Getting up close and face-to-face with a wild mountain gorilla is the most profound wildlife experience that we have had anywhere in the world. This immense other being doesn’t just look back at you, but actually SEES you. We were so close that we could hear them breathing, their stomachs growling, even the arches, loops and whorls on the pads of their fingers. Rwanda and Uganda are the two best places on the continent to encounter wild mountain gorillas. Both countries have expert naturalist guides and trackers, comfortable (even luxurious) accommodation options and robust conservation infrastructure that allows for the protection of these animals and their habitat. Both countries are well-developed and allow visitors to get safely into and out of gorilla habitat. We have trekked in both of these countries and here is what our experience was like.
Trekking for silverback gorillas in Rwanda is primarily focused in the northwest of the country in Volcanoes National Park. The main gateway into the park is through the small town of Kinigi which sits right at the park entrance. This is where all gorilla trekking starts from and where the park headquarters is located. Small-group treks take place on the lower slopes of the massive volcanoes in the region with some of the treks potentially getting up to 11,000 feet. Most treks don’t get this high but you should be physically prepared to get up to between 7,000 and 10,000 feet.
Before you even arrive at the park headquarters in the morning, trackers from the park service are already out searching for the resident, habituated gorilla families. Once found, they radio their locations back to headquarters which allows the park guides to coordinate where each trekking group will go. There are 88 trekking permits available per day and guests are split into groups of 8 trekkers led by 2 parks service guides. Since there were just 2 of us, we were put in with other guests. This is all coordinated by the park service guides, and there is a bit of profiling that goes on to match up similar groups of guests (they do their best to match up fitness and age groups) but its still a bit random. Gorillas tend roam and congregate on lower elevation slopes during the rainy season of March-May. This is when the new, succulent bamboo shoots form. It's their favorite food and is particularly nutritious. Later in the year, the gorillas tend toward higher ground - even up to 11,000 feet in August and September – this can mean longer hikes to higher elevations for trekkers. Easy hikes are never guaranteed – if the gorilla family you are trekking to decides to move off into challenging terrain you may have to as well. Steep hills, mud, stinging nettle, thorns, biting ants are all regularly encountered. Be prepared for an adventure!
Once we were assigned a trekking group, we were briefed by our guides about the gorilla family group that we'd be trekking to. The family we visited consisted of over 24 individuals, including 3 HUGE silverbacks and several babies and juveniles. This particular group had a unique name to all other gorilla groups in Rwanda as this was one of the only known groups to have been ruled by a female for 5 months after the male silverback leader died and before a new leader could not be found. This is a very rare occurrence. It was really exciting and interesting to learn this family’s history before trekking in to see them.
The gorilla family group we were trekking to was only about 1 mile of hiking from the trailhead with about 500 feet of elevation gain. At our highest, we were at about 9,000 feet. There was no trail, and the track we were able to cut through the forest was very muddy, slippery and had lots of stinging nettles. Gloves were essential and all of us appreciated having a helping hand from our porters. We arrived at the gorillas in about an hour and half. We spent an AMAZING hour with them. Afterward, we had light snacks before hiking less than an hour to get back to the vehicles. Descending the slippery and muddy slopes was even more challenging than hiking in. This was rated as an easy/medium day by our guides and we were done and back to the vehicle before lunchtime with the rest of the day to relax and review all of the videos and pictures we took. We had a reasonably fit group with some Americans and Brits.
You will need general hiking attire (sturdy hiking footwear and appropriate outdoor clothing) and rain gear (it can rain any time of year). Many of the lodges in the area provide gaitors which are helpful to keep debris out of your soes and socks and to keep biting ants out of your pants. Walking sticks are also available if you didn’t bring yours (we brought our own - but won’t next time) and a surprise bonus was the boot and gaitor cleaning that most lodges provide!
Permit prices in Rwanda are $1,500 per person per day. Revenue from the sale of these permits is used to expand the gorilla habitat of the park which includes the resettlement of large populations of locals living in the lower forests of Volcanoes National Park. Expanding available habitat is critical to sustaining and growing the remaining populations of mountain gorillas. Accommodations range from comfortable to architecturally and luxuriously stunning (like the other-worldly Bisate Lodge).
The main area for gorilla trekking in Uganda is in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the SW of the country. There are 4 areas within Bwindi for trekking: Buhoma (NW), Rushaga (SE), Ruhija (NE), Nkuringo (SW – ask about gorilla habituation here where you can spend up to 4 hours with the gorillas!). There are a total of 104 permits available each day throughout all of these regions. Each region has it's own headquarters. Just like in Rwanda, trackers head out each morning to each of the habituated gorilla families to determine their position for where groups will trek for the day. Since Bwindi is at a lower elevation, treks don’t exceed 8,000 feet but they can still be quite strenuous. You can trek for gorillas any time of year, it just rains more from March to May.
We trekked out of Buhoma and were allocated into a small group of 6 trekkers led by two guides. We were given a briefing and learned that the gorilla family we'd be trekking to consisted of 10 gorillas including the largest silverback male and also the newest (littlest) baby in the region.
How difficult was it?
We set off from the trailhead with our porters and with 4 security officers as mandated by the Ugandan government. We hiked up a steep trail where we occasionally used trees and roots to help with getting up some of the steep terrain. It took us 2 hours of mostly uphill hiking with over 1,500 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead followed by another hour of descending the backside of the mountain with about 800 feet of elevation loss to finally get to the gorillas. The terrain was steep and the hiking was strenuous. We spent an hour with the gorillas but because they moved around a bit, our guide gave us a bit of bonus time to make sure we had an ample viewing opportunity. When our time was up, we hiked for another hour to the lunch spot through brief but VERY heavy rain. After lunch, we needed to hike to the pickup point which was another hour and a half of descending several thousand feet.
Our guides rated this as a 6/10 for difficulty. Two members of our group commented that this was "one of the hardest things that [they] had ever physically done in their life." The forest was much thicker overhead (darker) than in Rwanda but there was less vegetation to bushwhack through on the ground. There were some thorny plants but not much nettle. There were biting ants to be aware of and we tucked our pants into our socks to avoid these little menaces!
What you should bring
Many lodges provide or sell gaitors and walking sticks/trekking poles. You don't need to bring your own unless you are particularly attached (we brought our own gaitors and some leather gloves which are light enough to pack easily). A good camera is a must. You'll be up close most of the time but having some zoom helps too. Expect low light. Much like in Rwanda, accommodations range from comfortable to luxurious.
Permits in Uganda are $700 per person per day and also support habitat preservation as well as the conservation efforts of the Ugandan wildlife authorities.
More important than any other piece of advice for trekking in either country is this: the more fit you are and the better shape that you are in, the more you are going to enjoy this experience. At a minimum, you should be able to hike uphill for 4 or more hours, in the rain, on an uneven trail that might require big steps. If you get lucky and have an easier trek you'll be pleasantly surprised. But if you wind up with a very hard trek, you'll be ready for it and won't be physically struggling and totally spent by the time you get to the gorillas.
Ready for your own gorilla trekking adventure in Uganda or Rwanda? Call us - we’ve been there!
Your gorilla trekking expert,