Gorilla trekking Guide in Africa’s Rain Forest
Gorilla trekking in Africa is mostly done in three countries namely; Uganda, Rwanda as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Seeing these mountain gorillas in the wild is one of the most fantastic wildlife encounters on earth. Kwita Nzina is the naming ceremony of mountain gorillas which is carried out in Rwanda. Gorillas are critically endangered species which makes life experience of viewing them in their natural habitants more extraordinary and beautiful.
The mountain gorillas are less than 900 individuals remaining in the wild, even though according to national geographic, the exact number of mountain gorilla remaining in the rain forests is 700. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the number of mountain gorillas remaining is 880 individuals. The opportunity to trek mountain gorillas with in rainforests is a once in a lifetime adventure and is one of the wildlife experiences in Africa.
Best Place to Track the Mountain Gorillas -Reviewed
The main three countries which offer gorilla trekking safaris in Africa include; Rwanda, Uganda as well as Democratic Republic of Congo. These three countries are all found in central Africa. These are naturally found in dense rain forests and are also found in moist tropical as well as subtropical forests of the Albertine Rift within central Africa. These are also two forested mountainous places which are inhabited by the African Mountain gorillas. The three national parks where gorilla trekking is done include; Bwindi impenetrable National Park, Virunga national Park, Mgahinga National park, as well as volcanoes national park in Rwanda. These are also the four main national parks where gorilla trekking takes place.
Gorilla tracking in Mgahinga & Bwindi impenetrable National Park (Uganda)
Bwindi impenetrable national park hosts 13 gorilla groups and it’s located in southern Uganda. Mgahinga National Park hosts one gorilla family. The gorilla groups found in southern part of Uganda in Bwindi impenetrable National Park include; Mubare, Habinyanja, Rushegura which are found in Buhoma area, Rushaga area which has;Mishaya, Nshongi, Busingye, Kahungye as well as Bweza.Nkuringo family which has one group in Nkuringo area, and Ruhija area which has three families including; Oruzogo, Buitukura, and Kyaguriro. More so Mgahinga National Park has one gorilla family which is called Nyakagezi. This group moves between Uganda and Rwanda, at the time of writing, the gorillas are now in Rwanda.
Bwindi impenetrable National Park is known to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it lies in south western Uganda, it harbours half of the wild mountain gorilla population totalling to 400 which is half of the remaining mountain gorillas in the world. The park covers an area of 331km of this thick montane as well as lowland rainforest.
Mgahinga National Park is also located in the Far East western part of Uganda and it borders Rwanda near volcanoes national park as well as Democratic Republic of Congo near Virunga National park. This is also a gorilla territory which falls in Virunga volcanoes region and spans three main central African countries. This park is also the smallest national park and is about 34km2 forming part of the bigger virunga Conservation Area, which is 434km of the bigger volcanic mountains. The park is also home to one gorilla family which moves between Uganda and Rwanda and this has made it difficult for trekkers to trek this family in the wild.
In Uganda these national parks are managed by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), and it takes over 12 hours to drive to both Bwindi impenetrable national Park as well as Mgahinga National park. This drive gives guests the real picture of what a rural area looks like and also passes through the most beautiful scenery which is so fantastic to the eyes of the viewer. There is also an alternative way of reaching these parks in time, this is by taking a domestic flight from Entebbe international Airport by charter to Kayonza Air strip which is near Bwindi, and here the guests can be driven for a short while in order to access the park.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda - Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes national Park covers an area of about 125km2 of this unique scenic forest covered with mountains as well as six volcanoes, this is why Rwanda is referred to as a land of a thousand hills. Over a total number of 480 mountain gorillas are found along the border of Virunga Conservation Area which are the Virunga Mountains. The conservation area also includes Volcanoes national Park which is well managed in Rwanda. This is where the great primatologist Dian Fossey lived and worked with the mountain gorillas. The mountain gorillas that live here are habituated more than in other areas and these are used to Human being around them. The national park has got over ten gorilla families including; Susa Gorilla family, Karisimbi gorilla family, Sabyinyo gorilla family, Amahoro, Agashya, Umubano gorilla family, Kwitonda , Hirwa, Ugenda and Bwenge gorilla family.
Volcanoes National Park is also located in northern Rwanda and its 80kms away from the city of Kigali. Access this national park is easy and quick than getting to Bwindi impenetrable National Park. Which is located in Uganda. This park is also two and half hour’s drive from Kigali. And in case you are traveling on a tight budget, you can opt to take a mini bus to Ruhengeri town which is situated at the park entrance or you can also take a tax.
Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park is more strenuous than in Bwindi impenetrable National Park, this is mainly because these gorillas move around less some times. The park’s open terrain amid the bamboo forests allows light in the environment, which makes an opportunity for taking photos than in Bwindi Forest which is so thick. Trekking gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda is completely different. In Uganda, a purchased gorilla permits gives you chance to track that real gorilla family, while in Rwanda, the permit is not specific to a particular family and the gorilla group allocated to you depends on several dependant factors. After, the briefing about gorilla trekking, the visitors are also split into groups according to fitness level, age, as well as the location of the gorilla family at the same time.
Gorilla trekking In Congo
Gorilla trekking in the Democratic Republic of Congo is done in Virunga National Park, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and borders both Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga National Park covers an area of about 7800km and is home to over 200 of gorillas living mostly in the southern part of the park. This park is also managed by Congolese National Park Authorities with the Institut Congolais Pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), these also partner with Africa Conservation Fund. After, the decline in these mountain gorillas numbers due to the brutal attacks which killed atleast 10 gorillas, the gorilla population has increased and more stable now. Many thanks are given to the brave efforts of the rangers who live within Virunga National Park.
Virunga National Park is also 32km west of Goma which is the capital city of North Kivu province. Transportation from Goma to Virunga National Park can also be arranged with Virunga National Park. The roads to the park are so bad and it’s also best to travel with someone who knows the place. The other option might be to join a guided tour since tourism infrastructure is not well developed as in Uganda and Rwanda. It also advisable that the best way to reach Goma is by passing via Rwanda on a well maintained roads from Kigali. This is also a three hours’ drive to reach the border of DRC which is near Goma. This border crossing is unproblematic and from there, it’s a short walk of 10 minutes to Goma. Another option would be to cross the border of Bunagana in south western Uganda, where you can access an affordable local Visa which can be purchased.
Uganda, Rwanda and DRC, Which is the best destination for Gorilla trekking.
The exact location of mountain gorillas living in Virunga Volcanoes keeps on shifting as these apes keep on moving between the forests of Rwanda, Uganda as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorilla trekking is mainly selected based on the location of gorilla populations at the time of the safari. This is usually done by the professional tour operators, and therefore you might find yourself trekking the gorillas in either Rwanda or Uganda which are the most popular destinations.
- Difference in Prices
The bad side of choosing Rwanda is that its gorilla permit costs $750 As opposed to the $600 in Uganda. Also in terms of costs, same safaris in Uganda and Rwanda can be competitive and one can find good deals in either of the countries. However, you can get a better deal in Uganda due to the cheap gorilla permit. The advantage of trekking in Rwanda is quick and easy given that the park is located near the Airport of Rwanda. It’s just 116km from Kigali city to Volcanoes National Park.
- Cheaper gorilla permits in Uganda and variety of what to do and see
The main advantage of trekking in Uganda is the cheap gorilla permits and here you can also combine both gorilla trekking as well as other wildlife highlights. A gorilla trekking tour can be combined with lake Bunyonyi which is close to Bwindi , game viewing in Queen Elizabeth National Park , chimpanzee trekking in Kibale national park , bird watching in Ssemliki national park, mountain climbing on the Rwenzori mountains as well as wildlife viewing in Murchison falls national Park.
- Distance in Driving & accessing the gorillas.
Bwindi impenetrable national Park is located far away from Entebbe international Airport and this adds more traveling costs on the side of Uganda. Even though the drive to Bwindi is long, but it’s scenic and offers great insights into rural areas. The short drive in Rwanda is not as scenic as that of Uganda but the visitors can easily access the park. In case, you find the long drive devastating, then you can fly from Entebbe to Bwindi and land in the nearby towns of Kisoro and Kihihi. Aero link has got cheap and affordable rates that can facilitate these domestic flights.
- How to get to the mountain gorillas
Within Uganda, the gorillas are found deeper in the forests in groups of Between 10 and 20 individuals, with one silverback. In Rwanda, the gorilla groups range from 9 to 39 individuals including 1 silverback. Trekking in Bwindi is more challenging given that the gorillas are away and after the treks, the visitors normally have to take steep slopes out of the forests to access their lodges or hotels. Rwanda’s gorilla groups are found close to the park entrance, which requires shorter hikes. However, in Rwanda, you can’t request for a gorilla group to track and the groups might shift further into the forests.
- The political considerations
Political stability is an important factor to consider when deciding where to go gorilla trekking; these also include the local political conditions in these three countries as well as the availability of the gorilla permits.
Uganda; this country is stable and safe, this is because it has rebuilt itself after the many years of conflict and unrest especially in northern Uganda. Travelling in southern part of the country is so safe and the country is generally a peaceful country.
Rwanda; Rwanda in the recent years is also politically stable after recovering from the genocide which took place in the early 1990s, its Volcanoes national park can be visited safely and is well managed by Rwanda development Board, its gorilla permit system is functioning efficiently and effectively.
Democratic Republic of Uganda; In this country, civil wars as well as conflicts are still a problem, and the safety conditions need to be checked well before visiting the country. There are militant groups as well as the army still fighting in the Virunga area, and the poachers are a great threat to the gorilla population as well as poverty of the people near the national park leading to habitant destruction. This is the main reason why many advisory organisations consider this area to volatile for the travellers and therefore recommend the tourists to avoid visiting DRC at present.
How a typical gorilla trek works.
It’s also known that tracking these mountain gorillas in the thick rainforests with in central Africa is not a real exact science exercise.
With finding the gorillas, again finding and getting to these mountain gorillas is not as easy as people think, nor are the guests guaranteed to view them. This trek to finding the mountain gorillas takes you through very dense vegetation, on the narrow trails with muddy and steep slopes. This great search of these mountain gorillas can last many hours since these primates move around in the thick undergrowth shifting deeper into the forest at most of the times. Once these are trekked and found, they are enjoyed by the visitors since they are used to human presence.
About starting your gorilla safari
Tracking mountain gorillas start so early in the morning, and driving to the boundary and need driving to the boundary of the park for the general formalities before continuing to the ranger’s station. The safari cars are usually left behind at the ranger station and then the walk begins. The group follows the instructions of the local ranger through farmlands and into the thick vegetation of Bwindi impenetrable National Park.
Knowing all about your gorilla whoop!
It’s also known that the collective noun for gorillas is a “whoop” the rangers will always tell you about the specific family of the mountain gorillas you are to trek. These will fill you with the history as well as sharing in depth knowledge about these mountain gorillas. These game rangers also trek to the real site where the gorillas were seen the previous day and will then trace their movements from there to locate them for the visitors. These gorillas are also monitored- daily which helps to keep tracking of their locale, healthy as well as safety. Immediately after spending 45minutes to 8 hours of challenging searching, along the muddy tracks, you will hopefully come face to face with a family group of mountain gorillas within the forest. You will usually put your stuff down and also remain silent as you move in a little closer with your cameras to get an opportunity to view some of these beautiful primates.
The real Gorilla encounter.
This is the exact time where real magic happens as this unique and intimate gorilla expedition unfolds to the guests. You will definitely have an hour to observe these gentle apes at real close range of up to 7 metres within their natural state as you take photos of them. You will get chance to watch these beautiful primates as they feed, parent, groom, play as well as interacting with each other. The exact resemblance between the way these gorillas behave and also relate with each other as well as the mannerisms of human beings leaves many of the trekkers wondering.
Heading back from the gorilla expedition
After spending your precious time of 1 hour with the mountain gorillas, it’s now time to return to the trekking station of the rangers. Along the way to and from the gorilla group, this group usually stops to eat. You will generally carry your own packed lunch and water with you. You will reach the station at the headquarters and your guide will transfer you to your vehicle and make your way back to your booked accommodation.
Variation of the gorilla experience
Gorilla trekking also varies and you never know what will happen on the ground. The actual experience might vary depending on the local conditions like weather, movement of the mountain gorillas, politics as well as happenings. These also tend to be in exactly different locations since these are wild animals, which also means that even though they are habituated to the humans, their behaviours are unpredictable.
These gorillas may also move into the bush while visitors are viewing them and this is also beyond your ranger’s control since their movements are not restricted. These mountain gorillas generally go about their daily activities undisturbed, however with the young ones showing curiosity about the many human visitors.
Why you should gorilla trekking in Uganda.
Uganda, the pearl of Africa is a scenic country with lush landscapes, flowing rivers, variety of wildlife, lakes as well as mountains which are covered with dense rain forest. This country is also well known for its friendly people and it’s a safe place to travel. Uganda also offers fantastic game viewing, chimpanzee trekking, heritage and cultural exchanges, adventure tourism which is added to gorilla trekking which makes it a well-rounded safari destination in Africa.
Uganda’s main tourist attraction is the mountain gorillas which are found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. However, Uganda is also home variety of chimpanzees mainly found in Kibale National Park which have attracted many tourists to trek them. Queen Elizabeth national park is also a great destination with variety of game viewing as well as bird species.
The gorilla trekking industry in Uganda is also well established since it started in the early 90’s and is also benefiting the local communities living near Bwindi impenetrable national Park. Uganda’s gorilla population is stable and ever growing in recent years. Great thanks go to the effective management of the national park as well as the concerted conservation efforts. Bwindi also provides walking trails which help in providing good spectacular views, bird watching, as well as a visit to the waterfalls. The guests can also explore local villages like Buhoma in order to meet and acquire a taste of life in the rural areas.
Mountain gorilla regulations
Mountain gorilla trekking regulations include; number of people allowed to track per day, maximum group size, time allowed with them. All this is to ensure the well-being of the endangered mountain gorillas, these gorillas are highly susceptible to many human diseases given how much we are related to these apes.
- Visiting hours: gorilla trekking takes place during day time hours, this is between 8:00am and 7:00pm
- Small groups: It’s only a maximum of eight people who are permitted per group per day in order to reduce disturbance and also limit severe exposure to human diseases.
- Time Limit: Its only 1 hour that is allowed to spend with the mountain gorillas
- Age restriction: its 15 or 16 years only.
The Do’s and Don’ts of gorilla trekking. (Rules of gorilla trekking)
- Protecting the mountain gorillas; in case you are sick or have an infectious disease, you are not allowed to go for the trek , more so , in case you are not feeling well , stay since this helps in safe guarding the well-being of these endangered animals.
- Maintain good manners; in case you sneeze or cough, turn away and cover your nose as well as the mouth in order to reduce the chances of transmitting viruses or bacteria to the mountain gorillas.
- Don’t overstay with the gorillas; you are expected to spend only one hour with the gorillas, departing when the time is up.
- Always keep distance; you must always stay 5-7 metres away from the mountain gorillas, it’s not because they are dangerous but they are also wild animals and we must keep distance to avoid transmitting diseases to them.
- Always behave yourself; end ever to keep the noise levels down, and don’t point or use a flash when taking photographs.
- Always be prepared; remember to take warm and waterproof gear for the cool mountain conditions in the wet forests and also wear comfortable walking shoes.
- Avoid smoking and snacking; visitors are not allowed to drink or eat or smoke around the mountains.
- Always clean up; Visitors are also encouraged to wash their hands before going for gorilla trekking.
- End ever to keep your hands to yourself; you must not touch the mountain gorillas even though they come close to you.
- Don’t litter the trash; visitors are not allowed to litter around in the Jungle.
- Always remain calm; in case a gorilla charges, don’t run away. Crouch down slowly and avoid direct eye contact until the mountain gorilla moves off.
- Maintain good toilet etiquettes; in case you need to go, then ask the guide to dig a hole in the forest and also make sure the hole is covered up afterwards.
Important tips of getting out of a gorilla trek.
- Always keep yourself covered; have long pants, socks as well as gaiters which will keep you safe from the bugs. The gloves will also protect you from stinging nettles as well as thorny branches.
- Maintain fitness; a gorilla trek is usually a physically challenging and tiring activity which passes through rough terrain, guests are advised to be physically fit.
- End ever to be well equipped; Always carry enough water, water proof bags for the camera as well as insect repellent , hat and the sun screen.
- Stay dry and warm; always carry warm and rainproof clothing with you to help you cope with the cols conditions which are found in the mountains.
- Always join an organised trip; Visitors are also advised to book through a tour company in order to simplify your travel and also get gorilla permits which can be arranged for you beforehand.
- Always chose your timing; always try to avoid trekking in the rainy season when the going gets tougher.
How to buy gorilla trekking permits
Each and every visitor needs a gorilla permit in order to go gorilla trekking in any of the three national parks. These gorilla trekking activities are also closely related and are so expensive. These should be arranged well in advance which is one reason why many people purchase these permits through tour operators. For high seasons of June to September and December to February, gorilla permits need to be bought in advance since guests can easily miss out due to the many travellers. These permits need to be bought at least five months in advance before traveling.
Price of Gorilla permits in Uganda
Gorilla permits in Uganda currently (2016) cost USD 600 per person per day in high season and $450 per person per day in the low season of April, May, and November.
Where and How to get the gorilla permits
Gorilla permits can be purchased in cash or with a traveller’s cheques at Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) central office in Kampala or from abroad. Getting a permit in Kampala is limited especially in the high season. This means that advanced booking is also recommended. However, in the low season, visitors can get the gorilla permits on spot at Uganda Wildlife Authority headquarters.
Buying gorilla permits online
About buying gorilla permits online, direct bookings are made via email and these can be paid for by making transfers called EFT, these also don’t allow credit card payments. You can as well buy gorilla permits two years ahead of time, buy depositing 30% and paying the balance 91 days before trekking. The local tour operators are given first priority on bulk buying of the gorilla permits, this is 80% up to 2 years in advance, which can also be sold to the foreign visitors or tour operators. These can only be issued by Uganda Wildlife Authority either Via an authorised tour company selling these permits for the original price and also issuing it directly to You.
Trekking gorilla permits in Rwanda
Gorilla permits in Rwanda can be got through Rwanda Tourism Board offices either in Kigali or Ruhengeri near Volcanoes National Park. Visitors can call or email the offices directly, however it’s so tricky to get just the gorilla permit and not the whole tour package. A gorilla permit in Rwanda costs USD $750 per person per day and many visitors get the permits through a tour operator. However, early booking is advised and this must be 4 months in advance during the peak season of June to October.
Gorilla permits in Democratic Republic of Congo
In case you are planning on tracking in DRC, its best to book with a tour operator in the country. The DRC gorilla permit costs USD 400.
When to go for gorilla trekking
Gorilla trekking can be done at any time of the year, even though the paths are more difficult to pass through in the rainy season. The rainy seasons include March to April/ May and October to November. Here the gorilla permits are cheaper in Uganda and cost USD 450. During the dry season, you can visit Rwanda, Uganda or DRC from mid-December to late February or June to late September in the dry seasons.