Beauty of the Beasts

An overland tour from Cape Town takes you to meet your genetic cousins in the mist.

An overland tour from Cape Town takes you to meet your genetic cousins in the mist.

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I recently participated in one of the most amazing trips imaginable to see some of my largest, most impressive relatives. They’re your relatives too, in fact, and it was quite a hairy adventure.

Africa’s mountain gorillas, an endangered species dwindling even with protection, share 99% DNA with us puny humans. These majestic  members of our family have always held a 100% attraction for me and several of my friends, so we planned a trip I’d highly recommend. In fact, you will probably go “ape” for it, as we all did.

Indulgent Beginnings

Leaving wondrous Cape Town, at Africa’s most southeasterly point, and the lush comfort of our spacious villa seemed a challenging prospect. After all, we’d only had a couple days to get used to the incredible amenities, which included a private swimming pool, plush furniture made of rich native woods and brightly coloured local fabrics. We’d already become used to local fruits served for breakfast and succulent stews and meats in the evening, all sourced for us fresh from the local market as we lazed around to our surround sound system and flat screen visuals.

But then to pardon a phrase – nature called – and our plans required a good deal of travelling to see the amazing gorillas in their beautifully dense and exotic natural surroundings.

Incredible Journey

We headed north through Piketberg Pass and into the Cederberg Mountains to the mining town of Springbok (namesake of the national rugby team), enjoying the lovely old buildings. We also enjoyed the half-day treat of a canoe trip down the Orange (Gariep) River – the camp bar was our evening stop, then a night camping under a star-studded sky.

Our trip also included all to brief visits to charming Swakopmund, a lovely city founded by Germans in 1982; Spitzkoppe, Namibia’s king of mountains at about 1,782m and sacred site of the San people; Cheetah Park in Etosha National Park, an amazing cheetah sanctuary; and, the lush Okavango Delta. Victoria Falls is a must-stop/see part of any tour through this region. The falls was named “Mosi-oa-Tunya” (“the Smoke that Thunders”) by famed explorer David Livingstone, due to the incredible power spray that descends from high cliffs.

Climbing to the Cousins

After several more amazing wildlife stops, taking several more days off our trip, we reached Lake Bunyoni in Uganda. The deepest crater-lake in Africa is home to many stunning birds, but we came to see the larger beasts, and prepare for our trek. You will have a choice if it is not set, to trek into the Magahinga or Bwindi National Parks in Uganda, the Virunga National Park in the DRC or the Ruhengeri National Park in Rwanda.

We were split into small groups, to leave at different times over the next couple days, from Kisoro or Rwanda. Morning saw us led along winding paths through alternating farmland and dense, verdant rain forest of jaw-dropping beauty. It is a bit of a rigorous trip, taking one to eight hours, depending where the gorillas happen to be hanging out on that day.

Appreciating our Ancestors

Rangers know where likely spots are for the gorilla families, and we were led right up close to a spectacular gathering, where we quietly watched and photographed to our hearts’ delight. The ranger explained the family history, including the sad plight of some members at the hands of poachers.

These amazing creatures’ hands and heads are sold as lampshades, ashtrays and other objects, while other gorillas are killed while attempting to prevent poachers from stealing their babies. Hearing this made it all the more precious for us to watch the parents doting over their offspring, cleaning and caressing them with such gentle care.

We were allowed an hour, which is the maximum time permitted in order to keep the gorillas from becoming too used to humans.  It seemed like an eternity, watching our history as a species play out right in front of us. At the same time, it seemed to last only a few minutes, knowing this would be a singular opportunity, and being aware of the risk these lovely yet powerful relatives face daily.

Everyone was speechless for most of the return hike to lovely Lake Bunyoni. There, we began the journey to Kampala, where we camped at a base area. Some took a trip into the city for some partying at local pubs and restaurants. We just stayed to rest and reflect on the day’s rare delights.

As is often the case when it comes to rare and remote adventures, there are no hard and fast rules to the trip. Here are some tips to help you stay calm and focus more on the incredible experience than the costs and logistics.

  • Overland tours to see the gorillas range in cost from bare bones hundreds to thousands of dollars, often for too-fast visits to a handful of national parks. By wisely doubling the amount spent, you’ll enjoy a trip to remember and you’ll also stay in more comfortable lodgings.
  • Costs vary for park permits, and change frequently, but hover at around US$500 per person, with an additional handling and transport fee of about US$70.
  • There are only about 700 mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengeo) left in existence and they wander far and wide so no sightings are guaranteed.
  • All visitors to the gorilla zones will (and should) be checked to be sure that no one has a cold or disease that could cross to the genetically close gorillas.
  • Optional tours of all kinds can be booked in the town next to Victoria Falls, including a white water raft trip down the Zambezi River, elephant and horseback safaris, walks with lions, crocodile ranch visits.
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