Bwindi Impenetrable Forest boasts one of the names that evoke the mystery and romance of what was once known as the “Dark Continent.” This vast primeval forest that surrounds the national park is one of the richest and most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for that reason, as it provides a habitat for hundreds of ferns and tree species and numerous species of fauna. Here, you will find everything from elephant and giant forest hog to antelope and carnivores, including jackals, the African golden cat and civet cats. Of the 120 or so mammals in this area, more than 45 are primates. Red-tailed monkeys and the graceful black and white colobus monkey are common – along with other less spectacular monkeys. However, the main tourist draw of this area has always been its chimpanzees and its population of magnificent mountain gorillas.
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is located in the southwestern corner of this small country, which is bordered by Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo 9DRC). About 340 mountain gorillas (about one-half of the remaining population in the world) inhabit this park, with the rest roaming through the mountains of nearby Virunga National Park of the DRC and Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda. Gorilla tracking is the main tourist activity in this region. Should you choose to visit, it is important that you make yourself aware of current safety factors. The northwestern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not a safe area at this time, and insurgents from this region have been known to stray into Uganda and Rwanda—most notably in a 1999 incident in which tourists who were tracking gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest were targeted. Eight tourists were killed. No similar incidents have occurred since. All Bwindi tourist groups are now accompanied by armed guards, and the region has flourished since this incident. Rwanda has had similar incidents, but also not for many years.
There are a number of options for safari lodges here, with the two most luxurious being Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp and Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge. There are a couple of other slightly less luxurious, but still fairly deluxe accommodations, including Buhoma Lodge, which has only eight cottages nestled into the hillside in the forest. A hallmark of every accommodation in this fragile ecosystem is its limited capacity. The country of Uganda, has opted for a majority of low-impact, high-return properties in order to minimize the effect of tourists on the environment. Even the budget rest camps and self-catering bandas can accommodate only six to 16 guests. Another reason for this limited capacity is the fact that only a small number of visitors (usually limited to eight) are allowed to track and visit a mountain gorilla group each day.
Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp is the apex of accommodations here. When the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was limited to rugged adventure camps frequented by overlanders as recently as the 1990s, there was no running water. Wash water was heated over a campfire, and all meals were cooked over the same fire. You brought your own sleeping bag and made yourself as comfortable as possible under the primitive conditions. Today Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp provides eight spacious walk-in tents with en-suite bathrooms that boast flush toilets, hot and cold running water, bathtubs overlooking the forest canopy, and two queen-sized beds. There is a bar and dining cottage, electricity, and a gift shop.
The trek to visit a gorilla group in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest might (if you’re lucky) be an easy hike in pleasant conditions. It can also be a four to six-hour slog up and down steep hills in deep mud in the rain. All this for a visit with a gorilla family that is not allowed to last longer than one hour. Anyone who has ever sought out these gentle giants of the African forest will tell you that every minute was worth the effort. If you are extremely lucky, it is possible that the local habituated group of gorillas will decide to stroll right through Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp while you are there. They have been known to walk right into lodge buildings, and sit down next to humans and groom them for a few minutes. If you don’t experience that rare moment, the camp provides a welcome respite after your long day of searching for gorillas. Gorilla tracking requires permits, which are expensive and limited. You can purchase these yourself at the park headquarters, although the best way to ensure you permits are available for your stay is to purchase them as part of vacation packages. Many operators who offer safaris in Kenya and Tanzania, offer four or five-day extensions in Bwindi for gorilla tracking, and these include your permits.