Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla trekking ranks as one of the absolute must-do and consequently a highlight of any trip to Africa for most travelers. The feeling you get being so close to one of our closest relatives is indescribable. Gorilla trekking is an activity that sees a traveler hiking the forests and mountain ranges in search for the mountain gorillas. Mountain gorillas are endangered apes that inhabit the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa within the national parks of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Congo plus the Albertine Rift montane cloud forest of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda. 

Where do mountain gorillas live?

Mountain gorillas are found in the Virunga conservation area that makes part of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. All these parks are distinctive of each other in regards to location, accessibility and the number of habituated gorilla groups or families. 

Gorilla trekking in Uganda

When trekking gorillas in Uganda is mentioned, most people run to think of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park but Mgahinga Gorilla National Park also offers the same experience only that it has less habituated gorilla groups as compared to Bwindi. In Uganda, gorilla trekking can be done from any of those two national parks, and each offers a distinctive experience. 

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park inhabits more than half of the total world population of the mountain gorillas. Bwindi has over 14 habituated groups that tourists can track every single day and are available in different sectors of Buhoma, Rushaga, Nkuringo, and Ruhijja. 

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park has only one habituated gorilla group that ca be tracked by tourists. The migration of the Hirwa gorilla family from Rwanda has increased it to two. The group for the time they will be in Uganda will be tracked from Uganda at the Ugandan cost and revenue shared with Rwanda up until the gorilla group moves back or decides to settle in Mgahinga forever. 

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is done in the volcanoes national park which is just a 3 hours’ drive from Kigali International Airport. The park has over 150 habituated mountain gorilla split into groups and are availed to tourists for tracking.

Gorilla trekking in the Congo

Virunga national park is a gem in Africa. Not only does it have high biodiversity but it also inhabits the endangered mountain gorillas. Gorilla trekking was put on a hold in May 2018 due to the unrest in the country which put tourists and park operators at risk. The park was however reopened in 2019 after the unrest subsided. There are 8 habituated gorilla families in Virunga national park and are open for trekking by tourists. 

Apart from gorilla trekking, there are a number of activities that can be done in all those parks with gorillas. In Congo, hiking the Nyiragongo mountain is rewarding as it gives one an opportunity to view the boiling lava lake which is the largest in the world plus the smoking cone. Golden monkey trekking can be done in both Mgahinga in Uganda and the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, not forgetting bird watching where one can spot a number of endemic Albertine Rift valley birds. Having a cultural tour blended with gorilla trekking is equally rewarding, say visiting the Batwa communities in Mgahinga or Bwindi, the only people that had for so long co-existed with the mountain gorillas. Visiting them could give you a picture of they did actually co-exist and how they run their day-to-day life. The Dian Fossey grave visit should not be missed either.  

When is the best time to trek mountain gorillas?

The months of June, July, August, September, December, and January are the dry seasons at the same time the peak season that tourists travel most as the parks are easily accessible and the roads are less slippery. It should, however, be noted that since the parks that the gorillas inhabit lie in the tropics the rains can fall at any time of day even during the dry seasons. 4WD vehicles and appropriate wear should, therefore, be used or carried.

What is the gorilla trekking age limit?

Only persons 15 years and above are allowed to trek the gorillas. Persons below the age of 15 cannot go gorilla trekking much as they could be physically fit and are up for the challenge. If, however, a traveler has persons that are almost making 15 years by the time the trek is scheduled, parents of the person in question can write to either the Uganda Wildlife Authority or the Rwanda Development Board taking full responsibility of anything that might arise or occur to the person in question and wait for confirmation.

How much is a gorilla trekking permit?

Gorilla trekking permits cost vary according to the countries that one chooses to trek the gorillas from. In Uganda, foreign non-residents pay $700, foreign residents pay $600 while the East African citizens pay UGX250,000 to trek gorillas either from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. In Rwanda, gorilla trekking permits are at $1,500 for all persons trekking gorillas including the Rwanda national as well. In the Congo, gorilla permits are at $400 for all foreigners including residents, Congolese citizens pay $150 only. Irrespective of the price, these gorilla permits sell out very fast. Travelers are therefore encouraged to book and pay way in advance to secure their permits.

When and where should I book my gorilla permit?

Gorilla permits sell out very fast and travelers are encouraged to book at least 3-4 months in advance so as to secure your permit. Last-minute travelers might not be able to purchase these permits. Gorilla permits can be purchased from the Uganda Wildlife Authority or Rwanda Development Board in Uganda and Rwanda respectively depending on where you would rather trek from. One can also get a trusted tour operator to purchase the permits for them.

What is the recommended packing list for my gorilla trekking safari?

For one to have a successful gorilla safari, there are essential items that one must include on their packing list least they would have their trip ruined. They include among others;

  • Hiking boots for easy walking. Do not be tempted to carry sandals or open shoes
  •  Hand gloves to help you have firm grips on the walking rod and to avoid getting reactions from the various vegetation you are likely to get a hold of when on the hike.
  • Long sleeved shirts and blouses to protect you from thorny bushes and insect bites.
  • Rain jackets for the ever-changing weather
  • Sunglasses and hat to protect you from the direct sun
  • Long pants and stockings tacked into boots to prevent bites by ground insects and crawlies
  • Energy giving snacks and water for refreshment since the hike will be very tiring and take longer hours

How many people can go gorilla trekking?

To minimize the impact of humans on the mountain gorillas, a minimum number of 8 persons per day can trek a particular gorilla family in any of the locations.

What are the gorilla trekking rules and regulations? 

There are rules and regulations for gorilla trekking. These Dos and DON’Ts are both for the safety of the gorillas and the travelers themselves, some of them include;

  •  A 7 meters’ distance away from the mountain gorillas must be observed
  • Keep within your group
  • Noise is not allowed and whispers if you really need to speak
  • Avoid direct eye contact with the gorillas, this threatens them.
  • Keep calm when a mountain gorilla charges. Follow whatever instructions your guide/ranger instructs you to do.
  • Do not throw rubbish in the park. Carry back all that you came with.
  • Do not eat near the mountain gorillas. Easting should be done at least 200 meters away.
  • Do not touch the gorillas. 

How much time does the trek take?

A trek can take from 30 minutes up to 8 hours depending on where the gorilla group you are tracking is located. Since they are always on the move, travelers need to trek on to find them. Upon reaching the gorillas, travelers are allowed a maximum of one hour with the gorillas. During this time, travelers can take pictures or videos of the gorillas or simply live in the moment.

Gorilla trekking experience

The experience usually starts with rising early in the morning and preparing for your trek in waiting. After having your breakfast, you will be driven to the park headquarters where you will meet the other travelers that are after the gorilla trekking experience themselves. You will be briefed by a ranger usually at 7:00am about the general rules and guidelines that are to be followed by all the trekkers while at the park, which have been duly listed for you above. The ranger will then place you in groups of eight ad assigned particular gorilla families to trek. Usually, the rangers assign groups according to physical fitness of a traveler, the travelers can however choose which particular group they would like to trek say if you read about the Mubare group and it appealed to you, you can ask to be placed in a group that is to track it for as long as there is space and it is in that sector that you are.

You will then embark on a gorilla trekking expedition deep into the forest to find the gentle creatures. The trek usually takes between 3-5 hours but can prolong depending on the location of the gorilla group you are trekking. During the trek, look out for other wildlife in the parks like monkeys, bushpigs, forest elephants and even chimps. The rangers and guides will keep pointing out important plants and anything else that they deem could interest you and enlighten you as you hike on. When you are nearing the exact location of the mountain gorilla group, the ranger will notify you and thus get ready by leaving behind the foodstuffs and porters and to also lower your voices. The rangers can easily tell where the gorillas are due to the distinctive sound that they make.

Once you encounter the mountain gorillas, you are allowed only one hour in their presence. You can take pictures (make sure not to use flash cameras) or make videos of the gorillas as they go about their business almost oblivious of your intrusion. The juveniles, inquisitive as they always are, may decide to come closer to you and play around with you but beware not to touch them or do anything with them as the silverback of the group is always watchful and so do their mothers. After an hour has elapsed, the ranger and guide will guide you away from the gorilla group and thus embark on your hike back. Depending on the time, a lunch stopover is usually made where you can have your packed lunch from the lodge in the jungle. Please do not leave any of the items like disposable plates and serviettes in the park, carry them along with you until you get to where there is a dustbin. You will continue with your hike back to the park headquarters where you will be awarded a gorilla tracking certificate. Your driver-guide will be waiting for you there for your drive back to the lodge.

Gorilla Habituation

Gorilla habituation is an activity that involves visiting a particular family of wild gorillas every day until they get used to humans being around. This is usually done by researchers who with time learn the gender of each group member. The gorilla habituation process is done by the researchers usually takes 2-3 years, and when they are confident that they can be visited by tourists, they conduct mock trips for a period of time. It is here that travelers who would like to be in the presence of these creatures for longer periods of time and interact with them further that they purchase gorilla habituation permits. The permits are their passes for this activity that will see them encountering the gentle primates for 4 hours.

In Uganda, gorilla habituation takes place from the Rushaga sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the habituation permits cost $1,500 for foreign non-resident, $1,000 for foreign residents and UGX750,000 for East African citizens. The permits can be accessed from Uganda Wildlife Authority offices in Uganda or have a trusted tour operator acquire them for you. 

How different is gorilla habituation from gorilla trekking

Whereas gorilla tracking limits the time spent with the gorillas to only one hour, gorilla habituation allows 4 full hours to travelers to be with them. This allows the travelers more time to admire, learn and understand better these endangered mountain gorillas. During the four hours, tourists take part in name giving, collecting and testing gorilla stool, listening to informative talks from the gorilla experts, and learn the different behaviors of the gorillas like when they are angry, hungry, happy or tied of having people around them. All this is not possible during gorilla trekking that only has one hour left to travelers to encounter the mountain gorillas.

Whereas 8 travelers can track mountain gorillas, gorilla habituation allows only four so as to minimize the impact as they are not fully habituated.

Gorilla trekking costs less than gorilla habituation which goes at $1,500 in Uganda. The cost is worth it though as you get more time with the gorillas.

What are the chances of seeing mountain gorillas?

Be rest assured of seeing these primates. In the very rear cases where travelers do not see the gorillas, you are given a second chance to trek again the next day if your schedule allows. 

Gorilla trekking is a thrilling and fulfilling activity that every traveler planning a safari to Africa should include on their itinerary as a highlight. This experience will be very memorable, take time to book yourself a gorilla safari or contact your tour operator of choice to put it all together for you. You can choose to have it blended with a variety of other activities that the region has to offer, or maybe just track gorillas even more than once if you wish to.