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Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – A Travel Guide

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – A Travel Guide

High up in the misty highlands of Kigezi, in the southwestern corner of Uganda, lies Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The park is a haven for nature lovers, adventurers, and fans of unique travel experience. Bwindi, famous for its dense forests, rich biodiversity, and as one of the last remaining habitats of the endangered mountain gorillas, is one of the very best places to experience Africa’s natural beauty. In this travel guide we’ll cover everything you need to make the most of your visit to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park from its history and founding to the activities on offer, where to stay, how to get there and what to expect when you get there.

History of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has a long and fascinating history. Originally established as a forest reserve in 1932, it became a national park in 1991 and gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1994. The conservation efforts over the years have been crucial in protecting the numerous species that call Bwindi home, particularly the mountain gorillas.

The word Bwindi translates to “place of darkness” owing to the denseness of the vegetation here. The forest itself is very old and thought to be a small remnant of a huge ancient forest covering most of western Uganda, eastern DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Rwanda, and Burundi.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Covering an area of around 128 square miles (331 square kilometers), Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of Uganda’s smaller national parks.

It’s a unique place on the edge of the Albertine Rift, which is the western branch of the larger East African Rift. This special location has allowed the primeval forest to thrive giving rise to its incredible flora and fauna. In fact, it’s believed to be one of Africa’s most biologically diverse rainforests with over 200 species of trees alone.

It’s impenetrable nature, characterized by steep ridges and valleys, makes it an adventurous destination filled with strenuous hikes.

Is Bwindi Worth Visiting?

Without a shadow of a doubt, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is worth visiting. Unless experiencing one of the most unique and biodiverse regions in the world doesn’t excite you!

The opportunity to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that attracts people from all over the world. Also, the park’s stunning landscapes, rich birdlife, and cultural experiences with the local people make it an even more worthwhile destination.

Wildlife in Bwindi

Bwindi is renowned for its wildlife, most notably the mountain gorillas. It’s estimated that the park is home to around half of the world’s population of these magnificent creatures. The other half are in the Virunga mountains which is divided into three national parks: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and Virunga National Park in the DRC.

Besides gorillas, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is home to many more primate species including chimpanzees, black-and-white colobus monkeys, and L’Hoest’s monkeys.

The park also contains a variety of large mammals like forest elephants (far rarer and smaller than their savanna cousins), antelopes, and cape buffalo.

This area of the rift valley is a birdwatcher’s heaven, but Bwindi is a particularly rich park. It’s estimated to have over 350 species of birds, many of which are only seen in this region.

Things to Do in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

The activities available in Bwindi are organized by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) who manage Uganda’s national parks and protected areas.

Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla trekking is, of course, the highlight of any visit to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It’s quite expensive with gorilla permits costing $700, but in our opinion, it was worth every penny.

The gorilla treks in Bwindi are extremely popular and we were surprised at the number of people there on any given day. The park allows 168 permits a day and is consistently at full capacity, so make sure you book in advance (your tour company or 4×4 rental place can arrange these). Don’t worry, you won’t be trekking with 167 other people or waiting in line behind them. Each group is a maximum of 8 people and there are currently 21 habituated gorilla families.

Don’t be disappointed by the term “habituated” gorillas, these animals are completely wild. The habituation process involves months (or sometimes years) of gradual exposure to humans. This is often done by researchers or trackers who approach a family in a non-threatening manner. Without this habituation process it’s likely that a gorilla family would avoid human contact or act aggressively if they perceived a threat.

Despite the large numbers of people, Bwindi is arguably the best place to see mountain gorillas in the wild. They can only be found in two places in the wild, one is here at Bwindi, the other is the Virunga Conservation Area. Within Virunga it’s possible to see them in Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC but each have their downsides:

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda) – Only one habituated family which periodically crosses the border and becomes unreachable.

Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) – More than twice as expensive than Bwindi at $1,500 a permit.

Virunga National Park (DRC) – Armed conflicts in the area, political instability, and more complex visa/immigration make it an unreliable option.

The treks are led by experienced local guides through the dense forest to locate one of the habituated gorilla families. Trackers head out far earlier to pick up the trail of families that they follow regularly and relay information to your guides.

The trek can be challenging, often involving hours of hiking through thick vegetation through steep terrain, but the reward is an unforgettable close encounter with these gentle giants. You’re allowed one hour with the family before leaving them in peace. It’s also important to wear face masks to avoid spreading contagious diseases to the gorillas.

There’s always a chance of other animal sightings during the trek. We were incredibly lucky to see a lone forest elephant grazing its way through a nearby ravine.

Bird Watching

Bwindi is a birdwatcher’s paradise, boasting over 350 bird species, including 23 of the Albertine Rift Endemics only found in this region. Some notable species include the African green broadbill, the Shelley’s crimsonwing, and a handful of orioles and turacos.

Birding tours are available, led by knowledgeable local guides who can help you spot and identify the various species.

Community Walks

Stepping away from wildlife, Bwindi offers an interesting cultural activity involving the local people. These guided walks provide insight into the Batwa Pygmy and Bakiga history, culture, and their relationship with the forest.

You’ll learn about traditional hunter-gatherer techniques, hear stories of the tribal past, and gain a deeper understanding of their way of life. These walks are a good way to support the local community.

Nature Walks

Finally, there’s the option for a nature walk in Bwindi which is a more affordable way to experience the forest than the gorilla trekking. It offers a chance to explore the park’s diverse ecosystems at a more leisurely pace.

The trek involves various trails through Bwindi, accompanied by a knowledgeable guide to teach you about the unique flora and fauna. These walks are ideal for those who want to experience the beauty of Bwindi without the intensity or cost of a full gorilla trek. There are a few trails to choose from with various lengths, difficulties, and settings:

Munyanga River Trail – Short walk in the valley along the forest edge.

Waterfall Trail – Enjoyable walk through pristine rainforest to three waterfalls.

Rushura Hill Trail – Moderate hike with many scenic viewpoints.

Muzabajiro Loop Trail – Moderate hike to the summit of Rukubira Hill for panoramic views of Bwindi Forest.

River Ivi Trail – Long hike following an old road through the forest.

Getting to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Getting to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park will involve some off-road driving but you have two options – rent a vehicle and self-drive or hire a driver. There are four entrances to the forest: Buhoma in the northwest, Ruhija in the east, and Rushaga and Nkuringo to the south. We’d recommend Rushaga as most of the gorilla families are accessible from there. If that’s not available then Nkuringo.

Self-Drive with Road Trip Africa

It’s not an option for the faint-hearted but self-driving is a great choice for those who enjoy the freedom and flexibility of exploring on their own. You can rent 4×4 vehicles to self-drive around Uganda from Road Trip Africa.

It’s nice to enjoy things on your own schedule but be prepared for very rough roads and ensure you’re comfortable with off-road driving or a confident driver.

The route we took meant we were coming from Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in the southwest to Rushaga. To get from here, firstly head to the town of Kisoro. From Kisoro, there’s two options, heading north or heading northeast towards Muko then taking the dirt road west. We’d advise the latter since the road north from Kisoro was very rocky and steep in parts.

If you’re heading clockwise around but didn’t stop at Mgahinga you’re likely coming from Lake Mburo National Park or Lake Bunyonyi. From either of these the road west from Muko is ideal. From Lake Mburo, just stick to the main roads towards Kisoro until you get to Muko.

If you’re heading in the opposite direction, you’ll probably be coming from Queen Elizabeth National Park. To get to the southern end of Bwindi, follow the main road down to Kabale, then on to Muko and then the dirt road west.

Hire 4×4 with a Driver

If you prefer a hassle-free journey, consider hiring a 4×4 with a driver – Road Trip Africa offers this option too. This allows you to relax and enjoy the scenic drive while an experienced driver navigates the challenging roads.

Bwindi Accommodation

If you’re gorilla trekking, or pre-planning any of the activities for that matter, you’ll want to stay close to your chosen entrance. There’s a range of accommodation options from a camping pitch to luxury lodges.

It’s difficult to make recommendations for each of the entrances but if you do decide on Rushaga then Nshongi camp is a good budget-friendly option. They offer double rooms or an incredible place to pitch a tent, right on the edge of the dense forest.

For something more upmarket, Ichumbi Gorilla Lodge offer entire cottages with balconies looking out to the forest.

Where to Eat in Bwindi

Dining options in Bwindi are pretty limited so your main options are within the lodges and campsites. Some accommodation options come with dining options like dinner and breakfast or even an all-inclusive package. Be sure to take a packed lunch with you when heading into the national park.

Final Thoughts on Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is an iconic destination that has a permanent place in our hearts. With only a handful of options available, we’d argue it’s the best place to see rare mountain gorillas in the wild.

Seeing any animal in the wild is a thing to be cherished, but getting up-close to a gorilla is truly special. Amongst the dense rainforest in this corner of Uganda is an opportunity like no other – an opportunity to witness, not only an incredibly unique animal, but one of our closest living relatives. A chance to glimpse into our evolutionary past.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – A Travel Guide

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