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Gorillas in the Missed

"It can be a difficult journey. If you have a cold, cough or sniffle, don’t even bother lining up. Good hiking boots and a walking stick are a must. Bring plenty of water. Be sure to stay at least 25 feet away. Remember these are wild animals. If we need to carry you out, that will cost an extra $300." 

I was already intimidated by the pre-trek briefing and we hadn’t even started on our mountain gorilla expedition, which was part of a 16-day tour to southwestern Uganda sponsored by ElderTreks. The 25-foot rule, I learned, was for both their protection and ours. Sharing 98.4 percent of our DNA, the gorillas are very susceptible to human-borne illnesses. We were carriers and they had to be protected from us. They were wild animals and we had to be protected from them. A fair quid pro quo. Thus, eight humans a day are allowed to visit a gorilla group for no longer than an hour. Works for us; works for them. 

Gorilla trekkers ascending one of many steep climbs.

This is not exactly a drive-by photo op. With a vigorous trek of 1-7 hours, depending upon where the gorillas are that day, you have to REALLY want to see them. But even with visitation restricted to an hour, it is usually well worth the effort. But more on that later.

There are about 880 mountain gorillas in the world with almost half  located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a World Heritage Site clearly worthy of its name, in southwestern Uganda, an 18% increase over the last census due to increased conservation efforts, education and veterinary care. This is very good news.

Anticipation mixed closely with apprehension as every person on our tour, whether expressed aloud or not, felt “I hope I can make it.” What subsequently happened to my husband, Vic, and me is not the norm. Nor is what happened to the other eight members of our ElderTreks tour, from whom we were separated because of the eight-person limit to a gorilla trekking group, the norm. 

Now Vic and I, despite our somewhat advanced ages, are in pretty good shape and are avid hikers, so while nervous about the challenges ahead we were fairly confident of our ability to handle them. And we knew the porters, provided compliments of ElderTreks, were there to literally lend a hand, a shoulder, to push or pull or do whatever was necessary to get us there safely. 

Boy, were we ever wrong. The trek was strenuous from the start, with steep climbs and slippery descents traversing narrow ravines, but we were holding our own, feeling pretty good about ourselves. Until we entered the forest. And there was no semblance of a trail at all. The guides were trail-blazing with the help of machetes deep into the clearly “impenetrable” woods, the rocks, roots and brambles beneath our feet not even visible because of the thick underbrush. With walking stick in one hand and the porter’s in the other, I tried valiantly to move forward though at times the porter was literally dragging me up the precipitous slopes or rescuing me from sliding down sheer declines, twigs and vines attacking from both sides of the non-trail, entangling my feet and arms to further impede progress in either direction. At times, I thought either my arm would be pulled off by the porter or my legs by the vines. 

All the while, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for thinking how little at that point I cared about the gorillas and how much I was worried about surviving the grueling trip back. I was seriously considering becoming a modern day Dian Fossey and staying with the gorillas, assuming we ever reached them, just to avoid the return trip. 

I wish we could say the trip was worth it but by the time we finally dragged ourselvesor more appropriatelywere dragged by the porters to the designated area where the gorillas had been, they had left. This is not what we wanted to hear after what several of us on the trek agreed was the most difficult thing we had ever done in our lives. 

Another 15 minutes down yet one more very steep embankment finally brought us into view of a couple of gorillas chowing down in the bush. Yes, they were fun to see but most were hidden in the trees and bushes; admittedly, at that point, there was very little that could have justified the arduous journey there. Okay, if the whole troop of gorillas had been carousing in an area where we could see them, we might have changed our minds.

Gorilla chowing down in the banana plantation.

Luckily, there was one highlight: Suddenly, the mammoth silverback in front of usthe alpha male of the group -turned from chowing to charging, coming very close before the tracker waving his AK47 quickly sent him into retreat. Alas, the silverback remained immune to our pleas, now that we were camera-ready, to please try that again.

Author photographing gorilla

The rest of the tale? While Vic and I endured the most harrowing experience of our lives, our eight ElderTreks traveling companions had one of the bestfor which I will say they did feel a little guilty on our behalf. They related they walked along a roadrepeat: road near our lodge and within 20 minutes were in sight of their first gorilla. Another 15 minutes took them to a local farmer’s banana plantation, which the 19 gorillas in the group were happily dismantling. Good for the gorillas, bad for the farmer, though the trekkers later took up a collection to compensate him. At some point, they told us sheepishly, they were totally surrounded by gorillas. So much for the 25-foot rule.

But despite those two extreme experiences, most people experience something in between that no doubt qualifies as the “experience of a lifetime” promised by the tour. And it is important to note that as much as the gorilla trekking is touted as a highlight of the trip, it is only one day in a 16-day adventure that includes magnificent safari game drives, unusually scenic terrain and a variety of cultural outings. It was an incredibly memorable trip despite our somewhat less-than-satisfactory gorilla encounter. If you're over 50 and longing for an exotic adventure, check out

Fyllis Hockman is an award-winning travel journalist who has been traveling and writing for over 25 years -- and is still as eager for the next trip as she was for the first. Her articles have appeared in newspapers across the country and websites across the internet. A sampling of those stories can be found by visiting and clicking on The Travel Adventures of Fyllis and Vic.

[photo credits: ElderTreks (trekkers), Joe Perica (Gorilla closeup), Victor Block (author photographing)]

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Reader Comments (13)

I was seriously considering becoming a modern day Dian Fossey and staying with the gorillas, assuming we ever reached them, just to avoid the return trip.

So nicely put. I so understand the feeling.

— jules

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjules older

What a refreshingly honest vivid description of a difficult trip. Such a pleasure to read, if not to experience.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNancy King

Excellent article, very well written, I felt as I was walking right alongside Fyllis on her trek. I want to read about more of her traveling adventures .. Annie Morse

February 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFyllis Hockman

What an excellent story - well written by an excellent author!! I always enjoy reading anything Fyllis Hockman pens and especially enjoyed the accompanying photos! Susan Bierly

February 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Bierly

What a great experience! I would love to come face to face with a gorilla. Sounds like an amazing adventure and one I hope to have one day!!! Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

February 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterariane nicholson

Wow! The description in the article made me feel like I was right there! What a great experience, will have to try once in better shape!

February 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Rioux

I've heard about "trekking" to see mountain gorillas for a long time, and this story -- which I thoroughly enjoyed reading -- tells it like it is. I never thought it would be a casual stroll. On the other hand, I didn't think it could be that challenging. Despite that possibility, the experience sounds incredible. I hope I can make the trip some day -- and if I do, I will wish that I could write about the experience as beautifully and colorfully as this author does.

February 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom Beatty

Wow! This article makes me want to plan a trip to Uganda! Gorillas are awesome... way to capture that feeling and experience! I love this kind of real life writing. Please let me know when you write another article.

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrad nichols

i thoroughly enjoyed reading about this amazing journey. Felt like i was there with you...which is probably as close as I'll ever get to a gorilla! Thanks for sharing your experience.

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterd. unterman

My husband and I are considering a safari for our next big trip, but never thought about Uganda as our destination. I will definitely check out Eldertrek and see what they are offering. Although frankly, I think I will pass on the gorilla trek. I feel exhausted after sharing the author's experience!

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne Jessen

Great story!!! Fyllis has a wonderful sense of humor and writes with such a flair!!!

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Marianelli

As always, great article! :). A gorilla encounter is on my bucket list. Thanks for giving us the real story. You and Vic are troopers! I am sure it's an experience you will remember forever. Can't wait to hear about your next adventure!!!

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVicky Richards

What a wonderful, detailed, informative story, with great pictures to match. The Gorillas would be kevelling had they been able to read this.
It is nice to know thst Seniors are taking more adventurous trips other than Atlantic City.
Way to go Ms. Hockman

February 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFyllis Hockman

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