UPDATED: This blog was originally published in August 2016.
A mountain gorilla trek often comes second on travel Bucket Lists to a classic Big 5 game drive in Kruger or Serengeti National Park.
Which is understandable – getting to the gorillas takes more effort, more time and more expense than a traditional safari. But you know what they say: you get what you pay for.
Here’s everything you need to know about trekking with mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda:
Where do the mountain gorillas live?
There are only two populations of mountain gorillas left in the world. The first lives in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa, with groups scattered between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The second population lives deep in Bwindi. (Our tours visit Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest).
According to results released in May 2018, the mountain gorilla population living in the Virunga mountains has grown— from 480 in 2010 to 604 as of June 2016. Combined with a separate mountain gorilla population living in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, this brings the number of mountain gorillas to more than 1,000 individuals. The rise in numbers follows the introduction of park guards, veterinary care, community support projects and regulated tourism.
Despite the good news, that still puts them on the Critically Endangered list (two classifications away from completely Extinct).
What options do I have to have to see the mountain gorillas?
The first thing to appreciate is that visiting mountain gorillas on a group tour can be quite expensive (going solo is often even more so). These animals exist in extremely remote locations, in countries not known for their tourist infrastructure, which means the logistics of a gorillas visit are a challenge in themselves. Tour groups must also pay permits for expert guides to lead them through Virunga, Bwindi or Volcanoes National Park.
Like most wildlife encounters in Africa, the experience is completely worth it, and we’re yet to hear anyone come back from a gorilla visit underwhelmed, but it’s just something to keep in mind. It’s also worth noting that the cost of a permit to trek in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park doubled in early 2017, which makes a trekking permit in Uganda around a third of the price, and a far more economical option.
Uganda Gorilla Shortbreak: Basix – A compact 4-day itinerary from Kampala to Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. You’ll be staying in basic, pre-erected tents, and basic hotels which makes this is an economic option if you’re passing through Uganda on your own.
Uganda Gorilla Shortbreak: Original – A compact 4-day itinerary from Kampala to Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. You’ll be staying in original style lodges and hotels. This is a fantastic trek add-on to a larger itinerary.
Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda: Comfort – An equivalent 4-day shortbreak, this time in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. This one comes with an optional ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ trek to visit the grave of Dianne Fossey, as well as her old research station, deep in the jungle.
Gorillas & Game Parks – A more comprehensive 16-day itinerary, with an overland truck and a dedicated Intrepid leader. It combines gorilla trekking in Uganda with safaris in the Masai Mara and Queen Elizabeth National Park. This one is for the serious wildlife buffs!
UPDATE ON GORILLA TREKKING IN RWANDA: Maximum 96 gorilla tracking permits are available each day. As of May 2017, the Rwandan Development Board increased the costs of the gorilla permits from US$ 750 to US$ 1,500 per person, for a one-hour visit. The new prices aim to strengthen conservation efforts and support the development of local communities. More info here.
What to expect on your trek
It’s important to know what you’re getting into before setting out on a gorilla trek. The good news is, this isn’t Basecamp. The hike through the forest is challenging and tough-going (your guides will often have to machete a path through the ferns that clog the undergrowth), but it’s within reach for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. You will get muddy though. And sweaty. Beneath the forest canopy the humidity is very high, and it’s a good idea to bring a canteen of fresh water to hydrate as you go.
If you are particularly concerned about the terrain, consider hiring a local porter. The porters will carry your bag, and help to you navigate some of the steeper, or trickier sections of the trek. In fact, hiring a porter on a gorilla trek is a common practice by travellers of all ages and abilities. Not only does it make the trek easier for you, but you’re also providing a valuable source of employment for locals. The minimum cost of hiring a porter on a gorilla trek in Bwindi is $20USD, or $10USD in Virunga. Of course you can choose to provide a tip in addition to that.
Eventually, after bush-bashing your way through the scrub, you’ll come across a gorilla family, peacefully playing in a forest clearing. Your trekking guides and rangers will have prepared you for what to expect. There’s no direct interaction with the gorillas (unless one moves past you), but you should get pretty close. You’ll have a good 45 minutes to an hour to just sit and observe these animals in their natural habitat. We promise it’s something you’ll never ever forget. For a really good account of a gorilla visit, check out this blog we published.
Mountain gorilla habitat
Mountain gorillas live way up in the cloud forests, ranging from an altitude of 2200 metres to 4300 metres (a not insignificant height – you may feel a little short of breath. Remember to let your guide know if you feel a headache coming on).
The vegetation on the lower slopes will be dense, often a mix of bamboo, ferns and galium vines. As you climb, the undergrowth should thin out a bit. The zone where the gorillas live is misty, damp and (depending on the time of year) can be a bit cold. Mountain gorillas move around depending on the season, spending time in the subalpine regions to feed on senecio trees during certain times of the year.
What to pack for your gorilla trek
Boots – Essential. A good quality pair of hiking boots from a store like Kathmandu will serve you well. They’re expensive, but so are your ankles when they break. Don’t risk it with a cheap pair of sneakers.
Gloves – During the trek you might be grabbing trees, branches and vines, and your hands can get a bit scratched and generally beaten up if you’re not careful. Pack a tough old pair of gardening gloves. They might look a bit lame, but you’ll be glad you brought them.
A light rain jacket – Bwindi and Virunga are both tropical rainforests, and there’s a good chance of rain almost year-round. Pack a light-weight poncho or rain jacket that you can roll up in your bag and bring out if necessary.
Energy snacks – The trek to the mountain gorillas isn’t impossible, but it is tough. Energy snacks like nuts, dried fruit, chocolate or power bars are a great idea. Just remember to take any rubbish with you as you go.
Water – Avoid buying plastic water bottles while you’re in Uganda or Rwanda. They’re terrible for the environment. Bring a reusable canteen (preferably with a purifying filter built in) or a pack of filtration tablets. You’ll need to drink a lot during the trek.
Long pants and shirts – It’s best not to expose too much skin during the jungle trek, and remember to tuck your trousers into your socks – you really don’t want safari ants crawling up there.
Want to come face-to-face with Africa’s mountain gorillas? Check out our gorilla small group treks.