Target species – Mountain Gorilla
Country – Uganda or Rwanda
National Parks – Bwindi in Uganda, Volcanoes in Rwanda
Access – 2-4 hour drive from nearest airports
Altitude – 8,000 to 13,000 feet
Mode of travel. – Trek through dense forests with rangers
Time allowed with Gorillas – Upto 1 hour
Safety risks – None
Physical fitness – Moderate fitness to walk upto 8 hours
How many times you come across a “200Kg monkey”, which quite resembles humans. Well, these are the endangered Mountain Gorillas which inhabit some highlands of East Africa between elevations of 8.000 feet to 13,000 feet. Over the years, the territories of these gorillas have significantly reduced, and they have been pushed to a few protected reserves as of today, which though, do a good job of protecting them. They have a thick fur, as compared to other apes, and the males are also called silverback, as the male’s back have a silver-ish appearance. They often live with the family, where a male heads the family with a few females and young ones. The families usually move together in search of food. Their primary diet is stems, fruits and bamboo shoots, though some also feed on termite and ants. Gorillas share 98.3% of their DNA with humans, and after Chimpanzees and Bonobos they are our closest cousin. For the same reason, they are also susceptible to the same diseases which humans are, and can easily contract transmittable diseases from humans.
The area around the border of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda forms one of the last habitat of these apes, with Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in Congo being their prime habitats. Of these Congo is not a recommended place to visit for tourists for many reports of civil disturbances and no regular tourism infrastructure in place. However both Rwanda and Uganda have done a wonderful job of tourism and these countries are perfectly safe for tourists. We have been conducting Gorilla treks in both these countries for many years now.
The only way to see these Gorillas is by trekking through the dense forests in company of park rangers. There are no jeep safaris possible as the Gorillas inhibit dense forests at high elevations and keep moving within the forests, where walking is the only way to move around. This is very different from the savannah habitats of Masai Mara and Serengeti, which are the go-to safari destinations for Africa. In both Volcanoes national park and Bwindi forest, there are 8-10 Gorilla families which are “habituated” to humans. Habituated does not mean that they are domesticated or tamed, but due to repeated encounters with forest guards, these gorillas tolerate human presence and usually do not cause any kind of harm to humans visiting them. A no-so-habituated wild gorilla can behave very unpredictably with tourists, so the tourists are not exposed to such gorillas.
The treks are organised by the respective park authorities and the treks are highly regulated. There is only one trek that happens every day which starts in the morning, typically around 7.00am in both the parks. First the guests assemble at the park headquarters where they are given a safety briefing and also the documentation is done. Children below 15 years are not allowed on the trek and you need to have a reasonable physical fitness to walk for 7-8 hours if needed.
About 60-100 tourists are allowed each day to trek for the Gorillas in both the parks. Tourists are divided into groups of 8 each. Each group is accompanied by 2-4 forest rangers and security guards. The staff carry wireless communication and basic weapons to clear the dense forest to make walkways (if needed), and to ward off any attacking animal (the chances of that are nearly zero). Each group sets off after a specific Gorilla family and each group is allocated a different Gorilla family so that each family is not disturbed beyond a certain point. Once a group meets their Gorilla family they are allowed to spend upto one hour with that family, and then they have to head back to the starting point. This is a very smart move towards eco-tourism as well as protecting the species. Due to the small number of permits issued everyday, the permit charges are exorbitant, and stand at USD 600 per person in Uganda and USD 1500 per person in Rwanda, as on 15th June 2020. The earnings they made through Gorilla trekking are used to invest in the habitat and gorilla conservation activities, and is a win-win situation for the park authorities and the tourists alike.
IS IT SAFE
There has been no reported casualties or incidents with tourists while Gorilla trekking in Uganda or Rwanda. As long as you follow the instructions of your rangers and do not venture alone from your group, you will be perfectly safe. Venturing alone from your group can be extremely dangerous as mobile networks do not work inside the forests, and if you are lost, it may take hours or days for even the rangers to locate you. So always stick with your group. If you feel tired, that is okay, as everyone with you will also be tired. The group can take as many breaks as they wish to, but it is important for the group and the rangers to stick together.
In case for any reason you are not able to continue the trek, the rangers will allocate one of the rangers or guards with you to take you back to the base point, and they will never leave you alone. In case of an emergency, they can request for you to be chair-lifted by four porters to the base point.
HOW MUCH I NEED TO WALK
The walk happens through the dense forests, and often there are no clear walking tracks. It can be through mud and slush also, and the forests are uneven in elevation, so there can be a bit of (we are bit modest here) climbing up and climbing down involved. The target is to track your decided Gorilla family, and the rangers accompanying your group will be coordinating over wireless with other rangers to find position of your Gorilla family. The rangers will constantly endeavor to take you to the decided Gorilla family by the shortest possible route. However each Gorilla family inhibits a different part of the forest and their position is also not constant as they keep moving. So the walking time to your Gorilla family can fluctuate drastically. It can take you 20 minutes to reach your Gorilla family, it can also take you upto 5 hours, depending on your luck (call it the position of your Gorilla family that day). During my first trek, we were initially told that our Gorilla family is just 25 minutes walk away, but during the last 5 minutes of our approach, the family decided to move around for food. It could have taken them possibly 10-15 minutes to move jumping through the trees, but it took us another 3 hours to reach their final position where they were feeding merrily.
After meeting your Gorilla family, you can spend upto 1 hour with them. The rangers will be very vigilant when you are with the family, and they will advise you how close you can get. There is nothing to worry about as long as you follow the instructions of the rangers.
WHAT IF I CANOT WALK. CAN I HIRE PORTERS.
You can be chair-lifted by 4 porters, that costs about USD 300 for the trek. Would suggest that only if you have a strong desire to see the Gorillas or on a photography assignment and for some reason you cannot walk. Otherwise trekking for the Gorillas is as much fun as seeing the Gorillas themselves.
However all tourists can hire porters for about USD 15 for the trip. That is a great relief and we suggest to tip the porters generously as this amount is minuscule for the burden they relieve you from.
WHEN TO GO
Gorilla trek can be done year round, the only consideration of choosing “best time” is to avoid rains. It can though rain any day of the year as the climate in these mountains is very unpredictable. Also these regions remain cool throughout the year as also these are at a high altitude.
The “best times” are considered to be the dry season from mid-December to mid-February, which is a short dry season. The long dry season is from June to September which the time when many people plan for the trek. The other reason for this time being peak is many people combine a Gorilla trek with an African Big 5 safari at Masai Mara or Serengeti, and this is the peak migration time which makes it a big draw for tourists from across the world. We however also recommend going during the low season as you will encounter low rush and more solitude.
HOW CLOSE CAN I GET TO THEM
You can get as close to 20 feet of the Gorillas but only approach them when instructed by your rangers. Do not try to approach them alone without instructions from your rangers, that can be potentially dangerous.
WHAT TO CARRY ON TREK
We suggest you to carry light trekking shoes, preferably waterproof as you may be passing areas of slush or mud. Carry a rain poncho, raincover or umbrella as it can rain anytime even during dry season.Carry sufficient water, ideally 3-4 litres per person and some snacks as it can take upto 8-9 hours for the return trek.
Do carry cameras as this will be a lifetime memory, do carry sufficient rain-covers to protect from rains. Carry wide angle lenses for the beautiful forest habitat, and a mid-telephoto like 70-200mm lens for Gorilla portraits. You will almost always not need a longer lens, so do not bother to carry long primes and zooms beyond 300mm, as you will be able to go close to Gorilla family, usually within 20 feet or so.
Keep in mind once you enter the forest, there will be no place to take rest nor any shops or food available, so whatever you carry with you will only come to your rescue.
There are a few experiential and luxury lodging available both near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. All the accommodations are outside the national park areas and can be accessed by car. As both the parks are at high altitudes amidst rolling mountains, so from all the top accommodations you can enjoy sprawling views of the mountains and the forests. After a hard day of Gorilla trek, you deserve to be pampered which these resorts do very happily!
WHAT ELSE CAN I DO
In both Uganda and Rwanda you can also do Chimpanzee trekking, which has similar logistics but permit costs are significantly lower. Kibale National park in Uganda and Nyungwe Forest National park in Rwanda are famous for Chimpanzee trekking. You can also do regular African 4×4 safaris in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda and Akagera National Park in Rwanda.
SHOULD I CHOOSE UGANDA OR RWANDA FOR GORILLA TREK
The forests and habitats are very similar, the Gorilla species are the same, the the trek logistics and group size are also very similar. Both the countries allow you to spend one hour with the Gorillas so your wildlife experience is also the same.Similar grade of accommodations are available in both the places and both the places rank very similar in terms of safety, both are very safe.
In terms of access Bwindi in Uganda is 2 hours drive from nearest airport in Uganda, and 3.5 hours from Kigale in Rwanda. Volcanoes national park in Rwanda is 2 hours drive from Kigale, so not much to choose in terms of access. However the differentiator is the cost, Uganda charges you USD 600 per trek and Rwanda charges USD 1500. The difference is particularly prominent if you do more than one day of trek or you have more members in your family wanting to do the trek. Based on that we may suggest you to go for Uganda.
HOW MUCH IT CAN COST FOR THE FULL TRIP
The most politically correct answer is, it depends 🙂 Cost depends on the level of accommodation, number of days, other places you are visiting, different countries you are visiting, number of people in your group and so on. The permit costs mentioned above are just one part of it.
You will need lot of logistical support and planning to do a Gorilla trekking trip. Procuring the permits and doing the trek is one part of it. The itinerary needs to be designed by experts to accommodate your other wish-lists like Chimpanzee tracking or Big 5 safaris. You also need to find and book suitable accommodations for the trek. Further as with most places in Africa, you cannot land up at the airport and try a backpacking trip, as that can turn potentially hazardous to drive with unknown taxi drivers and guides. The best is to go through a reputed and reliable tour operator like ourselves both from a safety and destination expertise point of view. To connect with our Gorilla Trek experts and start planning your trip, drop in a line to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may like to take a look at a few sample itineraries to get a preliminary idea.
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