Africa offers travellers the chance to witness some of nature's grandest spectacles. The continent is famous for its vast herds of wildebeest that cross the Serengeti, rumbling families of elephants in the Chobe, and the stylishly blasé leopards of the Kruger National Park. But by far the most transformative and up-close wildlife experience in Africa is a face-to-face encounter with the great apes of Uganda and Rwanda.
Why go trekking
The two best places where you can see mountain gorillas are Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park. Critically endangered as a result of deforestation and hunting, their population has dwindled to an estimated 700 individuals, clinging on to survival in these two remote sanctuaries. Africa's mountain gorillas do not thrive in captivity - you cannot see these creatures in a zoo - which makes trekking to see them in their natural habitat a once-in-a-lifetime journey.
Trekking for gorillas in mountainous rainforest often means hours of hiking on steep, narrow footpaths and walking through dense jungle behind a scout who slashes a path through the foliage with a machete. You need to be at least walking fit - the guides ensure you take plenty of breaks - and properly equipped for a tough environment. I recommend broken-in hiking boots that protect your ankles, double-layered socks (cotton inners and thick outers) plus knee-high gaiters. Please be aware that gorillas are highly susceptible to human illnesses; you will not be allowed to visit them if you have a cold or any other contagious illness.
When to trek
Uganda and Rwanda share a common climate and the best time to visit the rainforests is during one of the two dry seasons. The first runs from about the middle of December to the end of February and the second from early June to late September. These periods are the most comfortable for trekking but conditions are still very humid and wet with plenty of mud (so don't forget your gaiters!).
Despite the lengths you will travel to reach these remote rainforests - not to mention the discomfort of high humidty and hard hiking - the chances of encountering these rare creatures is as high as 90%.
When you do find a gorilla family, your ranger will ask you to leave everything but your camera. He will then take you close enough to observe the gorillas intimately but without threatening them. There are no fences between you, only mutual respect. The gorillas are habituated to human observers and go about their natural business - foraging, grooming and napping - without fear. Indeed, the youngsters are often curious about humans and have a very playful attitude that tests the patience of their teenage gorilla babysitters. The placid nature of the gorilla family is wonderful to see but remember that your presence is shrewdly observed by the patriarch of the family: the massive silverback male. We recommend that you spend part of the time taking photos, but at least 20 minutes just observing - you'll come away with a far greater sense of having experienced a group of gorillas in their natural habitat.
Sitting a few metres away from a family of gorillas, seeing your humanity reflected in their social rituals and warm brown eyes, makes for one of the most transformative and intimate wild encounters you can have in Africa, if not the world.
Mountain gorillas are on the brink of extinction and trekking is carefully regulated. Permits are both costly and difficult to secure and cannot be held on a provisional basis. Travelling to such remote destinations and ensuring the best chances for a successful trek requires the kind of direct experience and local knowledge that you get from an Africa Safari Expert. Read more about our gorilla trekking tours and safaris - some even include tracking chimpanzees and other primates.