There are few more thrilling prospects for a nature lover than standing mere metres from a family of mountain gorilla. Gorilla trekking gives you that once-in-a-lifetime chance, but the tough part is choosing where to go; do you follow in Fossey’s footsteps by visiting Rwanda to spot gorilla in the mist, or opt for neighbouring Uganda, a safari star in its own right? And what about the ethics – can tracking critically endangered apes be a help, rather than a hinderance?
Gorilla trekking: All you need to know before you go
Seeing the mountain gorilla up close is a dream come true, but do you choose Rwanda or Uganda, and is it ethical? Read on to clue up…
Is it ethical?
The short answer is a reassuring ‘yes’. A gorilla trekking experience is not only a bucket-list dream ticked off, it’s a helping hand, since a percentage of the money you spend goes straight to funding the mountain gorilla’s continued protection. You’re paying for the round-the-clock guard keeping habituated families safe from poachers, as well as aiding local communities so fewer desperate people resort to poaching in the first place. As a tourist, you can help save the day, whilst enjoying the adventure of a lifetime – that’s a pretty good deal if you ask us.
Keeping the mountain gorilla safe is about more than protection from poachers, though. If you’ve caught a cough or a cold, you should avoid trekking – these sensitive creatures are susceptible to human infections.
And remember, this is the gorilla’s home; a guest should be respectful of house rules, so always follow the advice of your guides.
Where to go?
At last count, there were fewer than 900 mountain gorilla left in the wild, all residing in and around the Virunga Volcanoes mountain range of Central Africa. Home to the majority of these great apes, Rwanda and Uganda are the go-to countries for gorilla trekking. Both offer fantastic, but differing, experiences. So, which destination should you choose?
In recent years, Rwanda’s tourism industry has grown steadily – thanks in part to the draw of the mountain gorilla. Here, you can tread the paths famed primatologist Dian Fossey once tread, and witness the legacy of her conservation efforts. Come in September, and you can enjoy Kwita Izina, the annual naming ceremony of adorable baby gorilla – unique to Rwanda.
A two-hour drive from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, will take you to the cloud forests of the Volcanoes National Park. Tracking takes place at 3,300m above sea level, and, whilst you’re unlikely to suffer altitude sickness at these heights, thinner air can make hiking a little more strenuous. Expeditions can also be slow and long as guides will do their utmost to find gorilla for you, wherever they may be. In other words, fitness is a factor to consider. If you’re planning on a family trip, bear in mind the minimum age requirement is 15.
Rwanda issues gorilla trekking permits to those interested at a cost. A recent price hike by the Rwanda Development Board has made the country a more expensive prospect; you can expect to pay as much as 1,500 U.S. dollars per person, though discounts of up to 30 per cent are available if you plan to stop by Rwanda’s other national parks. The added cost is intended to bolster conservation and community efforts, keeping the mountain gorilla safe and secure for years to come.
In Rwanda, a maximum of eight clients can be allocated to any one of the 10 habituated mountain gorilla families living here. Despite their silken-black frames standing out against the green of the forests, you really need help to have a hope of tracking them; you’ll be accompanied by park guides, trackers and armed rangers. A porter is an optional extra (costing as little as 10 U.S. dollars). When you find your gorilla family, you’ll spend around one hour with them.
For the perfect base, a stay at Bisate puts you close to the national park’s headquarters – ideal for gorilla trekking. Located amidst a dramatic landscape, the property features six elegant suites to relax in. Clients can even join a visit to the Karisoke Research Centre, the location of Fossey’s famous 18-year study of the mountain gorilla.
Smaller than its neighbour, Uganda punches above its weight in terms of wildlife. There’s a fantastic chimp tracking programme in Kibale National Park, as well as a safari circuit showcasing elephant, giraffe and lion. But its crowning glory is mountain gorilla trekking. Take the one-hour flight from Entebbe to Bwindi, right into gorilla country.
Six habituated families reside within Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to more than half of the remaining mountain gorilla. Unlike Rwanda, you can’t buy a trekking permit for any specific family, though permits are cheaper – you can expect to pay 600 U.S. dollars throughout the year.
As with Rwanda, each gorilla trekking group consists of eight clients, accompanied by park guides and armed rangers, as well as an optional porter. You’ll be tracking at an altitude of 2,600m across densely forested and rugged terrain, so fitness is a must. When you find a family, you’ll be permitted to spend around an hour in their company (keeping at a distance of about seven metres, for their protection as much as yours). The minimum age for gorilla trekking in Uganda is also 15.
To make your experience a little more luxurious, stay at A&K’s very own accommodation here – Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp. Comprising of just eight tents, it’s one of the most remote and atmospheric camps in Africa. When you’re not trekking to see gorilla, they may well trek to see you – these curious apes regularly visit of their own accord.
When to go?
Gorilla trekking is a year-round activity but is mostly popular during the dry season.
April: Chimpanzee sightings are at their best, and the gorilla can be found despite the rain.
May: Although it’s still the rainy season, it’s easing off. The gorilla tend to stick to lower altitudes, meaning they’re easier to locate.
June: The first month of the dry season, peak time for gorilla trekking. With less rain, the forest floor is firmer underfoot, which means forest walks take less time.
July: As European and North American summer holidays begin, gorilla permits need booking in advance. With only a little rain, all parts of the forest can be accessed.
August: The long dry season continues, and gorilla trekking is most definitely on the agenda.
September: The last month of long dry season, you can witness Kwita Izina, the gorilla baby-naming ceremony.
November: The last month of the short rainy season, you might spot young gorilla playing in the rain.
Don’t leave home without…
- Camera – ideally weather-sealed, or some other protection against the rain
- Poncho or rain jacket, as it can rain heavily, even in the dry season
- Walking stick, typically provided by the camp
- Gloves – useful for grabbing bushes, or sliding downhill (you never know where your trek might take you)
- Insect repellent
- A good, solid pair of hiking boots – the terrain is tough, and hikes can last several hours if the gorilla are far from your basecamp
- Cool, comfortable clothing in muted colours; we suggest long sleeves, trousers, long socks and gaiters to keep bugs out and prevent scratches
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