Of all Africa's wildlife encounters little can match the experience that is gorilla trekking. And given that these face-to-face encounters take place in only a few locations and involve animals quite literally on the brink of extinction, gorilla trekking is quite rightly considered, if not a life-changing experience, then at the very least a once-in-a-lifetime one.
Professionally guided gorilla trekking is restricted to a handful of remote but thankfully accessible destinations. Western lowland gorillas are found in the primeval forests of the Republic of Congo; the world’s last 700 or so mountain gorillas live in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park. Seeing these gentle giants can be a life-changing experience - living in their in their natural habitat in close-knit family groups, they reflect so much of our human family structure, affections and many of our emotional gestures, like delight, surprise and irritation.
For a gorilla trek you need to be fairly fit, equipped for the humid, muddy conditions of a rainforest hike, and healthy. You will not be permitted to go gorilla trekking if you have a cold or similar illness because gorillas are suseptible to many human diseases. The region’s mid-December to February and June to September dry seasons are the best time to go gorilla trekking but you can still expect a tough day on foot: it's humid, wet and muddy with steep slopes and tangled vegetation. Nevertheless, the chances of finding a gorilla family are often around 90%.
Once a habituated gorilla family has been located by your guides, you can settle down for an hour to observe them as they feed and groom while their babies tumble about the undergrowth - all under the watchful gaze of the great silverback male. Sitting only a few metres from a gorilla and looking into its soft brown eyes is a spine-tingling experience not easily forgotten.
But Africa's great ape encounters don't end with gorillas: chimpanzee trekking is rapidly becoming the continent's newest wildlife experience. Although you may see chimps – and several other primate species - on your gorilla trek, several places have earned a reputation as stand-alone chimpanzee trekking destinations. Tanzania’s Mahale Mountains and Gombe Stream have a long-standing reputation for chimps as do the forested corners of Uganda's Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Parks but it is Uganda’s Kibale Forest that is usually seen as one of the best places for chimpanzee trekking.
Chimpanzee trekking is quite different to gorilla trekking. Often found in kinder terrain than gorillas, wild chimps are nevertheless harder to find than gorillas and chimpanzee tracking is often an add-on experience to a big game safari. But habituated chimp groups, such as those at Kibale, give you the same kind of face-to-face encounter you enjoy with gorilla trekking. Time spent with them is again restricted to an hour.
While chimp trekking is still in its infancy, gorilla trekking is a tightly regulated activity and we strongly recommend using the experience and planning expertise of one of our Africa Safari Experts. Permits are not only expensive but extremely limited and difficult to secure. Immediate payment is necessary as permits are not provisionally held. Logistics can be a challenge, and you’ll need advice on matching an experience with your expectations.
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At a Glance
Perhaps the greatest once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experience, gorilla trekking in Uganda or Rwanda takes you into Africa's teeming rainforests for up-close encounters with a habituated gorilla family.