David Attenborough’s breathless encounter with mountain gorillas in the 1979 movie “Life on Earth” remains an all-time television landmark moment. Back then, such an experience seemed as improbable as walking with dinosaurs – and just as dangerous! Today we know better. We have nothing to fear from these gentle and highly endangered primates, and visiting them in their natural habitat, the mountain forests of equatorial Africa, has become one of the planet’s ultimate wildlife experiences.
Approximately 900 mountain gorillas live in the shared-border forests that extend into Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). After decades of decline due to poachers, civil war and diminishing forests, gorilla populations have begun to pick up in the last couple of years. In some respects, the growth of tourism in respect of this wildlife experience may have helped protect these animals, as governments now receive funding for conservation, and recognize the tangible economic benefits of protecting their wildlife and the national parks containing them.
Where to go
Mountain Gorilla tracking and trekking is conducted similarly in both in Rwanda and Uganda, with similar standards and regulations governing the selection of local gorilla guides and trackers. Fewer tourists choose to track mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to security concerns and lack of infrastructure, athough last year’s Oscar-winning documentary about Virunga has generated a lot of interest in the region. The mountain gorillas of all three countries inhabit similar rugged terrain and have similar habits. Individual mountain gorilla groups vary in their accessibility.
Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is an easily accessible 2 – 2.5 hour drive from Kigali. A much longer drive of 9-10 hours is needed to reach Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda from Kampala. Fly-in options with charter flights are also available.
Rwanda is a beautiful, green, thriving country, known as the Land of a Thousand Hills. The volcanic soil is very rich and subsistence agriculture produces food all year round. The genocide of 1994 is powerfully memorialized in a museum in Kigali and at other sites around the country and Visitors are encouraged to partake in these experiences and learn from them. Currently there is no apparent ethnic conflict or significant insurgent or militant activity. There is a dynamic re-building of the social fabric and a commitment to the youth of the country. You might wish to hike to Karisoke where Diane Fossey conducted her pioneering research, or take a trek to see Golden Monkeys of Parc des Volcanes. This park has the greatest diversity. Other wildlife parks of Rwanda generally do not compare in diversity of species or quality of management with the parks and reserves of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
In Rwanda there are 10 gorillas groups, ranging in size from less than 10 individuals to over 40, open to tourists (the remaining seven are observed only by researchers). These groups inhabit the Rwandan side of the Volcanoes National Park. Each gorilla group is only exposed to tourists for one hour each day – meaning less than 100 people get permits each day. (Note that no children under the age of 15 can go gorilla tracking).
In Uganda, around 400 gorillas call the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park their home. Of these, nine gorilla families (each family usually consists of 10-15 members) have been habituated, meaning that although they are still wild they have become accustomed to humans and are unlikely to attack.
Travel to Uganda for wonderful cultures, large wildlife parks with few other tourists, and spectacular birding. Uganda may be the best safari country in Africa for a large variety of bird species and great birding safari habitats. Determined birders often see more than 400 species on a 12-14 day Uganda birding safari. There are also many other species of primates you are likely to see on a Mountain Gorilla safari or a pure birding safari trip. The Ruhenzori Mountains invite more extended hiking. Wetland habitats and Lake Victoria also hold cultural and natural history safari attractions.
For the trek, your first requirement is a permit. $1500 (Rwanda) or US$600 (Uganda) gets you one hour with the gorillas, plus the time it takes to hike there and back.
Your trek is conducted under the supervision of park rangers. They will guide you to one of several habituated troops, whose movements are monitored around the clock. Some may feel this makes the experience a little stage-managed. In reality, it is the only way to see wild gorillas. You cannot simply wander off by yourself: the terrain is too dangerous; the apes too elusive; and the rangers too focused on battling poachers to allow tourists to blunder off-piste. Indeed, it is only through the efforts of the dedicated park staff that the beleaguered apes survive at all.
Treks set out daily. Rangers keep park HQ informed by radio of the gorillas’ whereabouts, so sightings are virtually guaranteed. After an obligatory briefing, you will be assigned to a group of up to eight trekkers, plus guides and porters. Each group is allocated to a particular gorilla troop. The trek, including one hour with the gorillas, may take anything from three to nine hours, depending on the location of your troop. If you miss the briefing, or show up with a cold – which poses a serious health risk to the apes – you will be turned away, permit or no permit.
The dense undergrowth, high altitude and steep, slippery trail will soon have you scratched, muddied and exhausted. Tantalising clues – steaming droppings, munched bamboo – keep you going.
But nothing prepares you for the intensity of the encounter. Many leave in tears, convinced that they’ve felt a “connection”. While such ideas may be fanciful, there is no denying that sitting among the apes, meeting those searching, intelligent eyes in a face that seems to reflect your own, is a powerful experience.
Your guides will explain the rules. You should keep quiet and still and preserve a distance of seven metres – although there’s nothing to stop the apes approaching you. Generally, nothing much happens: the gorillas are dozing or feeding, with some occasional rough and tumble among boisterous youngsters. The silverback is awesome to behold and nothing to fear. If feeling tetchy, he may beat his chest or make a brief “mock” charge. This sets the pulse racing but you need only keep still, avoid eye contact and let his bluster burn out. Your guides will be in control.
Gorilla trekking is, above all, an intimate experience – more like entering a family sitting room than racing around on safari. Once you have got your snaps, you can enjoy the privilege of observing an extraordinary animal close-up. One hour is not enough, but it is an hour that you will remember for the rest of your life.
Where to go
Rwanda or Uganda have a similar number of habituated gorilla troops, but there are important differences.
Rwanda’s gorillas live in Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans), about two hours’ drive north west from the capital Kigali. There are several good lodges in the vicinity. A trek can be done over a stay of just two nights, though another night will allow you to relax and explore further. All treks start from park HQ in the village of Kinigi.
Uganda’s gorillas are just over the border in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a full day’s drive from Entebbe or Kampala. Allow three nights. Treks start from four different points, several hours’ drive apart. This will determine which lodge you stay in.
Rwanda offers the easier trekking: your chances of a shorter hike are higher and you will have more flexibility on the day, with rangers allocating groups to troops according to fitness levels. In Uganda the hikes are often longer and steeper, although some prefer this “wilder” challenge.
Permit costs in Uganda are cheaper than in Rwanda. Revenue from permits helps fund both gorilla protection and community support; porters and refreshments cost extra.
When to go
Gorilla trekking is a year-round activity. During the “long rains” of late March to early May conditions are at their wettest and hiking at its toughest. November is the short rainy season. The best time to go is in the dry season, which is from June to September. During the dry season, the ground is drier and dirt roads more accessible.
Click here for top tips when in search of Mountain Gorillas.