From best time to visit, what to expect and how much it costs, this blog tells you everything about gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda.
29 Aug 2022
10 Oct 2022
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Gorilla trekking is often described as a life-changing experience, and with so few of these gentle giants remaining in the world, seeing them up close in their natural habitat is not something you’ll ever forget.
Whether you’re looking to book a gorilla trek, or just find out more about it, below we’ve got all the information you need about how to see mountain gorillas in the wild, acquiring a permit, how much you can expect to pay and so much more.
What Is Gorilla Trekking?
Gorilla trekking involves hiking in the dense, tropical rainforests of Africa to witness gorillas in their natural habitat. Treks can range from a half day through to full-day habituation adventures.
A gorilla trek is a highlight of all Uganda and Rwanda safaris and certainly, mountain gorillas are a key draw to these two destinations.
Gorilla trekking is one of the most unique and memorable wildlife activities in Africa, offering a totally different experience from standard safaris or game drives. Though more physically demanding, it is much more up close and personal.
These critically endangered primates are fascinating to sit and watch, not only because of their sheer size and beauty but also in that their behaviour and relationships so closely mimic our own.
Though these experiences aren’t cheap, money goes back into the conservation of mountain gorillas and preservation of their habitat, along with local communities and has a high degree of success as numbers are increasing.
What Format Does Gorilla Trekking Take?
The majority of gorilla treks are one day – out and back. You will stay in your accommodation the night before so that you can rise early on the day of your trek and kick off with a briefing around 7.30am.
Briefings cover the plan for the day, safety and how to act when around the gorillas, so there is no need to prepare in advance.
Typically, each group of visitors will be allocated a different route, allowing a maximum of eight people plus their guides. The guides are professionals with a history of tracking so as to maximise the chances of seeing the primates. Though there are no guarantees with animals in the wild, virtually everyone gets to experience what they came for.
Soon after the briefing each group will head to the forest accompanied by rangers and their guides to begin the search. In many places the forest is dense, humid and hot – so prepare to sweat. However, the challenge is not without reward as en-route you may get to see a variety of other primates, birds and plants.
The time it takes to find a gorilla family varies but once you reach them you will get exactly an hour to observe these gentle giants go about their daily lives. You can take photos without flash and your guide will provide information about various rituals and interactions.
After the trek you will head back to your accommodation, though some tours offer a stop-off – for example a cultural village experience nearby of the Batwa pygmies (if trekking in southwestern Uganda).
Is Gorilla Trekking Ethical?
Mountain gorillas are critically endangered, so getting to see them up close is a privilege that must be undertaken in a sustainable, ethical way.
However, unlike playing with tiger cubs in Florida, or showering elephants in Thailand, gorilla trekking tours are highly regulated and don’t allow you to interfere with the families. Permits are limited and you can’t visit without one. On top of that, permits offer a short window of time with the animals in a maximum group of eight to ensure minimal disruption and stress to the gorillas.
Specific government bodies in gorilla destinations are responsible for these legal limits on number of travellers. These bodies are the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA), Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC respectively.
If you are surprised by the high price of the tours, remember that your money directly contributes to the conservation of mountain gorilla communities.
This money is used in a variety of ways. The first is that you essentially pay for a 24/7 guard that keeps habituated gorilla families safe from poachers. Some of the trackers and porters were once poachers themselves, but with the influx of tourist money, they are given the opportunity to change profession and earn a more honest, sustainable livelihood.
The money you invest in treks, accommodation, food and drink and local cultural experiences all aid local communities – meaning that there are fewer desperate people needing to resort to poaching in the first place.
Looking after the endangered populations also involves significant investments in research, from scientists and conservationists, as well as rangers.
Around 15% of the money collected from gorilla permits goes to the government, 10% to the local communities and 75% to gorilla conservation. If the prices were to be reduced, visitor numbers would likely rocket, affecting the wellbeing of the few habituated gorilla groups.
Some people may question the ethics of gorilla habituation - the process of gently introducing wild mountain gorillas to the sight and presence of humans for research, care and conservation purposes. Although it is adding a degree of human intervention to their natural life, the long-term benefits (of money and efforts invested in conservation) are vast.
As mentioned above, tour briefings cover the dos and don’ts to ensure the safety and overall welfare of the gorillas as much as your own. You are setting foot in these animals’ homes, so be respectful of all rules outlines by the guides. If you are at all unwell, with a cough or a cold, you should avoid trekking as gorillas are highly susceptible to human infections.
Is Gorilla Trekking Safe?
In a nutshell, yes. Whether you intend to travel alone, with a partner or as a family (over 15’s only), gorilla trekking is suitable and safe for pretty much everyone.
Although mountain gorillas are inherently dominant and strong mammals, they are also shyer and gentler than you might think.
The key requirement is that trekkers are required to keep a low tone and profile. Visitors are encouraged to take photographs with a camera or iPhone but flash must be turned off to avoid scaring the gorillas, which may cause them to charge.
Loud noises and sudden movements can upset the gorillas, which is why tours are generally not suited to young children. That said, gorillas are habituated by rangers and researchers for a period of three years, so they are not easily startled. This is what makes gorilla trekking so safe.
It is also possible to join a habituation training tour, which is held in a much smaller group.
Gorillas live in hierarchical families where the dominant silverback dictates how the group moves and behaves. Avoid direct eye contact with both the dominant silverback and other adults. Depending on the time of year you visit, you might see females nursing or juveniles casually entertaining the family. Thanks to habituation practices, parents are generally no more or less defensive or aggressive during these seasons.
Gorilla groups vary in size, up to 30 or more, but you’ll tend to see families of around 10.
Guides will keep you at a distance of seven to 10 metres away from the gorillas. On the off chance you are approached by a gorilla, simply keep quiet, calm and let them pass. Running or shouting may cause them to behave instinctively and wildly, despite being habituated.
Gorillas communicate through a variety of sounds – with 25 documented by researchers so far - like roars, grunts and shouts. Although they might sound aggressive to us, they are rarely anything more than a family conversation.
As mentioned, it is as much about keeping this endangered species safe as yourself, so all trekkers are advised to turn away when sneezing or coughing to avoid the transmission of diseases
Where Are The Best Places To Go Gorilla Trekking?
The best places in the world to see gorillas in their natural habitat are Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. This region of Central Africa offers a forest ecosystem that is perfectly suited to these primates.
Whilst you might want to do a safari in East Africa to see the ‘Big Five’, there are no gorillas or other large primates in Tanzania or Kenya. However, Rwanda combines easily with a safari in these places, with daily flights from Nairobi and parts of the Serengeti, and it is only a 2.5-hour drive to get to the rainforest.
Rwanda and Uganda are the top destinations for mountain gorilla treks. These gorillas are the rarest primates in the world, with around just 800 remaining in the wild. Note that although you can also find mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a history of conflict and instabilities means that the area is not as well set up for treks and tours. As mentioned above, gorilla trekking and tourism is crucial to Rwanda and Uganda, meaning that they have continued to develop and improve their tour options and infrastructure.
Whether you opt for Uganda, Rwanda or Congo, gorilla trekking can be done all year round. That said, like any rainforest, it’s easier to trek in the dry seasons, which are mid-December to early February and June to September. Weather is fairly similar across all three countries and temperatures don’t fluctuate massively across the year.
June to August is the peak season thanks to the low rainfall. Because the parks are drier and therefore easier to hike, permits run out quickly. The average high in July is around 25°C, getting down to around 14°C at night.
January and February constitute the low season, meaning there will be fewer crowds and permits are easier to come by. There is very little rain during this window too.
March, April and May are pretty wet, making trekking even more challenging with slippery slopes. If you don’t mind muddy boots and are up for the challenge though, the opportunities are still there. In this season, the air is crystal clear, allowing for unrivalled views of the volcanoes, plus the gorillas tend to hang out on the lower mountain slopes.
Your destination of choice will be influenced predominantly by cost as well as other activities and wildlife offerings in the region. For example, permits in Rwanda cost significantly more than Uganda (over twice as of 2022).
How Long Do Gorilla Trekking Tours Take?
The most common trek length is one day, though you can choose to do multiple days (permits need to be purchased in advance) allowing for multiple sittings with the gorillas. Visitors who undertake double gorilla trekking (tracking for more than one day) are assigned different gorilla families each day, so they can experience different groups, behaviours and environments.
The time it will take your group to track a family of mountain gorillas can be unpredictable, ranging from half an hour to most of the day. Depending on the weather and other factors, some families reside close to the park offices and lodges, whilst others will be deep within the forest or park.
As wild animals, they may move further away from trackers and rangers for a few hours before eventually settling – particularly if they are early on in the habituation process.
Visitors to Uganda that choose a gorilla habituation experience will get to spend more time with the primates, but be warned these gorillas are not yet habituated and so may be less comfortable in the presence of humans.
How Much Does Gorilla Trekking Cost?
Gorilla trekking is one of the most popular wildlife activities in the world, and carries with it quite a high price tag. To take part you first need to acquire the expensive gorilla permit.
In Uganda, the permits currently cost $700, while in Rwanda it is $1500 per person and $450 in Congo. For those who want to take part in the gorilla habituation experience, it will cost you $1500 for the day in Uganda.
You must carry a valid gorilla permit – which comes with a receipt bearing the names of the trekker and the sector of the national park - along with your passport. Aim to secure your permit at least six – ten months in advance of your travel date.
The permit fees are a key consideration, but not the only cost to account for when planning a trek in any of Uganda, Rwanda or Congo.
Gorilla treks will also vary significantly on price depending on whether you are staying in budget or luxury facilities.
As an idea of costs for different length trips, in Uganda budget accommodation in Bwindi National Park costs around $75-100 per night and your permit is $700 (£585). On the flipside, if you want to upgrade your experience to a luxury trekking safari in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, a nine-day tour costs in excess of $15,000 (12,500). Just $1500 (£1250) of this covers your permit, and the rest goes towards luxury lodges and higher-quality meals.
Hotel staff, guides, rangers and other staff will go out of their way to make sure that your experience was flawless, and tipping is greatly appreciated though not compulsory.
Some other costs to consider are internal or chartered flights from the airport to close to gorilla trekking points, which tend to be around £500-600. We recommend to hire local porters for $20 dollars a day. Porters are available to carry food/drink, heavy equipment, bags or video cameras and lend a hand during the difficult sections of the trek. They can be particularly useful for older visitors.
Rwanda Gorillas & Primates
Spend time with rare mountain gorillas, track chimps and golden monkeys through the forest, and relax on Lake Kivu.
Spend time learning about and tracking endangered rhinos, take a boat safari on the Nile, as well as traditional game drives in Queen Elizabeth National Park, spend a day with researchers on a Chimpanzee Habituation Experience, walk in the foothills of the Rwenzoris and finally, trek rare mountain gorillas.
What you pack for your trek will depend on the time of year, but you should be prepared for wet weather either way. Temperatures are fairly steady throughout the year, with layers being key. This is both for when the temperatures drop at night but also because it becomes cold and wet at high altitude.
Below are some key items to bring with you
·A comfortable day pack
·A reusable water bottle
·Waterproof (or at least resistant) hiking boots with a decent grip
·Knee-high hiking gaiters
·A lightweight rain jacket or shell
·Binoculars – though some tours will provide these
·Long pants or trousers
·Some people also choose to bring a pair of gardening-style gloves for forest trekking
Do you need to be fit to go gorilla trekking?
Gorilla trekking is very different to a normal game drive, with long hikes on difficult terrain, through thick vegetation, up hills or valleys and sometimes through water. There are no defined paths or predictable tracks to follow, which is why gloves can come in handy when pushing through the forest.
Although it is exceptionally rewarding, the activity can be challenging and strenuous – even for those who are physically fit. Visitors often have to deal with with biting insects, rain and sometimes altitude sickness.
However, don’t be put off - 98% percent of people successfully complete the activity. The opportunity to spot birds, smaller primates and stunning scenery also helps to take your mind off the challenge.
For those who feel that they would enjoy the trek more by carrying less, porters are available for the day. Porters tend to be students looking to top up their school fees or men supporting their families, some are ex poachers.
The first step is mentally preparing for the trek, rather than assuming it will be a walk in the park, and doing a bit of hill-walking in advance,
Each destination brings with it its own set of challenges. In Bwindi, it is the rivers, streams and thicker forest, whilst in Mgahinga and Volcanoes National Park, visitors have to contend with mist, higher altitude and bamboo forests.
The right mindset, boots, clothing and repellent will go a long way in making your adventure more comfortable.
Gorilla trekking of the elderly or the less abled is not impossible but more complicated as it involves the use of Sedan chairs and about eight porters to lift them up to the tracking point.
Gorillas share around 98% of our genes, meaning that they too can contract coronavirus. and other airborne diseases.
As such, COVID-19 a big threat to the survival of the gorillas. So please observe the following when trekking:
·Avoid sneezing nearby
·Sanitize and observe other SOP guidelines
·Observe a distance of seven metres at all times
·Wearing of masks may be advised
Is Gorilla Trekking Worth It?
All of our team who have been fortunate enough to go gorilla trekking would say 100%, absolutely worth it, and our clients who complete a gorilla trek hail it as the experience of a lifetime.
Picture yourself hiking deep into Central Africa’s dense forests, encountering birds, smaller primates, butterflies and forest antelopes before stumbling across a majestic silverback and his family. It is a scene that will stay with you forever.
If you are unsure if it is right for you, talk to one of our team who has been.
Gorilla trekking is significantly more expensive than your average wildlife tour because mountain gorillas are critically endangered and demand to see them in the wild is so high. The increased demand has forced many governments to raise the price of permits, and the need for funds to protect the primates is ongoing.
As with other safaris, the cost is also affected by the level of luxury you opt for, and you can reduce your spend by reducing the level of luxury.
Gorilla trekking is not only a bucket-list dream ticked off, but you are also directly contributing to the conservation of a species for generations to come.