gorillas.

Once you are in the immediate presence of a group, all the tension and physical exercises cease and you can fully enjoy that one special hour with these extraordinary creatures. We visited a group of 13 individuals, named the Bitukura Gorilla Group, that consists of 4 (young) silverbacks. These males are said to be outcast by other families, forcing them to fraternize and form a new unit. As the hour flew by, we were well-aware that this kind of experience will not come around any time again soon. Therefore we reminded ourselves not to spend each minute of it behind our lenses, but also to smell, listen, observe and feel their presence. We are however very happy to look back on this adventure with the photographs we have taken. So we will let them speak for themselves.

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