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MUST READ: Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

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With fewer than 800 mountain gorillas alive in the world today — spread over four national parks in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo — getting a close look at these beautiful creatures is an experience few will ever have.

As part of a CNNGo iReport assignment asking for adventure travelers to share their favorite memories, iReporter L. Craig Smith of Mission Viejo, California, provided these fantastic photos of his 2010 trip to Uganda’s Bwindi National Forest, an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But getting there isn’t easy. Smith says it took three days of flights before he landed in Entebbe, Uganda.

“It is the same Entebbe airport where Israel rescued its citizens in 1976,” he says, referring to the celebrated Operation Entebbe. “There are still bullet holes in the passenger departure area.”

After a drive to the capital city, Kampala, and a tour of former president Idi Amin’s palace, Smith made the overland drive to the border of Uganda and the Congo.

AK-47s and silverbacks

It’s not a journey for the faint-hearted. Smith says there are constant reminders of the area’s violent history, as he recaps his itinerary.

“Settle in at your lodge, the same lodge where American tourists were slaughtered in 1999. Wake up early the next morning and meet your guides/guards who will take you on a two-to-four-hour hike in dense jungle in search of the elusive and endangered mountain gorillas.

“In the front of your group is a paramilitary guard carrying an AK-47. In the back of the group is a similar guard.

“We ask why the guards accompany us and we are told they are there to protect us from the guerillas — not the animal gorillas but the rebels/poachers who cross over from the Congo.

“After several hours we stop in the forest and are told the gorillas are just around the corner. We can hear them and smell them before we see them. We approach quietly and spend an hour with these beautiful creatures.”

Smith says his 16-year-old daughter came along for the trip too, and had a wonderful time.

“She has been to so many areas in the world that have risks that after awhile you just go with the flow, keep your eyes wide open, and experience life that most Western people will never see.”

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