Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

Photo: Volcanoes Safaris

Yesterday was magical. You spent time with a family of mountain gorillas. You were at a safe distance, of course. The massive head of the family, who weighed nearly 400 pounds and stood more than five feet tall, knew you there. You stared into his dark brown eyes. He looked you up and down, blinked, and seemed to nod his head. Then the rest of his band started emerging from the dense jungle. They casually grabbed tree branches and munched on leaves. This is why you traveled to East Africa.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was also expensive and carefully orchestrated. A guide cleared a path through the forest for you and seven other people. Groups are kept small to minimize the possibility of transmitting human diseases to the primates. As the guide tracked the gorillas, you passed waterfalls, black-and-white colobuses, mohawked turacos, and massive ferns. It took four exhausting hours for the guide to spot silver fur up ahead. That’s when your single hour began. It passed much too quickly.

You returned to the Bwindi Lodge overcome with emotions. Joy. Excitement. Gratitude. Sadness. The first three were expected, though their degrees still surprised you. But the sadness came out of nowhere. After dreaming about and carefully planning this encounter for so long, it was done in a blink of an eye. Your time with the gorillas was over. So your feelings bounced back and forth as you sipped a glass of well-deserved wine by the fireplace, watched the sunset between the high mountains and the deep valley, ate four-cheese samosas with local honey, and retired to your romantic banda—named after one of the gorillas—to fall into a deep sleep.

Photo: Volcanoes Safaris

This morning, you’re getting ready to visit a tea plantation to learn how tea is grown, leaves are picked, and types differ in taste. This easy day started with the best wake-up call. Your French press coffee was delivered to your thatched-roof banda by a singing staff member. It allows you to be lazy in your four-posted bed just a few minutes longer. But as you drink the coffee, you hear a strange noise outside.

At first, you ignore it. It must be other guests heading to breakfast or the staff going to clean a vacated banda. The noise turns into barking and grunting, though. It isn’t people outside. It’s probably monkeys. You jump out of bed and push aside the curtains to get a look. Five mountain gorillas are strutting across the lawn on all four legs. This group’s large male sits off to the side as if on the lookout. Once again, you freeze in place.

Most people head to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park to track mountain gorillas. That’s where about half of the endangered animals live. But the other half—almost 350 gorillas—lives across the border in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. You were planning on going to the DRC until you discovered the Bwindi Lodge. The treehouse-style lodge blends into the forest in a buffer zone at the edge of the park. The gorillas don’t distinguish between a park and a buffer zone, though. They roam wherever they want, whenever they want. And right now, they want to play right in front of you. The magic continues.

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