You follow a narrow hiking trail through the lushness of a tropical rainforest, wiping sweat from your eyes and feeling grateful for your gaiters. 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, this is what you've come to see: a family of mountain gorillas headed by a watchful but benevolent silverback male. The efforts 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, maternal females gather in grooming groups, occassionally reprimanding the kids, while the patriarchal silverback keeps a protective eye on the surroundings.
Gorilla trekking offers one of Africa’s most profound wild encounters - their populations even in protected reserves are counted in hundreds rather than thousands.
The world’s largest primates survive in what remains of their natural habitat, in the last protected stretches of Africa's central rainforest. Thanks to the income earned from gorilla trekking tourism, Uganda's mountain gorillas population is on the increase. Africa Safari Expert Anza recomends doing gorilla treks in two different destinations because you'll be contributing twice to gorilla conservation as well as spending time with two different gorilla families.
Here’s where to go in Africa to see gorillas:
#1 Rwanda: Easy In, Easy Out
Africa’s most straight-forward gorilla trekking is found in Rwanda, the tiny Central African country that punches way above its weight in sheer natural beauty. Its flagship reserve, Volcanoes National Park, lies only 80 kilometres (50 miles) 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 at Dian 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 percent (as with any activity involving wild animals, there are no guarantees). Speaking of statistics, some 10 percent of the revenue from tourism goes to community projects around the park, reinforcing the positive impact of gorilla trekking and making conservation of the great apes meaningful to rural communities in a very practical way. In fact, in some cases, reformed poachers are now employed by conservation projects that allow them to earn a legitimate income.
How to do it: Fly into Kigali to start your gorilla trekking tour. You’ll be driven straight to Volcanoes National Park to check into a comfortable lodge. When you trek, you'll be guided into the forest by expert guides and rangers. Take a peek at our 4-day Fly-in Rwanda Gorilla Trek.
#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 there than in Rwanda, but it’s worth it! Bwindi is a World Heritage Site with over 350 bird species and 200 kinds of butterflies – and, thanks to income from 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, allowing you to add chimpanzee trekking and big game viewing to your gorilla encounter.
How to do it: Fly into Entebbe International Airport to kick off your tailor-made tour. Accommodation, trekking permits and guides are all included, along with the option to add chimp trekking and game viewing. 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
Congo is not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): the two are distinct countries in Central Africa. And while the DRC is enormous, Congo is small but perfectly formed. Odzala National Park is still relatively little known but is attracting deserved renown for its conservation of lowland gorillas. Unlike their mountain cousins, lowland gorillas are smaller and less shaggy, with softer fur. But like their altitude-dwelling relatives, they are always a joy to behold.
Another boon to Congo is that you can bracket your gorilla trek with big game viewing or highly satisfying birding. Congo is scattered with 'bais', a kind of clearing in a forest wetland where the plentiful water and good grazing attract forest elephants and buffalos, large antelope known as bongo and bush pigs.
How to do it: Fly into the capital Kampala, and then be whisked off to one of two of Congo's fly-in lodges, which have both been designed to have as light an environmental footprint as possible. Click here to watch our team on a gorilla-trekking expedition to Congo to see what to expect - we think you may be very pleasantly surprised!
Whichever destination you choose, it pays to prepare well for your trek. Hiking through mountainous, equatorial rainforest is muddy work. It can be hot and humid with occassional short downpours too, so appropriate clothing, sturdy hiking boots and gear, like poles and gaiters, all add up to a comfortable trek. It's a bucket list experience precisely because it isn't easy to get close to gorillas in the wild, but when you do, you'll be more than thrilled...