The spiritual experience that is a nature walk in Bwindi

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is famous in Uganda’s tourism industry and across East Africa because it is home to mountain gorillas. And for that reason, it is one of the most prized tourist destinations in Uganda. The high-altitude rain forest is home to the largest population of mountain gorillas in the world at over 450 of these treasured giant primates. But sometimes, the presence of mountain gorillas overshadows the utter grandeur of the forest itself.

Bwindi forest has an aura like no other. Maybe it is because it so high up the mountains, or because it so cold in there, or because it tends to be so dark because of the dense mist and the tall trees that block out much of the sunlight, but there is something akin to spiritual about that forest. 

The loudness of the smells from the forest, a mixture of moth, mushroom, aging tree bark and all sorts herbs is soothing to the soul. The air is so thin, you can feel your lungs come alive in your bosom as soon as you enter the forest. High-altitude breathing is like Christmas to your lungs. You get the sense that you are approaching the cusp of a reckoning. A rebirth. Your city-dwelling body is not used to this alien environment. It is glorious.

The slow, two-hour climb into the national park from Kabale town is a separate thrill on its own. The drive up the forested ranges is punctuated by the constant popping of your ears as you go higher and higher into the ranges. The ferns and the bamboo reeds and the general shrubbery on the forest floor are as menacing and mysterious as the giant trees that have never seen an axe since Adam. The forested high mountains and the bottomless valleys leave you in awe of the grandeur of nature. Meantime, the temperatures keep on dropping until you arrive at your lodge freezing and in urgent need of a cozy couch in front of a fire place. 

Obviously, the true allure of Bwindi is the mountain gorilla. All the other animals in Bwindi, like the elephants and the antelopes and the duikers and the hundreds of bird species are only a curtain-raiser act to the superstar of Bwindi. 

The over 20,000 tourists that visit Bwindi every year mostly come here to see the mountain gorilla. And they have a $600-dollar ticket to show for it. You’d think that seeing a gorilla is the only thing that makes a trip to Bwindi unforgettable. But you’d be wrong.

Obviously, the ticket price is steep. Even the Ugx250,000 for East Africans is out of range for most. So we propose that you visit Bwindi just for the nature walk. It only costs Ugx30,000 but it is worth more than gold. 

The experience 

You arrive at the Uganda Wildlife Authority offices in the morning to register and pay for the walk. After paying, you are handed a pair of gum boots and a raincoat because rain is a constant in the rain forest. You are also given a bamboo cane to help you keep on your feet in the more difficult sections of the trail. 

After changing into the gear, you are briefed by the guide. You get to know how long your walk will be, which is between one and eight hours, depending on the chosen destination. He briefs you on how much energy you will expend and warns you about muscle fatigue as the journey is a treacherous one. The trail passes through ridges and valleys and crevices and steep climbs and sharp drops. 

The first thing you notice the moment you start the trail is the sheer power of nature over your soul. You feel this sense of reverence so strong you almost genuflect. It is like you are on holy ground; as though you are in God’s backyard. I don’t think Satan takes nature walks for this very reason. The act is just too godly, too holy for his boiling blood. 

Why does soaking in nature make us feel so alive? Find yourself on the banks of a river or on the shores of a lake or in the middle of a vast savanna flatland and you feel this strong spiritual tagging somewhere in you. Why is this so, especially compared to how suffocated you feel in the presence of a multitude of people? 

The trees 

The trees in Bwindi are something else. They are the superstars of trees. They are elegant and happy and free. They grew up in rich families where the mother was strong but loving and their fathers hugged them. These trees are so confident nothing you’d say behind their bark (wink) would hurt their feelings. As you pass them by, sloping down one ridge or going up a steep climb, you can’t help but wonder how old some of them are. It is possible to imagine that some of them have been standing since the dawn of time. And that plays at your mind like nothing else.

The air. 

The air in Bwindi is so thin, you can feel the pores on your skin popping open. It smells like a combination of earth and fern and tree bark and mushroom and gorilla pee but your lungs are jumping for joy in your chest. This is exactly what they have wanted for years. This is exactly why you drove ten hours to get here. 

On this trail, you are one with nature. Your spirit is one with God’s. There is a deep conversation between your body, your soul and your spirit. You’d do well to move with a notebook because these are thoughts that only a walk in a place like Bwindi can evoke. Yes, move with a notebook please. Suddenly you have deep insights about life and your place in it. 

You slope in valleys that seem to go deeper and deeper into the bowels of the earth, past cliffs and slippery rocks. When you reach the valleys, they are inundated with beautiful flowers and streams and brooks that make you wish you lived here. Deep down you envy the gorillas and elephants of Bwindi because you know they own the best piece of real estate in the whole world. They get to experience this every day. 

Here you see giant footsteps left by the elephants that walk these trails daily on their way to their watering holes. Footsteps so large you could fit an old model Vitz in one. Some of the footsteps are so fresh you glance back to see if the armed guard is still there. The biggest shocker is the size and texture of elephant dang. It’s pretty much a huge heap of firewood. 

All this time, you keep wishing that you can bump into a herd of elephants. Or a gorilla family. Because some people are actually so luck that they pay for a nature walk that ends up being a gorilla trek. So when you hear a silver back growling loudly in the bushes ahead, you instantly walk faster hoping to catch a glimpse of the family. But even when the gorilla family proves elusive, you don’t care because any nature walk in Bwindi is way more than you pay for. 

The destination, a river called Omubwindi, after which the forest is named. The river is a special place. It lies in a swampy clearing in the heart of the thick forest, in Ruhija sector. The valley is a haven for birds and elephants. Many animals that live in Bwindi come here to drink water daily. 

Upon reaching the river, you lean on a tree and take a much needed rest. You gaze at the unviolated swamp in the flat valley and get glassy-eyed. It is magical. 

A nature walk in Bwindi is hard to put in words. It resets you. You may not see a single animal on your way into and out of the forest but you will not care. Because a nature walk in Bwindi heals your inner man. You get delivered of demons you didn’t know you had. 

A nature walk through Bwindi is an experience you just never forget. It is as fantastical and picturesque. It is uplifting and freeing in ways that are visceral, impossible to explain or describe. It is a foretaste of heaven. It is a spiritual experience. 

If you have some money on you, you get to sleep in some of the best lodges that you have never heard of. Places like the new Kiho Gorilla Safari Lodge in Ruhija sector. It has a camping section for those of us on budget. 

By Tony Mushoborozi