Definitive Guide to Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Africa
Three pairs of eyes amid thick green rainforest. Gorillas in the wild. Staring directly at you. Wild mountain gorillas to be precise, critically endangered and the largest primate on earth. Only around 1000 remain. You’re just seven meters away and now the entire troop comes into view. And you understand the brilliance of gorilla trekking, eye to eye with your primate cousins, the most incomparable of wildlife encounters.
We think that gorilla trekking is the most intimate wildlife experience on the planet. You don’t just see these gorillas in the wild, you spend an hour immersed in their world.
What is Gorilla Trekking – The Inside Guide
The trail narrows. At first you were walking on broad paths, but now the forest starts to close in and the guide must use a machete to clear the way. It’s slow going, boggy underfoot as well as steep. Wild mountain gorillas are marooned on mountain islands above East Africa’s plains, their species remembering a time when the surrounding landscape was carpeted by trees. Now they are isolated on their steamy rainforest perches, in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park (the Congo Basin is also home to gorillas, the smaller and more numerous lowland gorillas). Whichever country you choose, gorilla trekking takes place in a mysterious and majestic habitat, enticing you from the moment you arrive beneath the canopy.
The rainforest is thick and tangled, the trail you follow created by another large resident: forest elephants. You walk and keep walking. Trackers have set off before you and they radio in the position of the troop. You can’t cheat the journey. This can be a challenging trek through virgin, untouched rainforest. It’s part of the experience, a rare opportunity to explore lands uninterrupted by human development. Sometimes it’s misty. Sometimes you spot the gorillas from a distance, balls of black fur on the next hill. But then the gorillas are moving so you must keep following.
The actual trek can last for anything between 30 minutes and four hours. Park rangers mostly separate visitors into groups based on their age and perceived level of fitness; you can’t choose which gorilla troop you will visit. Rangers allocate trekkers to troops, predominately based on how fit they think they are; older trekkers tend to visit the troop closest to the trailhead. But it’s never a walk in the park. It’s a walk in raw rainforest, on muddy mountain slopes that can really sap the energy. So it’s essential you feel comfortable walking for over an hour in challenging conditions.
THE 19 BASICS OF GORILLA TREKKING
Gorillas in the Wild – The First Impression
Slowly you get closer. Anticipation builds. There’s even a certain trepidation for some people. With gorilla trekking you are never guaranteed an encounter; however, in the course of five years there may only be one or two trekking groups who miss out. But there’s still that sense of will I won’t I, until you meet with the tracker who went ahead. He points out the location and you creep onwards. Rustling sounds filter through the trees. Strange aromas fill the air. A branch cracks. Your heart thumps. A few more steps. And then time stands still, wild mountains gorillas staring straight at you in an untouched rainforest.
These are your primate cousins and they are big. Often one or two of the troop seek to make an imposing first impression. Standing up right and waving arms they posture in a show of power, a welcome that is quite deliberate and can be frightening. They are saying that you are welcome to visit, but this is their world and you are just a visitor. Guides push you forward and the rest of the troop comes into view, anywhere from 10 to 25 individuals. Now they are all looking at you. And that’s a moment you will never forget, an encounter more personal than you can possibly imagine.
Meeting a Gorilla Troop
Mountain gorillas are primates, just like us. They are inquisitive and curious. They seek to learn and understand. That first welcome is a chance for them to inspect their daily visitors. While the gorilla troop is habituated to human presence they are not a zoo attraction. They are wild and initially intrigued, wanting to know who you are. But after the first few moments the gorillas settle back into their daily rhythm. Most trekkers encounter a troop as they are feeding. This is when the gorillas are in a set place and are easiest to encounter; there is no way you can keep pace with them in the wild as you walk upright, and the trails have been created by primates on all fours.
A blackback picks through the branches above your head. Two females gnaw at a trunk, pulling away the bark. An infant swings in the trees, but loses balance and tumbles to the floor. Now the silverback, a dominant male more than twice the size of the others. Rising high above you he stands tall, a message of pride and power. Some witness the silverback beating its chest, an experience most memorable for a haunting echo carried through the trees. Others watch the big male crawl, his back fur shimmering silver. Some witness the interaction between the silverback and blossoming blackback rivals, small battles in a war to take over the troop.
13 FACTS ABOUT WILD MOUNTAIN GORILLAS
You Get Up To One Hour With a Gorilla Troop
An hour is sufficient and you don’t feel shortchanged. Guides are liberal with the rules and as long as the gorillas seem at peace you get to maximize the time frame. At first you admire the troop. Then the individuals. But gorilla trekking is all about appreciating behavior. A mother nurturing her infant; playful males smashing branches; the silverback with his child; three junior males with intrigued grins. Soon the gorillas are all around and you don’t know where to look, you don’t which behaviors to follow as a family drama plays out in all directions.
And as you start admiring the behaviors you comprehend the similarities. By watching faces you can guess as to what the gorillas are thinking. There are signs of mischief, marvel, mystery, melancholy, and all those feelings you also have. Redolent expressions are everywhere and the experience is raw, completely unpredictable and completely wild. After an hour you will gutted to leave the troop. But you’ll also have a respect for these wild animals and be happy to leave with memories.
You Are Almost Impossibly Close
Official rules dictate you can be seven meters (22 feet) away from the gorillas. That’s a rule that you can respect. But it’s not a rule that gorillas know or understand. They are curious animals. And while naturally shy they may take a few steps towards you. After 20 minutes the gorillas have fanned out, feeding in different parts of the forest. So it’s impossible to stay seven meters away from all of them, as there are those behind and above you as well. This is an experience with no fences, no barriers, and nothing in the way of you and the gorillas.
After the Gorilla Trek
Now the hard part. Getting back. It could be 30 minutes to four hours of trekking just to reach the troop. That’s a one-way journey and you’ll need to walk back to the park gate. Porters are available to carry bags and are recommended if you’ve got serious camera equipment. They will even carry people if required. You’re given a packed lunch and will probably eat it somewhere on the trail, on the trek back from the gorillas.
Next the easy part. Return to the lodge and recollect the experience. Even when scrolling through the photos it seems unbelievable, such an intimate and authentic wildlife experience. The mist rolls in and you look over the rainforest, Clouds Gorilla Lodge is one of the best options for a relaxed evening after the trek. A gorilla trekking permit is expensive but we wouldn’t recommend going for a cheap lodge. Part of the experience is the elation that follows the trek, and that’s best enjoyed at an upmarket lodge overlooking the rainforest you just explored.
Gorilla Trekking Photography
Gorillas are hard to photograph. And we’ll make your ambitions realistic straight away: we recommend you shelve any ideas of getting National Geographic style photos, unless you are already a serious photographer. Your subject isn’t photogenic; small deep-set black eyes, black fur, never still or static. The setting is terrible for photos; gloomy light beneath the canopy, usually thick clouds above and sometimes rain, javelins of sunlight piercing through to create overly sharp contrasts, When it’s so dark in the forest you need a slow shutter speed, yet that struggles to generate clear images when gorillas are moving.
We say all this as a warning because it’s easy to get carried away when taking photos. Gorillas are right in front of you and it seems every second there’s a new photo to take. But you can end up with an experience viewed through the camera, rather than an experience through your own two eyes. Our recommendation is to allow the first impressions to settle in. Soak it all up, the sounds, sights and smells. Then take out the camera and spend ten minutes getting your photos. Next, put the camera away and allow yourself to enjoy the full intimacy of the experience.
Best Time for Gorilla Trekking
Uganda and Rwanda have the quintessential East African climate, memorable for the long rains that start in late-March or April and continue for about eight weeks. The rain really pour downs during these months, especially in the mountainous forest areas where the world’s largest primates reside. Both countries are also beneath a carpet of rain in and around November. Rugged ochre roads turn to slippery mud fields, landscapes shimmer lush green when sun peaks through clouds, and while it is wet it is also humid and warm, so many people don’t find it too unsettling. If you’ve read our when to go on safari page you’ll know that this wet and dry season climate is the same as in Kenya and Tanzania.
Other than a silverback beating his chest, the most iconic image is that of gorillas in the mist – this also being the title of conservationist Dian Fossey’s book. Gazing over the rainforest you watch layers of mist dance between the trees, rising and falling at any month of the year. Even in the height of the dry season you may encounter gorillas amongst mist and rain. The highland climate is wetter than the rest of East Africa so you can never absolutely guarantee a dry encounter; being alone with mountain gorillas is no less magical if it’s raining.
Organize Your Permit Far In Advance
Many will say that the best time for gorilla trekking is December to February and June to September. However, this is merely the most popular time for gorilla trekking. Daily permits sell out for gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park during these months; arrange them far in advance. Gorilla trekking is more expensive in Rwanda and the 80 daily permits rarely sell out, but advance booking remains essential. Uganda gorilla trekking permits are discounted during the wetter low season months of April, May and November.
Ultimately it’s very difficult to predict the weather on the day you go trekking. Some of the Heritage Africa team were recently in Uganda during April, where the rain was torrential for three days, then bright and clear on the day of their gorilla trek. A year earlier the team had experienced dense mist that reduced visibility to ten meters in September. We don’t think there is a best time to go gorilla trekking unless you are a serious photographer. Rain, mist, sun, mud…when a species numbers only 1000 in the wild, you can’t expect the authenticity of experience to come easily. However, it’s worth remembering that off-peak months mean fewer visitors, so the experience may feel more personal with less other trekkers.
Where to Go Gorilla Trekking in Africa
The best gorilla trekking is in Uganda and Rwanda. Best is determined by personal preference as the experience with gorillas is very similar in both countries: unpredictable, surprising, authentic and intimate.
Lawlessness and civil war has closed Virunga National Park and gorilla trekking in the DRC, a sad tale that continues on from the excellent Netflix documentary Virunga. We advise against Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park as well; the one habituated troop is often across the border in the DRC or Rwanda so can’t be visited. Lowland gorillas are the smallest of the gorilla subspecies and occupy remote parts of the Congo Basin, visited in countries like Cameroon and Congo. There are 90,000 lowland gorillas, but just 1000 of the largest primate on earth, the mountain gorilla.
You have two exquisite gorilla trekking destinations to choose from: Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. And remember, by gorilla trekking you’ll be helping to preserve these animals for another generation.
WHERE TO GO GORILLA TREKKING AT A GLANCE
The Best Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Mist swirls and volcanoes soar in southwestern Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest living up to a name that evokes mystique and strange lands. Recent habituated efforts mean 12 troops have been habituated in this vast UNESCO World Heritage forest, out of around 40 troops in total. And thanks to gorilla trekking tourism, the rainforest has been kept as a preserve solely for wildlife. It really does feel impenetrable; no roads, buildings or people, just trails made by forest elephants and crawling gorillas. Roads circumnavigate most of the park and these are of the muddy, rocky, almost-exclusively off-road variety that’s dominant in this remote piece of Africa.
For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life, for vast scale – Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa.
Gorilla Trekking Locations in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Habituated gorilla families can be trekked from four different Bwindi park headquarters. Your permit will specify the park headquarters you must report to; for example there are three habituated troops in the Buhoma area, so a maximum of 24 trekkers start from the Buhoma headquarters and trailhead each day. It’s simpler in Rwanda where everyone with a permit starts from the same park headquarters.
UGANDA GORILLA TREKKING OPTIONS
Uganda Gorilla Trekking Recommendations
While Uganda has the most habituated troops, you will have less choice over the length of the trek in comparison to Rwanda. For example, a permit for Buhoma will mean you visit one of the three Buhoma troops. Getting around Bwindi and southwestern Uganda is a challenge. Traveling from the north to the south of the park will take a full day. And that will be a disaster if you have don’t match the lodge to the trekking location. So think carefully about where you go gorilla trekking and how that fits with the rest of your vacation. Uganda gorilla treks take place in four remote locations and traveling between these locations is time consuming.
The best gorilla trekking in Uganda depends on your idea of adventure, and what you will do before or after the giant primates.
Rushaga. Rushaga’s location is the easiest for onward travel to Rwanda. But while five troops suggests choice, most of these are located in high-altitude areas, far from the trailhead. Expect relatively long treks here.
Nkuringo. We like Nkuringo for the rounded experience, with Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge our favorite in the Bwindi area. Like Rushaga, the easiest option is to take a domestic flight to Kisoro then travel north by road. Nkuringo is also where you should stay for the gorilla habituation experience (note that the troop will be fully habituated by the end of 2019).
Buhoma. This is a beautiful yet remote area that is surprisingly accessible. Buhoma is relatively easy to reach on a domestic flight to Kihihi or charter flight to Kayonza. Buhoma is also our recommendation if you are on an extended Uganda itinerary. You are likely to combine Bwindi with national parks to the north – chimpanzee trekking in Kibale Forest plus big game safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park. By gorilla trekking in Buhoma you’ll save a day of travel over locations to the south of Bwindi. We also like Buhoma for the choice of high-quality accommodation on offer, including Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp.
Ruhija. We are as yet unsold on Ruhija. Accommodation is limited and the roads were in a terrible state during out 2016 visit. It’s equidistant from the domestic airports so the journey to get here will always be long.
Uganda Gorilla Trekking Permits
Bwindi’s relative inaccessibility is compensated by the price of the permits. Trekking permits are less than the half price (USD 600 in 2018) than Rwanda (USD 1500 in 2018) Uganda gorilla trekking permits are discounted further for travel in April, May and November.
Getting to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Never underestimate Ugandan roads. They may be beautiful to behold, stretches of rugged ochre amid landscapes of lush green. But they are slow to travel on. Think holes rather than potholes, and rejoicing when you reach a stretch of tarmac. During the wet season you really need a four-wheel drive to get around, although that doesn’t stop the buses trundling through mud and swamp. So while terraced fields and mud-and-stick villages provide iconic roadside images, we don’t recommend spending long on Ugandan roads.
There are five options we would recommend when planning a Uganda gorilla trek. And we would really advise against anything else.
BEST UGANDA GORILLA TREKKING OPTIONS
The Best Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
Rwanda is our recommendation for gorilla trekking. Luxury is in the wildlife experience and encounters with wild troops are beyond anything you can imagine. Step, step, step you walk through the forest, following sounds and smells. It happens in an instant, eye to eye with a mountain gorilla. And in the next moment you see the other eyes, the other faces, the other giants who will inspire over the next one hour. These are wild animals and you are invited to share in their daily life and behavior; is there anything more enjoyable than watching the facial expressions of an infant gorilla change?
Rwanda Gorilla Trekking Permits
In Rwanda, luxury is also in the ease and overall quality of the experience. The country is focused firmly on high-end tourism, as reflected by the price of a gorilla permit. As of 2018 it’s USD 1500 to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda. That’s just for the national park permit and trekking, not for any accommodation or transfers. However, to respect that price park authorities have created a high-end atmosphere and experience. Drinks on arrival, a high guide to trekker ratio, park headquarters that are more comfortable than those in Uganda. It is expensive but we don’t know anybody who has been gorilla trekking and not thought the price was justified. Remember, a significant proportion of the park fees go towards preserving habitats and conserving rare animals.
The Ease of Experiencing Gorillas in Rwanda
Volcanoes National Park is contiguous with Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Virunga National Park in the DRC. It’s a landscape of majestic volcanoes and swirling mist, where trees rise above the clouds and it seems you’re standing in the heart of Africa. Once you’re beneath the rainforest canopy it feels like you’re cut off from the rest of the world. But getting to the trailhead to start the trek is very easy. Everybody starts from the same park headquarters on the northern edge of Kinigi town. The headquarters are accessed on an excellent paved road and are just a few minutes drive from some of the best lodges for gorilla trekking in Rwanda.
Getting to Volcanoes National Park
Kinigi is a two-hour drive from the charming capital city Kigali. The roads in Rwanda are the best in East Africa, perhaps even the best on the entire continent. So while this may be the Land of a Thousand Hills it’s easier to get around than any other country in the region. This means you need less time for gorilla trekking in Rwanda than in Uganda.
Day 1) Land at Kigali International and transfer to a lodge bordering Volcanoes National Park.
Day 2) Gorilla trekking.
Day 3) Depart to Kigali with various potential stops on route, then fly onwards. With a late flight you can spend the morning at the Karisoke Research Center (started by Dian Fossey) and perhaps see a genocide memorial before refreshing with day-room use at a Kigali hotel.
If you’re combining gorilla trekking with a big-game safari then Rwanda is our recommendation. Start or end your vacation with the gorillas, using an international flight to connect savannah with forest. If you have more than three days in Rwanda then consider:
a) Golden monkey trekking in Volcanoes National Park.
b) A chimpanzee and primate safari in Nyungwe Forest National Park.
c) Two gorilla treks.
The Ease of Trekking in Volcanoes National Park
Ten habituated groups can be visited, from a total of 20 families that inhabit the park. You may even pass a non-habituated troop on route to the family you are visiting. Having ten troops creates a large degree of choice. Guides will ask what kind of trek you would like. You can also request a particular troop, although requests cannot be guaranteed. If you are unsure about being fit enough for the trek, Rwanda has to be your choice as the trek will be shortest. If you are keen on a long and wild adventure through dense rainforest then again, Volcanoes National Park has more options than Bwindi.
In general the trekking time in Rwanda is shorter than in Uganda. The park is smaller and the trails are better maintained. There are ten troops to visit. If all the permits haven’t been sold, park rangers will usually stick to troops closest to the trailhead. Trackers go ahead of you, leaving before dawn so they can radio in a troop’s location. Rangers also keep records of where every troop is encountered, an essential part of the conservation process.
As they are more expensive, permits don’t sell out as regularly as in Uganda. But trekking group size remains constant. For example, if there are only 40 trekkers then the rangers will divide you into five or six trekking groups, rather than visit all ten of the habituated troops in smaller trekking groups.
Where to Stay for Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
Unlike Uganda you don’t need to match the lodge with the permit. The best gorilla trekking lodges in Rwanda have prime locations, gazing out over volcanic forests, close to the park headquarters (like Uganda there is no accommodation inside the park).
BEST LODGES FOR RWANDA GORILLA TREKKING
Experiencing Two Gorilla Troops
Every primate family is different. And that’s very true of the mountain gorillas. Not just their behavior but the nuance of family structure. One troop may number ten, a classic set up with one domineering silverback, four females, and infants. Another troop could number 30, with multiple silverbacks, growing blackback males, lone females brought into the troop, plus a smattering of juveniles and babies. Go gorilla trekking twice and you experience two different troops. And the first thing you contrast is this disparity in family make up.
Reaching Uganda or Rwanda is time consuming. Explore Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Volcanoes National Park and it really feels like the heart of Africa, far away from everything else on the planet. Go gorilla trekking a second time and you double the experience gained from traveling so far out of the way. A new troop, new behaviors, all the subtleties and surprise that make mountain gorillas unique. Two treks through virgin rainforest but on differing trails, then two hours with the world’s largest primates.
You will need two gorilla trekking permits, one for each trek. So the cost is prohibitive for most. However, the main reason we recommend two gorilla treks is because the whole experience is more relaxing. A first gorilla trek can go past in a blur, excitement and anticipation leading to awe and wonder. You can only process the experience many hours later, when you’re back at the lodge. Plus, part of the hour is taken up by photos and first impressions. Return the next day and you’re in a far more relaxed mindset. You’ve encountered wild gorillas before. You’ve already processed the experience. So on a second trek you are ready to really understand these critically endangered characters. We find that this delivers an ever more luxurious wildlife experience.
Recommended: The Gorilla Habituation Experience in Uganda
A new gorilla encounter is possible in Uganda. Walking through the rainforest you visit a partially habituated troop. You creep closer, staying as silent as possible. Researchers guide you to a safe space. Unlike gorilla trekking you don’t keep approaching. Instead you find a concealed place from which to observe the troop. This is gorilla habituation in action, researchers slowly getting a troop accustomed to human visitors. And you are part of it. This gorilla habituation experience is only possible in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It currently costs USD 1500 and there are four permits per day. The troop is located in the south of the park, so you’ll leave from either the Rushaga or Nkuringo trailhead.
Surprise is integral to the experience. It’s always hard to predict gorilla behavior, even more so when the gorillas are not fully habituated. You must have patience and a desire for an experience that goes beyond taking photos and ticking gorillas off the bucket-list. You’ll be a conservationist for the day, identifying gorillas and behaviors, helping researchers understand these rare and majestic animals.
Four Hours With Wild Mountain Gorillas
You may not get as close as with gorilla trekking. The view may be obstructed as you must conceal yourself and not interrupt their behavior. But with the gorilla habituation experience you get to spend four hours with the troop. That is a long time. And it truly is special to have such an opportunity. The first 30 minutes is intoxicating. Then you relax and really come to understand how these primates live, four hours allowing you to focus on all the individuals and relationships within the troop.
BEST LODGES FOR RWANDA GORILLA TREKKING
Gorilla trekking and big-game safari is the classic East African combo. You’ll need ten days as an absolute minimum and we’d recommend Rwanda as it will save you a day of travel time versus Uganda. The most classic route? Safari on the grasslands of the Serengeti, a game drive in Ngorongoro Crater, then two gorilla treks. Talk to us about the options and we’ll provide individualized advice on what’s possible given your budget and timeframes.