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Where to Go in Africa to see Gorillas

You follow a narrow hiking trail through the lushness of a tropical rainforest, wiping sweat from your eyes and feeling grateful for your gators. Suddenly, a tracker returns from scouting ahead and excitedly halts your group - it's time to drop your backpack and move forward slowly with nothing but your camera and the thrill of anticipation. Grinning, your guide turns and whispers the words you've been waiting to hear: ‘There they are.’

Glossy black against the rainforest’s luminous green, a family of mountain gorillas headed by a brooding but benevolent silverback male. The discomforts of your jungle trek evaporate in an instant and for the one enchanting hour you spend with them, an odd sense of familiarity settles on you. Young gorillas rough and tumble like wrestlers, maternally-minded females gather in grooming groups, occassionally reprimanding the kids, while the patriarchal silverback keeps a wary eye on the surroundings.

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Gorillas are vegetarians and spend much of the day foraging for their favourite plants.

Gorilla trekking offers one of Africa’s most profound wild encounters, perhaps fuelled by the unhappy knowledge that gorillas are extremely endangered - their populations even in protected reserves are counted in hundreds rather than thousands.

The world’s largest primates survive in what little remains of their natural habitat, in the deepest and most remote African forests. Thanks to the conservation resources earned by gorilla treks, at least one population is on the increase. So where are the best places for you to support gorilla conservation and experience this magical encounter? Here’s where to go in Africa to see gorillas:

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Gorilla trekking means hiking on rough trails through dense rainforest.

#1 Rwanda: Easy In, Easy Out

Africa’s most straight-forward gorilla trekking is found in Rwanda, the tiny Central Africa country that punches way above its weight in sheer natural beauty. Its flagship reserve, the Volcanoes National Park, lies only 80 kilometres from the capital’s airport and is home to about half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.

This is authentic Gorillas in the Mist country – you can even pay your respects are Diane Fossey’s grave. It's a well protected and monitored reserve full of monkeys and forest birds where the chances of encountering gorillas are a reassuring 90%. Speaking of statistics, some 10% of the revenue from tourism goes to community projects around the park, reinforcing the positive effects of gorilla trekking and making conservation of the great apes meaningful to rural communities in a very practical way.

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Gorilla babies can be as endearing as human toddlers.
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Silverbacks can be as intimidating as Marlon Brando's The Godfather.

How to do it: Fly into Kigali to join an organised gorilla trekking tour. You’ll be driven straight to the Volcanoes National Park and one of its trekking lodges and be guided into the forest by expert local guides and rangers. The 8-day Amazing Rwanda Gorilla Adventure combines Rwanda and Uganda’s top gorilla destinations to ensure incredible sightings as well as opportunities to visit local Batwa Pygmy communities.

#2 Uganda: Big Apes & Big Game

Uganda’s gorillas live in the epically named Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest, a cloak of tangled green that covers the country’s south-west mountains. It’s more than a day’s drive from the capital Kampala or a quick flight so you’ll work a little harder to get here, but it’s worth it! Bwindi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 350 bird species and 200 kinds of butterflies – and, thanks to gorilla trekking, its mountain gorilla population has grown by a third in recent years.

Trekking in Bwindi is well-established and if you have a couple of days to work with, gorilla sightings are more or less assured. Bwindi’s trump card lies in tailoring your Uganda itinerary to include nearby Kibale Forest and Queen Elizabeth National Park. You’ll add chimpanzee trekking and big game viewing to your bucket list gorilla encounter.

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Gorillas happily climb trees to reach sweet fruit.
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Gorilla moms nurture their babies tenderly.

How to do it: After flying into Entebbe International Airport, you’ll need to join an organised gorilla trekking tour. Accommodation, trekking permits and guides are all included. But why not mix it up a bit? The 9-day Chimp, Gorillas and Wildlife safari is a 4X4 guided tour that delivers Africa’s most iconic forest and savannah animals in a single itinerary.

#3 Congo: New Kid on the Block

Don't confuse the Republic of the Congo with its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), once known as Zaire. The Republic of the Congo is a stable country with a warm welcome for visitors. It's also one of the most remarkable destinations in Africa. Odzala-Kokoua National Park protects an area of primeval rainforest the size of Belgium and is packed with primates. The forest is home to Africa’s highest density of western lowland gorillas and Central Africa’s highest density of chimpanzees.

Those impressive statistics are just for starters. Odzala-Kokoua is also famous for its ‘bais’– swampy, open clearings where the forest’s shy wildlife comes to drink, lick natural mineral salts and have a good old fashioned mud bath. And the wildlife is fascinating! Forest buffalo, bongo antelope, wire-haired boars and timid forest elephant.

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Gorillas can't resist ripe berries and will happily munch a bushel of fruit in a single sitting.

How to do it: The Republic of the Congo is a remote destination that requires solid on-the-ground expertise. The 7-day Explore Congo tour combines two perfectly positioned camps in Odzala-Kokoua to deliver a diverse experience that combines gorilla and chimpanzee trekking with forest game viewing. 

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Wildlife gather a the swampy 'bais'.
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Remote, rustic and very charming accommodation in the Congo.

Whichever destination you choose, you’ll need to prepare well. Trekking through mountainous, equatorial rainforest is muddy work. There’s heat and humidity to deal with, occassional downpours, and strict trekking protocols to adhere to. But the experience is utterly unique, leaving even seasoned safari-goers struggling to describe its impact. With less than 2% genetic difference between humans and the great apes, this is one of the world's most engaging wildlife encounters.

Find out more about a gorilla trekking holiday, or view our recommended gorilla trekking tours & safaris.

Written by Dominic Chadbon. Connect with him on Google+.

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