Gorilla trekking is an activity that involves hiking through the forests and mountain ranges to search for the endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Gorilla trekking is a much sought after activity by many tourists visiting or intending to visit Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo. It is an activity that is on many people’s must-do lists. Gorilla trekking is usually put as a highlight in most safaris to Africa.
Mountain gorillas are primates that are endangered and can only be found in the Virunga ranges and the Albertine Rift montane forest of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. These endangered species can only be found in Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda.
Where can mountain gorillas be found?
Mountain gorillas are found in high altitude montane and bamboo forests of the Virunga conservation area that has extinct volcanic mountains on the borders of the democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, plus in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. In the Congo, mountain gorillas are found in Virunga National Park while in Rwanda they are found in the Volcanoes National Park. In Uganda, mountain gorillas are found in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park which makes part of the Virunga ranges, and in the impenetrable forest of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It should be noted that Bwindi inhabits more than half of the total population of mountain gorillas in the whole world. All these parks harbor these endangered species and conservation efforts are in place to see that they can be preserved for long generations.
Gorilla trekking in Congo.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is located in Central Africa and is named after the Congo River. Despite the civil war that raved almost throughout the country, the country is gradually appreciating the value of peace and security and is more peaceful of late thereby having tourism back as one of the revenue-bringing industries. Gorilla trekking in Congo takes place in Virunga National Park, an African gem for the fact that it is one of the places to visit if the wild and untampered nature is what you could wish to encounter. Having been closed to any tourist activity in May 2018, the park was reopened in 2019 and gorilla trekking in the park was again possible.
Virunga National Park, located in Kinshasa the capital of the country, has 8 habituated gorilla families that tourists can book to track, for example, Kabirizi, Humba, Rugendo, Mapuwa, Lulengo, Munyaga, Nyakamwe, and Bageni gorilla groups. Tourists intending to track from Virunga pay and purchase their gorilla permits from the park headquarters and then proceed to track.
Apart from gorilla trekking though, there are other activities that can be done when in Virunga National Park. These include Nyiragongo mountain hiking where you will be able to view the boiling lava lake which is the largest in the world, bird watching which will give you an opportunity to see a number of the endemics of the park like the handsome francolin and animal spotting particularly when doing a nature walk in the park where you will see among others pelicans and antelopes.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda
Rwanda is one of the privileged countries that inhabits the gentle mountain gorillas. Rwanda is a landlocked country in Central and East Africa bordered by Uganda in the North, Tanzania in the East, Burundi in the South and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the West.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is possible in the Volcanoes National Park where there are over 150 habituated mountain gorillas that are grouped in ten different families that tourists can track. The park is located just about 3 hours away drive from Kigali International Airport in the districts of Burera, Musanze, Rubavu, and Nyabihu.
The Volcanoes National Park which is about 160 square kilometers of rainforest has five of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains namely Karisimbi, Muhabura, Bisoke, Gahinga, and Sabinyo mountains. A tourist visiting this park can choose to add hiking these volcanic mountains to his gorilla safari passage.
Gorilla trekking in Uganda
Gorilla trekking in Uganda takes place in two national parks of Mgahinga Gorilla and Bwindi Impenetrable. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the most commonly asked for park to track from by many tourists. This is simply because Bwindi has more habituated gorilla groups as compared to Mgahinga, in fact, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park inhabits over a half of the world’s total mountain gorilla population! Each park, however, offers a different experience from the other, visiting both of them would be worthwhile.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has over 14 habituated mountain gorilla families that are in the four sectors of the park, say Buhoma, Rushaga, Nkuringo and Ruhija that tourists can track from. Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, on the other hand, has one gorilla group-the Nyakagyezi gorilla group that is open to tourists to track. This limits the number of permits available thus less congestion in the park.
When is the best time to trek mountain gorillas?
Any park in Africa is best visited in the dry season. Similarly, gorillas are best tracked in the dry season during the dry months of June, July, August, September, December, and January, when the roads are more passable and there is not very thick vegetation cover to hinder one’s movements. The rains in these parks fall at any time though, since they are rainforests, 4WD vehicles are therefore encouraged to be used in these places.
How much is a gorilla trekking permit?
The cost of a gorilla trekking permit varies according to country. In Uganda, a permit is at $700 for foreign non-residents, $600 for foreign residents and UGX250,000 for East African citizens. Gorilla trekking permits in Rwanda are at $1,500 for all persons including Rwanda citizens while Congo permits are at $400 for all persons with the Congo citizens paying only $150. To get a gorilla trekking permit to track gorillas in Uganda, one can purchase them from Uganda Wildlife Authority in Kampala or through a trusted tour operator, and for Rwanda that can be through the Rwanda Development Board. Gorilla trekking permits in Congo can be got from the park headquarters directly.
When should I book my gorilla trekking permit?
Since gorilla trekking is a very demanded activity by many travelers, tourists who would wish to trek these endangered but gentle species must book way in advance. At least 3-4 months before your visit and up to 2 years in advance is the recommended time to book for these permits. Last-minute travelers might not be able to get these permits.
What is the gorilla trekking age restriction?
Persons below the age of 15 years cannot track the gorillas. Only those above 15 are allowed to track, even if one is as old as 100 years but are fit to track can go tracking. Persons with limited mobility or very elderly can opt to have porters carry them on stretchers throughout the hike at a fee.
How many people can go gorilla trekking at a time?
Only 8 people per gorilla group per day can go gorilla trekking. This is to limit the impact of human presence on the gorillas, say disease spread and distress.
What must I essentially carry?
For one to have a successful gorilla safari, carrying the following gear is very much advised;
- 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 in these rainforests
- 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, or the very nasty nettles in Rwanda.
- Energy giving snacks and water for refreshment since the hike will be very tiring and take longer hours
The items you carry for the gorilla trekking safari can either make you have a good or bad experience. Please endeavor to pack appropriately.
The gorilla trekking experience
The gorilla trekking experience usually starts with rising very early in the morning. After your breakfast at the lodge, your driver-guide will drive you to the park headquarters where you are expected to be by 7:00 am for a briefing about the whole experience and what you should expect to see and experience throughout the hike. You will also be given guidelines that one should follow when doing the hike. The ranger will then place you in groups of eight and allocated gorilla groups to track. You can ask to be given a particular gorilla group if there is one that are attached to or would like to particular see, provided they are in the sector you are in.
You will embark on a gorilla hike thereafter which will see you going deep into the forest to find these gentle primates. The total duration for this activity usually takes 3-5 hours but can extend depending on the location of the mountain gorillas. The hike can sometimes be as short as only 30 minutes. During the trek, be on the lookout to see other primates like chimpanzees, monkeys and many other animals like forest elephants and bush pigs, and so many different bird species. The rangers and guides will continuously point out important aspects of the forest and anything worth to note throughout the hike. When you are soon approaching the mountain gorillas, you will be able to hear their sounds and the rangers will notify you in case you do not. You will then be asked to leave behind all your foodstuffs and extra baggage.
Once you meet these creatures, you will be allowed to be with them for an hour in which time you can spend watching them go about their life. They might mind you and be attentive to you and watch all that you do and the juveniles can even come up-close and touch you, or simply keep eating their foliage oblivious of your presence. You can take pictures and videos if you wish to, but remember not to use flash cameras as they would cause the gorillas to be aggressive. After an hour, you will leave the mountain gorillas in their humble abode. You will then embark on a hike back to the headquarters with a lunch stopover where you eat what your lodge packed for you, all this in the jungles. When you reach the park headquarters, you will be awarded a gorilla tracking certificate and you leave behind your gorilla permit since your trek is over and yet it is a single entry card. Your driver-guide will drive you back to your lodge where you can relax or proceed as per your itinerary.
What are the gorilla trekking guidelines?
For travelers’ own safety and also conservation purposes of the mountain gorillas and their habitat, there are rules and regulations that ought to be followed, say;
- A 7 meters’ distance away from the mountain gorillas must be observed at all times.
- 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. Eating should be done at least 200 meters away.
- Do not touch the gorillas, you might just transmit contagious illnesses to them.
What are the chances that I will see the mountain gorillas?
It is really rare that mountain gorillas are not seen by trackers. It might take a longer time if it is that they moved further away since they never stay in the same place for long. Be rest assured of seeing these gentle creatures, but if really you do fail to see them, you will be given an opportunity to track the next day, if your schedule allows.
Gorilla habituation involves travelers spending longer times in the presence of mountain gorillas for the sole purpose of having these gorillas accommodate human contact. During this time, travelers participate in naming, collecting and testing the gorilla stool, listening to informative talks from the experts and then also learn the different behaviors of these gorillas like anger and stress and what could possibly trigger them.
To be allowed to do gorilla trekking, one needs to have a pass that can be purchased in Uganda for example from the Uganda Wildlife Authority at $1,500 for foreign non-residents, $1000 for foreign residents and UGX750,000 for East African citizens.
In Uganda, gorilla habituation takes place from Rushaga gorilla sector, and since not many passes are available, travelers are advised to book in advance as well. Only 4 persons are allowed to take part in this activity every day.
How different is gorilla trekking from gorilla habituation?
- Gorilla trekking has travelers engaging with the gorillas for only one hour while gorilla habituation has travelers spending four long hours with them.
- Gorilla trekking is cheaper as compared to gorilla habituation. The cost, however, is worth it.
- Gorilla trekking has up to 8 people allowed to trek while only 4 people are allowed to participate in gorilla habituation per day per group.
- Gorilla trekking has many gorilla groups available to be tracked while gorilla habituation has very few groups that are open to visitors.
- Gorilla trekking, thrilling as it is, can have other attractions added to it, say forest walk in Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda, golden monkey trekking in Rwanda and Uganda, volcanic hikes or a true safari experience in any part of the region like Tanzania, Kenya, Zanzibar, and many more destinations as you find fit. Contact your trusted tour operator to do this for you.