Coming face to face with a wild mountain gorilla or chimpanzee is one of the most moving wildlife experiences available.
You will need to trek through the forest to find them, often up and down steep, muddy slopes, and when you do find them, you are only allowed to spend one hour with them (for both chimps and gorillas), but that hour could become one of the best you ever spend in your life.
Mountain gorillas are the largest of the African primates and perhaps one of the continent’s most iconic creatures. They are found in the high altitude forests of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A gorilla census in 2010 confirmed around 880 mountain gorillas in existence, primarily located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and throughout the Virunga Volcanoes located along the border between Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. Today that number is over 1000, thanks to the efforts of conservation initiatives, local government policies and gorilla tourism which is essential to the survival of the gorillas.
Uganda and Rwanda both offer gorilla tracking and a common consideration when planning a trip to see the gorillas is which country/region to prioritise.
Historically, Uganda has always been well-known for seeing gorillas and offers the chance to see gorillas in two destinations – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga National Park. Although Mgahinga has seen inconsistent gorilla sightings in recent years, Bwindi is still very much a prime gorilla region to consider. Bwindi is located a long way from Kampala and Entebbe, but regular flights are now available to the region which has greatly enhanced accessibility. One good reason to choose Uganda over Rwanda is the cost of the tracking permits, as they are significantly cheaper at US$700 per person per day. Secondly, Bwindi is stunningly beautiful and as a lower altitude forest holds more wildlife than the montane forests of the Virunga Volcanoes. Lastly, as a country, Uganda offers a little more to do and see, including big game safaris, more guaranteed chimpanzee sightings and scenic highlights such as Murchison Falls.
Across the border in Rwanda, the gorilla tracking industry has developed hugely. Today, the Virunga Volcanoes National Park, mostly easily accessed from the Rwandan side and made famous by researcher Dian Fossey, is generally regarded as the No.1 gorilla tracking destination if your main priority is seeing the gorillas with as little travelling as possible. Regular international flights into the capital Kigali, just three hours drive south of the Virunga Volcanoes, makes access very easy. Trekking is also generally considered to be a little easier than it is in Uganda’s Bwindi Forest (or certainly there are some easier options), which also suits the slightly less adventurous traveller. However, the cost of permits in Rwanda is extremely high, as they actively target a low impact/ high income policy. US$1500 per person per day is the fee – more than double the cost of Uganda – so this will often be a consideration.
Rwanda does offer a great cultural experience as well as other attractions such as Nyungwe Forest in the south (where chimps can be seen), Lake Kivu in the west, and the recovering Akagera National Park in the east. You can also see charismatic Golden Monkeys on the lower slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, which are very cute and beautiful to watch.
In summary, Rwanda is very well suited to a relatively ‘quick’ visit to see the gorillas, and to travellers who are nervous about the physical requirements of gorilla tracking. Uganda tends to attract people who are slightly more adventurous and interested in a more in-depth look at the region, combining gorilla tracking with other primate viewing (chimps etc.), birding, walking, culture, game viewing and general sight-seeing. However due to the lower permit prices and the introduction of reliable scheduled flights between Entebbe and the south-western regions, Uganda has become a viable alternative for a ‘quick’ gorilla safari.
It is entirely possible to combine Rwanda’s Virunga Volcanoes and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the same trip – they are less than a day’s drive apart. The ultimate gorilla safari would include both!
A DAY GORILLA TREKKING
Assuming you are being hosted by a local company whilst in Uganda or Rwanda, you will be transferred from your overnight accommodation to the park headquarters for 07h00 registration. Here you will be assigned your gorilla group (your guide can sometimes have a hand in this if you want to trek a particular group, but which gorilla group you trek to see can only ever be arranged on the morning of the trekking and not in advance) and will be given a briefing by the park guide. Usually no more than eight people will be assigned to any individual gorilla family. You will then drive (or in some cases walk) to the area where your assigned gorilla family live, and begin tracking. Porters can be hired to carry your day pack and walking sticks are usually available locally. Walking to locate the gorillas can take anything between 30 minutes and 7 hours – nothing is guaranteed!
Park rangers usually enter the forest at first light to find the previous nights sleeping place of the gorillas and track them from there, which they then communicate to your guide by radio. Once you catch up with the gorillas (never 100% guaranteed) you are allowed one hour with them. There are strict rules of behaviour, such as not using flash photography or approaching too close. However, the gorillas themselves do not understand the rules and sometimes wander right next to you – seeing a powerful silverback close up is an exhilarating experience!
When your hour is up you retreat out of the forest and return to your hotel, usually arriving back in time for a late lunch. The average amount of time trekking is probably 4-5 hours, but it can be much longer.
TIPS AND KEY FACTS
- Consider spending at least two separate days visiting the gorillas. You only get one hour with them on any given day (which equates to one permit) so giving yourself two opportunities will not only double your chances of having an incredible encounter, but will also give you the chance to witness a wider variety of gorilla individuals and behaviour. The weather in the area is inclement so having an extra opportunity also helps if your first trek is wet.
- Take a pair of gardening gloves to wear when trekking through thick vegetation – it enables you to grab hold of vegetation as required without worry of insects, nettles or thorns.
- You are not allowed to track gorillas if you have an ailment such as a cold, cough, fever, flu etc.
- Flash photography is forbidden.
- A limited number of gorilla permits are available each day, for high season it is necessary to book well in advance.
- You must be 15 years or older to undertake gorilla tracking in either Uganda or Rwanda.
- Gorilla tracking is available all year round, though conditions are arguably a little dryer and more pleasant from January to March and then from June to September.