In this blog we compare gorilla trekking in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, and also answer travellers’ most frequently asked questions about seeing the gorillas:
- Will I definitely see the gorillas?
- Can I touch them?
- Do I have to use a porter?
- How fit do I have to be?
But first, why consider gorilla trekking in the first place?
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 move forward slowly with nothing but your camera and the thrill of anticipation. Grinning, your guide turns and whispers the words you've been longing to hear: ‘There they are.’
Glossy black against the rainforest’s luminous green, this is what you've come to Africa to see: a family of gorillas headed by a watchful but benevolent silverback male. The efforts of your forest 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, occasionally reprimanding the little ones, while the patriarchal silverback keeps a protective eye on the surroundings.
Gorilla trekking offers one of Africa’s most profound wildlife encounters - their populations even in protected reserves are counted in hundreds rather than thousands. So rare are gorillas that trackers are able to give them individual names and identify their faces and personalities easily.
Africa’s great apes survive in what remains of their natural habitat, in the last protected stretches of the continent’s central rainforests. Thanks to the income earned from gorilla trekking tourism, populations are slowly on the increase and residents, who once may have been poachers of gorillas and other primates, are now their protectors and earn their livelihoods protecting what they once killed. It is conservation success story and continued tourism is vital to their continued existence.
Traveller FAQs Answered:
Q: Will I definitely see the gorillas?
Because they are so closely monitored, and either researchers or trekkers are in touch with them every day, guides know more or less where the different families are and you probably have a 98% chance of seeing them. Of course, there are no guarantees with wild animals and an overnight thunderstorm or an unexpected encounter with a predator may cause a troop to move unexpectedly in a completely different direction but it’s likely that scouts will pick up their trail again soon. It is very seldom that trekkers don’t find the gorillas.
Q: Can I touch them?
No, absolutely not although we completely understand the instinct to want to reach out and cuddle an adorable baby. Firstly, because they’re wild animals and thus very strong and unpredictable – you could be severely injured. Secondly, gorilla populations are already under severe threat from logging, poaching and human encroachment on their environment plus they are highly susceptible to human diseases. Not only can you not interact with them but you will have to keep a distance of at least seven metres / 22 feet at all time and, in some instances, wear a mask. If you are ill, you will not be allowed to trek so ensure you are in excellent health before you travel and take precautions not to pick up a bug on the plane over.
Remember, once you find the gorillas, you are only allowed an hour with them so as not to stress them out. This passes by in a flash so don’t spend all your time behind a lens: put the camera down after a few minutes and just bliss out watching them, grateful that you have the privilege of seeing them in the wild.
Q: Do I have to use a porter?
We strongly encourage you to use a porter if you are offered their services during your trek, even if you feel you are fit enough to cope with the terrain, altitude, humidity and your daypack. For a nominal amount of money – say USD20 – you will be providing a livelihood to several inhabitants of the nearby village.
Porters are very often former poachers. Without work and the ability to earn a living within gorilla conservation, many will be forced to return to finding and capturing or killing gorillas for bush meat or the illegal wildlife-trafficking trade. The incentives offered by poaching syndicates can be very lucrative for impoverished villagers with few other ways of earning a living. It is better to graciously accept their help and pay the fee – which will amount to a couple of coffees back home – and help ensure the continued conservation of gorillas.
Remember, every legally employed person in Africa supports seven to nine other people. There can be no successful conservation without involving people as much as possible so the more porters you can get on board, the better!
Go2Africa Safari Expert Bonita Cronje on porters:
‘When we came into contact with the gorillas in Bwindi they were on the move so we literally spent our allotted hour chasing after them – it’s great to make use of the porters as they carry your bags and give you a push or a helping hand when the hiking gets tough. They’re definitely worth their weight in gold.'
Q: How fit do I have to be?
With any strenuous activity, the fitter you are, the better. But this doesn’t mean that you need to be able to complete a triathlon or bench press three times your body weight.
Trekkers will be divided into groups of similar age and fitness levels, and the oldest and least fit people will generally be allocated the gorilla family that is nearest the starting point. Don’t worry: you won’t be split up from family members or friends but – obeying the golden rule of hiking – the fastest walkers will have to slow down to the pace of the slowest so that the group stays together safely.
The fittest or youngest people will be chosen to find the group furthest away. Your guides are very experienced in assessing how the group is coping and will stop when necessary for a break, to drink water, admire a view or even have a snack (packed lunches contain water and perhaps energy-giving items like roasted cashews or peanuts, fruit like bananas or apples, chocolate bars, muffins, small sandwiches or bread rolls and local treats like ‘rolled eggs’ – a kind of omelette eaten cold).
It is always easiest to trek in the dry season. In the wet season, the mud can make trails slippery and the trek tougher. The gorillas and chimps may also seek refuge from the rain in nests or trees, making them harder to find and see. Take lightweight binoculars along to really bring their antics and expressions into focus.
Also, not all gorilla families will be lolling around, munching leaves and basking in the sunshine – some will be on the move. And they’re a lot better adapted to moving through their rainforest home than we are!
Bonita on how fit you have to be to find the gorillas:
‘The guides do try and get you as close to your designated family as possible so after our briefing we got in a vehicle and drove for between 30 and 45 minutes before we started our trek. We got the “difficult” group but we were only in the forest for a total of three hours.
‘You do need to have some level of fitness especially if you are elderly or not in the best physical condition but, in all honesty, my fitness level is not great (I pant each time I get to the top of the three flights of stairs leading to the Go2Africa office) and I managed quite easily. I think the search and the chase gets your adrenalin levels up and helps motivate you to keep going.’
Fellow Safari Expert Tracy Payne also trekked gorillas at Buhoma in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest:
‘You’re walking at slight altitude and it’s steep so you need to be relatively fit but I don’t think you need to be the fittest – I’m not and I managed.’
Safari Expert Emma Hill has trekked gorillas in both Congo and Uganda:
‘You are not “bundu bashing” – the pace is manageable because you walk slowly enough for the slowest person in the group to keep up.’
Much of how strenuous the trek is, depends on a combination of the terrain, vegetation and weather, as Safari Expert Anja Naude found out:
‘I trekked in September in Rwanda and in November – the rainy season - in Uganda. The heat and humidity were worse in Uganda because it was later in the year. I did the “difficult” Nkuringo Trek in Uganda and didn’t think it was too bad, just a steep climb back up that was a bit muddy after we saw the gorillas.
‘In Rwanda I did the “most strenuous” trek – it was steeper than Uganda going up. We did four hours of uphill climbing until we found them and I thought this was much tougher than Uganda because there was lots of thicket, few paths and a lot of walking through the forest while Uganda as more in the open.
‘Both my treks were the toughest ones and I actually really enjoyed them and didn’t think they were too bad at all. One trekker battled with the altitude in Rwanda but, other than that, everyone managed with no problems at all.’
Now, let’s have a look at the Top 3 gorilla-trekking destinations in the world.
Rwanda: Easy In, Easy Out
Africa’s most straight-forward gorilla trekking is found in Rwanda, the tiny 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 pioneering primatologist Dian Fossey’s grave. It's a well-protected and monitored reserve full of monkeys and forest birds, and at least 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. As mentioned, reformed poachers are now employed by conservation projects that allow them to earn a legitimate income.
Price of permits USD1 500* per person for one hour. They are often sold out up to a year in advance for the dry season so arrange your trip as soon as you known you want to go.
Travel time Three hours by road from Kigali to Volcanoes National Park.
Best for Travellers with limited time – you can simply land in Kigali, be driven to your lodge, trek the next day and leave for the airport the next. It is possible to wrap up a trip in five days or less.
Best time to go The long dry season runs from about June to September and the short one from December to February. October to November, and March to May will be rainy.
Uganda: Big Apes and Big Game
Uganda’s mountain 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 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 trekking, its mountain gorilla population has grown by a third in recent years.
Bwindi’s trump card lies in tailoring your Uganda itinerary to include nearby Kibale National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park, allowing you to add chimpanzee trekking and big game viewing to your gorilla encounter.
Price of permits USD600* per person for one hour. You can also pay USD1 500* for a habituation permit that allows you to go out with the researchers and spend up to four hours with them.
Travel time From the capital Kampala to Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest it is about 10 or 11 hours by road. The other option to take a much shorter but more costly charter flight.
Best for Animal lovers who want to do a gorilla trek but also go on a safari in one of Africa’s up-and-coming safari destinations.
Best time to go The annual dry seasons are from January to February and June to September.
Go2Africa Safari Expert Bonita about trekking in Uganda’s rainy season:
‘I went to Uganda in November in the rainy season. Rain usually fell in the early morning and late afternoon. It would be a bit of a downpour and then usually stop. On the day that we did the chimp trekking in Kibale Forest it was drizzling slightly on and off. Something to remember: you’re trekking in dense forest so if it has been raining, it takes a lot longer for everything to dry out. The chimp trek was really muddy. When it is cold and drizzling the chimps head to the tree canopy where they build a nest and camp out to try and stay as warm and dry as possible.
‘In Bwindi it is hilly so you should expect to walk up some steep hills. It also drizzled a bit when we were having our briefing but then stopped so not as muddy as Kibale. In Bwindi there seemed to be more leaf coverage on the ground so there was not as much mud but it was still quite slippery.’
Congo: Unbridled Adventure with Barefoot Luxury
Congo is not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): the two are distinct countries in Africa. While the DRC is enormous, Congo is small but perfectly formed. Odzala-Kokoua 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, narrower faces and rounder nostrils. But like their larger altitude-dwelling relatives, they are always a joy to behold. It is warmer in Congo than in the mountains of Rwanda and Uganda because the terrain is flatter and you’re at less altitude.
Another boon to Congo is that you can bracket your gorilla trek with very different 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 shy forest elephants and buffalos, large antelope known as bongo, and bush pigs. Kayaking in the bais is a must-do activity here, topped off with a barbecue on the riverbank.
Price of permits They are included in the price of your package deal.
Best for Experienced visitors to Africa who love the continent and have ticked off all the other major boxes. Congo is a truly ‘get away from the crowds’ destination.
Best time to go The short dry season runs between January and February while the longer one starts in about May and finished in September.
Whichever destination you choose, it pays to prepare well for your trek. Hiking through mountainous, equatorial rainforest can be muddy work. It can be hot and humid with occasional short downpours too, so appropriate clothing, sturdy hiking boots and gear, like trekking poles and gaiters, all add up to a more 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...