Moountain gorilla trekking: a bucket-list item of thousands of adventures and travelers all over the world.
Gorilla trekking is to Eastern Africa what Paris is to Western Europe. Just as visitors to Paris can’t help but visit the Eiffel Tower, it’s hard to visit Eastern Africa and not be seriously tempeted to track mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
But where the number of visitors to the heart of French culture number in the millions per year, the number of people fortunate enough to visit the planet’s remaining 800 or so mountain gorillas amount to roughly 25 thousand.
Even in a region renowned for it’s wildlife encounters – including the wildabeast migration and “big 5″ safaris – mountain gorilla tracking stands out as a particularly special experience.
Mountain gorillas are one species you’ll never find in any zoo.
Critically endangered and not well-suited to life in captivity, all the efforts to preserve the species are taking place in the wild.
It is thought that fewer than 900 African mountain gorillas are left in the wild, victims of deforestation and hunting.
Whatever the actual number is – it’s low. And even though recent years have seen promising progress as populations have stabilized or even increased, the future of the species rests on a kinife’s edge, making this rare opportunity even more precious.
Mountain gorilla trekking may be considered one of the most rare & rewarding excursions in Africa – if not the world – but it’s not the simpelest trip to arrange.
If you’ve never put together such an excursion before, it can be difficult to know where to even start.
So we’ve done all the heavy lifting for you with this first timer’s guide to gorilla trekking.
Here’s what you need to know:
Trekking for mountain gorillas isn’t really an activity you just show up and do at random. While you may get lucky and have this work out, with all the weather factors, scarcity of permits, and demand for spots, it makes much better sense to plan in advance.
So when should you go?
These 3 equatorial nations share common climate features – the most important of which is the alternation between wet and dry seasons. The best times to take a tour into the depths of the rainforest are during one of the dry seasons, which last from approximately mid December to the end of February and the from early June to late September.
Even though these periods are the most convenient for trekking, we’re talking about the rainforest! Even though you will hopefully be spared a deluge from the heavens, conditions are still going to be humid, wet and with no lack of mud.
If you don’t mind the prospect of tougher trails, more mud, and rain, trekking during the rainy season – off-season for trekking – will likely mean going with a smaller group.
Not surprisingly, the biggest demand for permits coincides with the best weather (and summer holiday season in the northern hemisphere). This means you either need to plan far in advance (4-6 months) to get a spot, or go during the offseason.
There are only 3 countries in the world where mountain gorillas can still be found: Rwanda, Uganda, and The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The remaining mountain gorilla populations are spread out amongst two mountainous regions covered by dense rainforest: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Uganda) and the Virunga Mountain region (Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC). Because the latter lies across international borders, there are a total of 4 national parks where gorilla trekking takes place in the region:
Additionally, those interested in visiting the DRC have an additional opportunity to spot western lowland gorillas – also found near the eastern border in Odzala National Forest.
Even though all these locations are remote, most of them are easy to access. Rwanda is the easiest, with Volcanoes National Park being under 2 hours from the capital of Kigali, whereas the journey within DRC will be longer and more intensive. The trip to either of Uganda’s national parks where mountain gorillas can be found is a full day’s drive.
Possibly the biggest decision you’ll have to face regarding gorilla trekking is where to do it. With 3 countries to choose froom, all with their own advantages and disadvantages, it makes sense to have a good idea what each location has to offer would-be adventurers before making a decision.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, located in south-western Uganda, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to about half of the world’s mountain gorilla population.
The one downside about choosing Bwindi forest as your destination is the long transport time. For all the progress Uganda has made in recent memory, road infrastructure is nowhere near the level of neighboring Rwanda.
From the capital of Kampala, you’re looking at a 12h+ ride on rough terrian to reach the park. On the plus side, this is plenty of time to soak in the Ugandan countryside, if that’s something that interests you.
Another option is to fly from Entebbe International Airport (Kampala) to Kisoro or a charter flight to Kayonza Airstrip, both located near Bwindi.
Once you’ve arrived at Bwindi, this vibrant rainforest is only accessable by foot.
If you book through a tour firm, they’ll choose a family that’s easy to access. If you’re planning your own tour, you’ll need to know where each family is located.
Each family has a name attributed to it, to make them easy to refer to. The 12 families in this region are:
This small (34 km²) park is located in the very south of Uganda, along the borders of DRC and Rwanda, and forms part of the Virunga Conservation Area along with its neighbors.
Only one family of gorillas, the Nyakagezi family group, lives in this region.
To make matters more difficult, this group has been known to move back and forth between Rwanda and Uganda.
So while tracking this family is more difficult, for the entreprising adventurer it can have a large payoff, as 4 of the 10 family members are renowned silverback males.
This national park in north-eastern Rwanda covers 125 km² of foothills, mountains and volcanes. It is one of the 3 parks that comprise the Virunga Conservation Area, and is home to 7 gorilla families.
Rwanda has long been a leader in the region when it comes to infrastructure. It’s relatively easy to get around, plus conservation efforts have been strong.
One of the benefits of this is that the gorilla families here have become more accustmed to human visitors in other regions, making the entire tracking experience far more likely to end successfully.
Volcanoes National Park is by far the easiest access point to mountain gorilla territory, being a mere 80 km from the capital city of Kigali. One of the local buses can get you there in a couple of hours – and on a budget.
By comparison, you’re looking at a full day’s journey to any of the other locations.
It’s worth noting that you have to be at the park enterence at 7am (opening time) in order to be allowed to trek, meaning you’ll either have to leave Kigali really earlier, or stay overnight at the nearby village of Musanze.
Trekking in Rwanda tends to be a bit less fatiguing than in Uganda.
For starters, the gorillas here change locations less frequently, making treks more certain. Whether this is a result of their comfort with humans or the environment it’s hard to say.
In any case, the relatively open terrain amongst the region’s bamboo forest affords great photo opportunities – as here more light gets through the forest canopy than in the denser Bwindi Forest in Uganda.
As Rwandan gorilla tracking permits don’t specify which group you’ll be tracking, after briefing with your guide, you’ll be split into groups based on your fitness level and location of respective groups.
It’s Worth Knowing: If you have any physical challenges that would normally discourage one from even considering doing a gorilla trek, Volcanoes National Park has you covered: There is a round-trip stretcher service available – a group of employees will literally carry you in a giant stretcher/basket.
According to the National Geographic, around 200 gorillas inhabit the massive Virunga National Park (7800 km²), a UNESCO World Heritage Site located along the western border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The DRC is often overlooked as an option for gorilla trekking because in recent times the country has been in political turmoil.
This upheaval hasn’t left the gorillas themselves unscathed either, with at least 10 dying as the result of attacks.
However, the population has stabilized due to the joint efforts of the Congolese National Park Authorities; the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) in partnership with the Africa Conservation Fund; and the noble efforts of the rangers working in the park, and protecting the gorillas from would-be threats.
Due to these and other factors, demand for tours here is lower than in Rwanda and Uganda.
On the upside, there ae often stricter limits on group size in place (possibly as low as 4 people), making your trek – and your time with he gorillas – more intimate.
Virunga National Park is located 32 km west of the city of Goma, capital of the North Kivu province.
Arranging transport is easy enough, and can be done so with the park itself. Since infrastructure is poor and the roads are in rough shape, it’s advisable to go with someone who has knowledge of the region.
Even though it’s possible to traverse the DRC – for example, taking one of the daily flights from the capital of Kinshasa – the easiest way to reach Goma is overland from Rwanda.
The bus ride from Kigali to the DRC border is between 3 to 3.5 hours, followed by a ~10 minute walk to the city.
The border is open from 6am to 6pm every day, and the roads on the Rwandan side of the border are the best in the region.
**Note that due to the political instability in the DRC and armed conflicts that have occurred in the Goma regin, be sure to check the latest conditions before choosing this route. You can always do a gorilla treck in Rwanda or Uganda should the circumstances in the DRC not be condusive to travel.
Once you’ve decided where you want to go on your gorilla tracking adventure, it’s time to pick up a permit.
Alternatively, the permits themselves may factor into your choice of location, as prices & conditions vary.
But first: What’s a gorilla permit, and why are they important?
Due to the extremely endangered nature of the species, mountain gorilla trekking is tightly regulated by all 3 governments lucky enough to control a piece of their habitat.
As a part of the conservation effort, strict visiting limits are imposed on tourists: About half the gorilla families in existance are habituated to human visitors, and may be visited by up to 8 individuals per day. The others are completely off limits, except by conservation and environmental workers who may observe and track the families from time to time.
Every visitor must get a permit in order to visit, and these can be a bit of a challenge to obtain due to their scarcity, tight restrictions, and demand:
*Note that these numbers continually change as the families may migrate across a country border, or a government may decide to change its policies.
What’s more, children under 15 are not allowed under any circumstances, nor are individuals carrying any sort of contagious disease or illness, as even the common cold, a nuisance we tend to take for granted, can prove lethal to an entire family of gorillas unequipped with the immunity necessary to fight off the virus.
If you speak to any tour company about doing gorilla trekking, you’ll notice that you have to pay a decent chunk of change to get a permit. This has nothing to do with the firm at all, but the national government’s attempts at regulation and – hopefully – investing in the well being and safety of the gorillas themselves.
Tour firms are not allowed to increase the prices set by their respective governments for these permits – though it’s important to note that if you’re not actually going to take a tour with the firm arranging your permit, you’ll end up incurring a fee between $50-$100 for having them do all the paperwork.
Gorilla trekking has a bit of a unique spot in the world of tourism, in that you don’t really gain much for booking directly instead of through a tour operator. Few travellers are sufficiently patient/daring to try to put together an entire gorilla hiking adventure all on their own, as it can’t reasonably be done for cheaper.
Permits for gorilla trekking in Rwanda have different rates depending on your immigrant/citizen status: $750 per person for non-citizens; $375 for foreign residents; 30,000 Rwandan Francs for Rwandan citizens.
Rwanda tracking permits differ from Ugandan ones in that a Rwandan permit allows you to see any of the visitable families based on their locations on the day of your trek. Ugandan permits don’t offer the same flexibility.
Buying Directly: Rwanda has the best infrastructure in the region, and this includes the ease of getting a permit for gorilla trekking. You can get a one directly from the Rwanda Tourism Board (ORTPN) or Conservation Reservation Offices in Kigali or Ruhengeri (near Volcanoes National Park).
Contact by telephone: (252 57 65 14)
It’s easy to book a permit online through a tour company. If you’re planning on using a tour company for your excursion anyway, this is the most sensible route to take, as it saves you from having to do extra runaround in order to get ready.
Note that tour companies do not charge for doing all the bureaucratic work to get your permit if you take a tour with them.
Usually $600, but there’s a low-season promo and in April, May & November (2015) the permits will cost $350, making these the cheapest options.
Ugandan permits, while cheaper than Rwandan permits, have a tradeoff: You’re obligated to track the specific family that you chose at the time of booking, which could change substantially between the time you book and your hike.
If you want to pick up a permit in person, you can do so at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) central office in Kampala. Officially, it’s possible to apply from abroad but in pratice this rarely seems to work.
Part of the reason for this is that 80% of gorilla trekking permits are given to local tour operators as much as 2 years in advance, as most tourists opt to use a tour operator anyway, instead of arranging their own tour.
Trying to pick up a permit in person is especially risky if you’re travelling in high season, where they often sell out well aheead of time. In general, advanced booking (4-6 months in advance) is a safer option. Though if it’s low season, picking up a permit same-day in Kampala is an option.
You can do advanced bookings with the UWA as well. These direct bookings are made via email and can be paid for by an electronic funds transfer (EFT). Credit cards are not accepted.
This helps circumvent the problem of picking up a permit last-minute in the capital, as you can buy permits up to 2 years ahead of time. To do this, it’s necessary to place a 30% deposit as down-payment and paying the balance 91 days before your trek.
If you’re not putting together an independent tour, and instead using a local company, you may as well have them book the permit along with your tour.
Permits in the DRC are $400. These are pretty much only obtainable through a tour operator.
A rainforest hike in the pursuit of mountain gorillas – that may last several hours – requires a bit more attention to our gear than casual travel would.
To handle the muddly paths, steep slopes, and dense foliage, there are a few must-have items:
Quality hiking boots: Preferably already broken in, and providing ankle protection/support.
Knee-high gaitors: Protective covers that you can put over your pants to keep dirt off – as well as out of your hiking boots
Safari hat: Keep the sun off your head/neck, as well as offer protection from the environment (branches, bugs).
Gardening Gloves (or similar): In case you end up on a steep incline and have to use your hands, you’ll be glad to have these to protect your hands from stinging nettles.
Socks: Double layer. Cotten on the inner layer for moisture absorbtion, thick on the outside for protection.
At this point, you’re almost ready to set out on your trek. Before you get started, here are the basic do’s and don’ts of a successful gorilla trek:
Tracking mountain gorillas through the rainforests of eastern Africa isn’t your average Sunday-afternoon excursion. For a gorilla trek you need to be in good physical form and ready to handle the heat, humidity, and dirt/mud of a rainforest romp.
Even in dry season you can expect to deal with tangled vegetation, steep & muddy slopes, and all sorts of other obstacles.
And depending on how far away your particular gorilla group is and how quickly your guide is able to locate it, you may be looking at a trek of several hours.
The one good thing of note is that since these gorilla families are habituated to human onlookers, they’re not going to flee when your group comes near.
They may already be in a difficult-to-reach area, but you’ll only have to find them once.
Gorilla treks have somewhere around a 90% success rate, though the exact figure is difficult to pin down.
Tracking expeditions start out bright and early. Generally, you’ll start by driving to the park boundary to meet your group before continuing to a ranger station.
The ranger station is typically the farthest point a vehicle can reach, so from there it’s on foot. You’ll get a brief run-down of how the day is going to go, and then you’re off – into the rainforest!
Your guide will likely be full of knowledge about the gorilla family you’re tracking, from family history, all the members, as well as basic information about the species.
The plan is usually straightforward: Find the site where the gorillas were visited the day before and then track their movements from there until a sighting is made.
A competant guide will be worth their weight in gold here, as you’re going to be infor some serious offroading for a while – anywhere from minutes to 8 hours. The latter figure is rare, but sometimes gorillas make a big move – just like humans.
Once you’ve made a sighting, you’ll probably be motioned to put your equipment down and slowly draw nearer with just your camera.
This is the pivital moment. The critical encounter afforded to so few. Mountain gorillas up close and personal. 1 hour to create a lfetime of memories.
So even though you may be tempted to spend the entire time snapping photos – resist. Mediating your entire experience through a camera lens is robbing yourself of at least half the pleasure of meeting mountain gorillas in the first place.
Give yourself anywhere from 20-40 minutes to take all the pictues you’ll be able to show family and friends, and recall the experience for the rest of your life. Then spend the rest of the time just having the experience itself, without the distraction of your camera.
Seeing gorillas interact with each other – groom, eat, play and parent, is something truly special to behold. It’s almost – but not quite – like looking into a mirror, the way these great apes display behaviors that we could take for human.
Once your hour is up, it’s time to put distance between yourself and your gorilla family. You’ll retrace your steps back to your starting point, possibly with a break to eat (as you can’t eat by the gorilla family). This will usually be whatever snacks you’ve elected to bring along.
Upon arriving at the starting point of your trek, you’ll return to your vehicle and head to your accommodation for the night – mission accomplished.
This is a somewhat idealized version of what will take place on the ground. Of course, your own experience will be affected by the weather, your guide, the location, and the gorillas themselves. Remember: these are wild animals, and even though the groups we’re allowed to visit are used to having human visitors, ultimately their behavior is beyond our control.
Fortunately, the vast majority of gorilla trekking experiences turn out successfully – for everyone involved.
Have you ever been gorilla trekking? Would you like to? What other advice could you give to a would-be trekker?