It’s the moment that calls you to be cognitively present. After a long, sweaty trek through thick misty foliage and wet ground, your guide ushers you quietly into the clearing. The tracked gorilla family are taking their midmorning break: hillocks of black fur protrude from the glossy greenery on every side – a crooked elbow here, a swollen belly there. Above the drip-drip of the foliage come sporadic snores and the soft sound of wind. Yes, there’s little going on, but you have never felt so alive. You inch forward and reach for your camera.
How To See Mountain Gorillas in East Africa’s Uganda and Rwanda
The mountain gorillas
Have you watched David Attenborough’s breathless encounter with mountain gorillas in his 1979’s “Life on Earth” film?. If you have then you should know that back then such an experience had seemed as improbable as walking with dinosaurs, and just as dangerous. The situation was flipped since David and Dian Fossey’s encounters and today we have nothing to fear from these gentle and endangered primates. Visiting them in their natural habitat – the mountain forests of equatorial Africa – has become one of the planet’s ultimate wildlife experiences.
Scientifically, the mountain gorilla lives only in high altitudes and not anywhere else but in small mountain tropical forests of East Africa. It is the larger of the two gorilla species and lives in a family of about 10-30 individuals, over which a “silverback” male (named for his cape of white hair) presides. And they’re only aout 1000 of these guys remaining in the world with more than half of them found in Uganda and the rest in DR Congo and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
Short Affordable Gorilla Tour: 3 Days Gorilla Tracking Safari
The Mountain Gorilla Trekking
You are most likely to be trekking the mountain gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda, ruling out the DRC for security concerns. Your first mandatory prerequisite is the gorilla trekking permit, which will cost you a hefty US$1500 in Rwanda or US$600/$750 in Uganda. That permits gets yo a restricted and highly protected one hour in the presence of the mighty creatures, plus the time it will to take you to hike to where they are.
Your trek is conducted under the supervision of park rangers. They will guide you to one of several habituated troops, whose movements are monitored around the clock. Some may feel this makes the experience a little stage-managed. In reality, it is the only way to see wild gorillas. You cannot simply wander off by yourself: the terrain is too dangerous; the apes too elusive; and the rangers too focused on battling poachers to allow tourists to blunder off-piste. Indeed, it is only through the efforts of the dedicated park staff that the beleaguered apes survive at all.
Treks set out daily. Rangers keep park HQ informed by radio of the gorillas’ whereabouts, so sightings are virtually guaranteed. After an obligatory briefing, you will be assigned to a group of up to eight trekkers, plus guides and porters. Each group is allocated to a particular gorilla troop. The trek, including one hour with the gorillas, may take anything from three to nine hours, depending on the location of your troop. If you miss the briefing, or show up with a cold – which poses a serious health risk to the apes – you will be turned away, permit or no permit.
The Captivating encounter with mountain gorillas
The dense undergrowth, high altitude and steep, slippery trail will soon have your physical strength scratched, muddy and exhausted. Intriguing clues – steaming droppings, munched bamboo – ramp up the jungle excitement.
But nothing prepares you for the intensity of the encounter with the mountain gorilla. Many leave in tears, convinced that they’ve felt a “connection”. While such ideas may be fanciful, there is no denying that sitting among the apes, meeting those searching, intelligent eyes in a face that seems to reflect your own, is a powerful experience.
At the trail-head before you start your hike, the guides will explain the simple rules. You should keep quiet and still and preserve a distance of seven metres – though there’s nothing to stop the apes approaching you. Generally, nothing much happens: the gorillas are dozing, farting and or feeding, with some occasional rough and tumble among boisterous youngsters. The silverback is awesome to behold but nothing to worry about. If feeling tetchy, he may beat his chest or make a brief “mock” charge. This sets the pulse racing but you need only keep still, avoid eye contact and let his bluster burn out. Your guides will be in control.
Gorilla trekking is, above all African safari activities, an intimate experience – more like entering a family sitting room than racing around on safari. Once you have got your snaps, you can enjoy the privilege of observing an extraordinary animal close-up. One hour is not enough, but it is an hour that you will remember for the rest of your life. We usually recommend our travellers to take a second day trek with no cameras, to just go and enjoy the encounter.
This is the Trip if a lifetime: 5 Day Amazing Gorilla and Chimpanzee Safari
Where to go for the gorilla encounter
You can chose to trek either in Uganda or Rwanda, the experience is the same but the main difference is the price tag.
You trek Rwanda’s gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, also known as Parc National des Volcans (in french), about two hours’ drive north west from Rwanda’s capital Kigali. There are great safari lodges for both luxury and budget travel, that’s something Rwanda has got so right. A trek can be done over a stay of just two nights, though another night will allow you to relax and experience more. All treks start from park HQ in the village of Kinigi.
The gorillas in Uganda can be trekked in either Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or Mgahinga National Park, which are almost at the border with Rwanda and DRC. You’ll need a full day’s drive from Entebbe or Kampala to get there. I would say you allow a three nights trip. Treks start a four different trail points, several hours’ drive apart. Your choice of trail-head will determine which lodge you stay in. You cannot fall short of choice for a perfect gorilla lodge.
Chose from a selection of Tailored Gorilla Safaris
Rwanda offers the easier trekking: your chances of a shorter hike are higher and you will have more flexibility on the day, with rangers allocating you a habituated gorilla group according to fitness levels. In Uganda the hikes are often longer and steeper, though many travellers prefer this “wilder” challenge.
When is the best time to go?
Gorilla trekking is a year-round activity. During the “long rains” of late March to early May conditions are at their wettest and hiking at its toughest. November is the short rainy season. Peak season is July and August.
What else you can do
Uganda is an excellent safari destination and wildlife hotspots include Queen Elizabeth National Park (lions and other big game) and Kibale Forest (chimps). Other attractions include Murchison Falls. Rwanda’s more limited attractions include the beautiful Lake Kivu, and Nyungwe Forest, a haven for chimps and other wildlife. For a full Big Five experience, you can combine your Rwanda gorilla trek with a safari in Kenya (most operators offer combined packages) or the parks in Uganda.
Booking a gorilla trip
K-Safaris is local operator and we offer all-inclusive gorilla trekking trips. What you should highly regard is that gorilla permits are highly on demand and very scarce especially during high seasons of July and August. We recommend you book yours 6 months prior to you trip. Permits are offered buy the government authorities in charge f protecting the parks but can be processed by the operator.