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Gorilla Trekking Safari in Bwindi: The park rangers had told us we shouldn’t try to get any closer to the mountain gorillas than 20 feet.
Obviously, no one had told the gorillas.
Which explained the female that just walked by within an arm’s length of me with her baby on her back.
I swivelled as they ambled away, firing off bursts of photos and trying to hold the camera steady in my excitement.
That’s when an immature female bolted past, hitting me in the hip as she went by and almost knocking me to the ground.
All I could do was regain my balance and stand there with a huge grin, laughing.
This was early in a 10-day trip to East Africa in late February that was arranged by Saso Safaris. The gorilla experience had me wondering, how are you going to top that? But Africa being the amazing continent that it is, the remainder of our journey, at the very least, rivalled it.
Before heading home, we’d spend time in 2 of the top savannah game parks in Uganda, where, believe it or not, lion, birds, elephant and zebra sightings can become almost ho-hum.
Well, I guess they never really were ho-hum.
There are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas in the world, and half are in Uganda, primarily in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Adjacent areas of the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo also shelter them.
From our lovely cottage at Nkuringo Gorilla Lodge, it was an easy walk to the ranger station for Bwindi National Park. That was the end of the easy part. With a machine-gun-toting soldier at the front and one at the back to scare off charging animals if need be, our group of four tourists, two porters and three rangers descended from 7,000 feet to roughly 6,000 on a steep, rocky trail.
Other rangers had been keeping tabs on the location of the Nkuringo gorilla family, which we reached after about 90 sweaty, leg-aching minutes. The family of 11 was lounging in the foliage off the trail, casually eating whatever they pulled down and paying us no mind.
The rangers used their machetes to hack an entrance into the bush, and for the next hour — the limit for encounters — we were all in the family. A huge silverback kept his distance, but the others came closer. While the mother and the immature female reclined, eating, the baby grabbed a vine and, like a little kid, proceeded to hang upside down and show off.
At Mweya Safari Lodge, the wildlife encounters were more subtle but no less memorable. As my companion, John, and I stood on the front porch of our cottage soon after arrival, a black-faced monkey strolled past, followed by a bush buck antelope that tarried along the near path.
Over the next three days, our friendly and knowledgeable guide Wilson, who had picked us up at Entebbe Airport and driven across the exciting country, treated us to a variety of experiences. A challenging drive through the buggy jungle by open safari vehicle was rewarded, just as we were about to give up, with a group of giraffes.
Game driving through the Queen Elizabeth National Park brought sightings of bald-eagle-like fish hawks and tiny, colorful weavers, flitting about their small round nests made of grasses.
On a boat trip onto the Kazinga Channel, we spied menacing-looking Nile crocodiles, and I caught a 2-foot-long Nile perch. On the way back, two hippos delighted us by surfacing and diving, surfacing and diving just before we retired at the lodge.
But, perhaps most memorable was the friendliness of the lodge staff. On our second night, we were surprised at dinner when the chef and staff paraded out of the kitchen carrying a birthday cake for John, whose birthday had been the day of our gorilla trek in Bwindi. They danced around our table, singing a birthday salute, clapping and smiling broadly.
More memories awaited at Murchison Falls National Park a couple of hours drive from QENP.
On the 4-hour game drive through the park, we were excited to get up close with three of Africa’s Big Five — lions, elephants and Cape buffalo (leopards and rhinos complete the Big Five). The six lions looked almost huggable as they slept atop large rocks shaded by trees.
Over the next three days, lions would provide many memories. A morning drive across the sprawling plains led to a water hole where a dozen females slept. A pair of cubs play-fought each other when they weren’t tormenting the sleeping cats or biting their mother’s tail.
Another day we watched a pride of 11 females pad single file down a dusty track, parading right past our safari vehicle.
But the lion highlight came one day as we ate lunch under the shade of a tree. For more than an hour, we watched in fascination as a mother several hundred yards away made four long treks in the hot sun, each time carrying a relatively newborn cub by the scruff of its neck while she moved them from one hiding spot to a newer and safer spot.
And through it all, you could stand on the vastness of the park, slowly turn 360 degrees and see no sign of humans as far as the horizon — just the occasional clump of zebras or antelopes, and the grass waving in the breeze.
As our guide Wilson told us, “When I was a child, I thought I could walk to the edge of the plains and touch the sky.”
So it seemed.
Our 10-day trip was arranged by Saso Gorilla Trips and cost about $4,500 per person double occupancy. That included one night lodging in Entebbe, Uganda; two nights at Nkuringo Gorilla Lodge and three nights at Mweya Safari Lodge. It also covered all meals and drinks, safari vehicles and guides. International flights are extra, as are visa fees, and the gorilla-trekking permit in Uganda is $600 per person. Cost of international airfare will vary depending on starting and ending points because Extraordinary Journeys can customize any of its trips. So, for example, you might gorilla trek in Rwanda instead of Uganda, skip Murchison Falls and spend time at QENP.