Mountain gorilla trekking: ultimate how to guide

Mountain gorillas are the world’s largest primates and can only be found in the wild. None have ever been tamed or captivated and only around 1000 of these creatures are left.

They are majestic animals and they create one of the world’s ultimate wildlife experiences: gorilla trekking.

Mountain Gorilla Trekking: Ultimate How To Guide

This is the ultimate guide to mountain gorilla trekking. It draws on numerous experiences from Africa Freak contributors and covers all the available options.

When I first planned a gorilla trek I spent days searching for accurate information. Most of what is available is out of date or produced by tour operators selling a specific destination or trip. A decade later and I still find information for independent visitors very limited.

The goal of Africa Freak is to help people connect with their wild side. Encountering mountain gorillas is as wild as you can get!

Disclaimer – Africa Freak does not sell or promote any gorilla trekking operator. This article intends to provide all the important information required for you to plan your own gorilla trek in Uganda or Rwanda.

Mountain Gorilla Trekking – The Basics

  • Trekking with wild mountain gorillas can be done in Uganda or Rwanda.
  • Gorilla trekking is no longer possible in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • The gorillas you can encounter have been habituated, meaning they are accustomed to human visitors.
  • You are assigned a specific gorilla troop and can spend an hour in their presence.
  • There are a maximum of eight trekkers for every gorilla troop.
  • You can come within seven meters of the primates, although in reality that may seem much closer.
  • Permits must be arranged in advance and are expensive. As of November 2018 the cost is USD 1500 in Rwanda and USD 600 in Uganda.
  • You are never allowed to touch or interfere with the gorillas, just like you should never interfere with any of Africa’s wildlife.
  • The two main destinations for gorilla trekking are Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.

Where Do Mountain Gorillas Live?

Mountain gorillas live in three places. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda; Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Their populations are fluid and there is some movement of troops between countries. Two troops have also been known to live in Mhahinga National Park in Uganda, however, encounters with these troops are becoming increasingly rare.

Mountain gorillas are the largest of all the primate species and naturally the largest of the gorilla sub-species. Lowland gorillas are more numerous and are spread across the Congo Basin, stretching from the Democratic Republic of Congo towards West Africa.

The world’s largest primate lives in thick tropical rainforest. Millions of years ago, the whole of East Africa was carpeted in forest. Volcanic eruptions and other evolutionary changes have turned most of the forest into grasslands, most famously the Serengeti and Masai Mara.

As the forest turned to grass, mountain gorillas saw their habitat dwindle. They retreated into a handful of mountain forests that survived. Now they live in forests in the sky, isolated stretches of tropical forest cut off from the rest of the world.

One place you will never see a mountain gorilla is in the zoo. If you have seen a gorilla in the zoo it will have been the smaller lowland subspecies.

Interesting Facts About Mountain Gorilla Troops

Mountain gorillas live in troops of 5 to 30 individuals. These are patriarchal, typically led by a mature adult male. When males reach adulthood they grow a silver band of hair on the back, hence the name silverback gorilla.

Researchers disagree but the general consensus is that a mountain gorilla is ten times stronger than the average human. Their bite is even stronger than that of a lion or a great white shark!

There are many other amazing facts about mountain gorillas on this Africa Freak article. For example, did you know that mountain gorillas make themselves a new bed from leaves and twigs, every single night!

Where Can You See Wild Mountain Gorillas

There are only two places in the world where you can see wild mountain gorillas: Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda. Gorilla trekking is closed in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to civil war in the region.

As its name suggests Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is home to gorillas. However, the habituated troops regularly move across the border into Virunga so encountering them is becoming less and less predictable.

I would not recommend a gorilla trek here. Over the last decade Uganda authorities have sought to habituate more troops in Bwindi, moving tourism away from Mgahinga.

What is Mountain Gorilla Trekking – The Complete Guide

As you know by now, gorillas live in thick forest. There are no roads and no vehicles. It’s thick and tangled and the only way you can see the gorillas is to go trekking.

Walking is part of the experience and you’ll trek for anything from 30 minutes to four hours before reaching a troop. After the encounter you must trek back to park headquarters.

Visiting a mountain gorilla troop has become known as gorilla trekking. It’s one of the world’s most intimate wildlife experiences. The basics of gorilla trekking are the same in Uganda and Rwanda.

I will go into the differences later in this article, which will help you decide which country is best for you. However, the experience has many similarities.

Minimum Age for Gorilla Trekking

The minimum age for gorilla trekking is 16 and above.

The Price of Gorilla Trekking

You need a permit to go gorilla trekking. It’s easy to organise this for yourself with the Uganda or Rwanda park authorities. However, doing this can be time consuming so you may wish to pay a small fee to a tour operator who can obtain your permit.

For 2018 – 2019 the price of a gorilla trekking permit is USD 1500 for Rwanda and USD 600 in Uganda. In Uganda they also offer a rainy season discount, making the price USD 450 for April, May and November.

Gorillas in the Mist – Is That Real?

Yes, mountain gorillas live in the mist. Their forest home is wet and humid. On many mornings the landscape is completely covered in mist, which clears slowly throughout the day.

Stay in the area for a couple of days and you will see a fairytale image of mist swirling through the trees, deep in the heart of Africa.

Do You Always See Gorillas on a Gorilla Trek?

Both Rwanda and Uganda authorities never guarantee an encounter. However, there are only a couple of groups a year that miss out.

This is usually for safety reasons as the troop is displaying highly aggressive behaviour. if you are incredibly unlucky, park authorities will transfer you to another troop, usually on the next day.

The main reason you might miss the gorillas is that you are not fit enough to complete the trek. In this case you won’t get an opportunity to do it again.

How Fit Must You Be for Gorilla Trekking?

The trekking is not easy, even if you are very fit. However, it is not beyond possibility for most people. If you can walk for one to two hours you should be okay.

If you’re not sure then I’d recommend Rwanda as the trekking tends to be a little shorter than in Uganda.

Porters can be hired to carry your bag. These are worth using, especially if you have bulky camera equipment. Porters will also carry people.

If you’re unsure about fitness then hire a porter as a backup option, particularly for the return trek.

I’d also encourage you to request a longer trek if you’re adventurous and fit. Going further away from the trailhead means you can encounter troops that see less visitors, as well as getting to know more of the rainforest.

What Troop Do You Visit?

All the troops you can visit have been habituated to human contact. Habituation takes two to four years and is carried out by experienced biologists and researchers.

13 out of the 40 troops in Bwindi have been habituated while there are ten troops you can visit in Rwanda.

You don’t get much choice over which troop you visit. Park rangers allocate troops based on their location in the park. Some live closer to the trailhead while others are much deeper and higher in the forest.

Rangers typically allocate trekking groups based on the perceived fitness levels of visitors. Senior visitors are more likely to be assigned the closest troop.

You can ask for a troop that’s further away, meaning a longer and highly exciting walk through the forest. It is possible to request a specific troop but it will be up to the rangers as to whether your wish is granted.

All habituated troops aren’t visited every day. If there are only 30 trekkers that day then they will be split into four groups, visiting four troops. I wouldn’t recommend overly researching the individual troops as you won’t get much say in who you visit.

All trekkers start from the same headquarters in Rwanda, meaning you visit one of ten troops. However, in Uganda there are four different starting points, so there are less options for the rangers to choose from.

The Actual Trekking

You must walk through untamed rainforest. It’s thick and tangled, hot and sweaty. But it’s such a highlight! There aren’t many places in the world where you can visit such untouched rainforest.

Walking slowly you first follow main trails. Then you veer off and travel along paths created by forest elephants.

You might encounter other gorillas on route, or even some of the elephants. An armed ranger accompanies you for that reason – they will fire a warning shot in case of extreme danger.

You’ll definitely encounter some insects and creepy crawlies. There are lots of them and I’d recommend long sleeves for protection.

Also pack two litres of water, suncream and some snacks. Most importantly, wear good strong shoes. Cross trainers are okay but it can become very muddy and slippy, so grab one of the walking sticks that rangers provide for free.

You really want hiking boots but that’s not always something you want to carry through Africa with you.

Locating the Gorilla Troop

Trackers head out early in the morning, long before your trek. They know the home range of each troop and exactly where the gorillas were last encountered the day before.

After reaching the gorillas’ beds the trackers follow clues and locate the troop you will visit. Then they radio this location to your trekking guide.

The final part of the trek is exhilarating. You head off the trails and travel through the thickest part of the trees. Often the guide must cut a new trail using his machete.

Your heart pumps faster and faster, from the exertion and the anticipation. Then, up ahead, you witness the first shock of black fur. Or you meet the tracker and know that the gorillas are just through the trees.

The First Impression

You step closer. Adrenalin rushes through your veins. Along with a certain trepidation as well. You can hear them, perhaps even smell them. The guides push you onwards and you step slowly towards the troop.

And then there’s a moment that you will never forget – eye to eye with a wild mountain gorilla.

These animals are primates, just like we are. They are curious and inquisitive, especially when they see strangers. The gorilla turn to face you.

One or two may make a display of dominance, either by waving arms or jumping side to side. This can be scary but it’s important you don’t take a step backwards or show any fear.

More gorillas are likely to come into view as the guide pushes you onwards, perhaps even the entire troop. They will also be looking straight at you and it’s an incredible experience, realising that the world’s largest primates are giving you the stare.

Just don’t stare back for too long. A quick second is okay but look in their eyes for too long and you will be perceived as a threat.

Although they are massive animals, far bigger than you are, mountain gorillas are generally shy and reserved. They don’t seek confrontation and prefer a life of serenity.

It’s very rare that the gorillas become aggressive – the first impression is a show of power that helps keep trekkers at a respectful distance.

What Are the Gorillas Doing?

After those first heart-stopping moments the gorillas go back to feeding. 90% of treks encounter a troop when they are eating. This is when the gorillas are in a settled place and it’s much easier for visitors to view them in their natural state.

Babies swing through the trees, emotion in their eyes as a branch snaps or they fall to the floor. Mothers gnaw on tree bark, an essential part of their diet. Juveniles are playing, perhaps even snuggling into their mothers.

Silverback gorilla behaviour is unpredictable. The patriarchal leader may pull down a tree branch for some privacy. He might even beat his chest in a domineering show of power, creating a drumbeat noise that echoes through the forest.

One Hour With a Gorilla Troop From Seven Metres

Officially you must not get closer than seven metres. However, the gorillas don’t know about this rule. Some will be climbing through the trees to feed. Others will be off exploring, finding new branches and places to eat.

So you might turn around and find that rather than watching gorillas, the gorillas are surrounding you! Remember, there are no fences or barriers. There’s nothing separating you from them!

Trekking guides give you up to one hour with the troop. You will get the full hour if the gorillas continue their happy feeding. However, if the troop decides to move off then it’s unlikely that you will be allowed to follow.

Mountain gorillas will also be quick to show that they are annoyed or agitated. By using aggressive gestures they will indicate that the trek is over.

Even if you only get 20 minutes it’s still a magical experience. Hopefully you will get the whole hour and I think this is more than enough time. These are wild animals and should be respected.

Imagine if a troop of apes watched you eat your lunch – after an hour you would have had enough as well!

Tips for Maximising the Gorilla Trekking Experience

When the gorillas are so close it’s easy to get carried away taking photos. Some people spend the full hour watching it all through their camera screen.

Getting good gorilla photos is incredibly difficult – the subject has small, deep-set black eyes, and the lighting is both poor and inconsistent for photography.

I’d recommend spending ten minutes getting a few shots then putting your camera away. Savour the intimacy of the experience rather than photos you will get.

Take your time to follow different gorillas and appreciate their behaviour. And most importantly, relax. One hour feels much longer when you are in a laid-back frame of mind!

Such an incredible experience will give you energy for the trek back. It could be another 30 minutes or even four hours to return, which is why it’s a good idea to have a porter if you’re not confident.

Where Can You Go Mountain Gorilla Trekking – Uganda vs Rwanda Pros and Cons

The best place to go gorilla trekking is either Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Volcanoes National Park.

This article is a complete guide to gorilla trekking options in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, including how to plan a trip and where to stay.

This article is a complete guide to gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, with all the information you need to plan an independent trip.

As I said earlier, the experience is very similar in both countries: one hour with a habituated wild mountain gorilla troop. However, there are some important differences to consider.

Uganda is Cheaper Than Rwanda

Rwanda increased the permit price to USD 1500 in 2017, which is 2 ½ times more expensive than Uganda at USD 600. For a great deal go gorilla trekking in Uganda’s rainy season, with permits costing USD 450 in April, May and November.

Rwanda Gorilla Trekking Requires Less Time

Volcanoes National Park is just two hours on a tarred road from Rwanda’s capital city Kigali. I recommend Rwanda if you are short on time – you can land in the country and go gorilla trekking the very next day.

Reaching Bwindi takes far longer, especially if you are only visiting Uganda to see the gorillas. You must take an expensive domestic flight from Entebbe followed by a two to three-hour transfer.

Or it’s a 10 – 12 hour overland journey from Entebbe where the country’s main international airport is located.

In Uganda You Must Choose a Trailhead

There are four different places to go gorilla trekking in Uganda. Getting between these different Bwindi locations is incredibly time consuming. Three troops can be visited from Buhoma in the northwest; one from Nkuringo in the southwest; five from Rushaga in the south; three from Ruhija to the east.

You must arrange a permit for a specific trailhead on a specific day, as well as get accommodation close to the right trailhead.

All trekkers leave from the same park headquarters in Rwanda, a far easier proposition for trekkers.

Rwanda Gorilla Treks Tend to Be Shorter

If you are worried about not being fit enough then I recommend Rwanda. Rangers choose from ten different troops, so there’s a much greater chance you can encounter a troop within a 30 minute or one-hour walk.

In contrast, trek in Nkuringo and you must go where the only troop is located, perhaps up to four hours away.

Extending the Primate Experience

Once you’ve traveled all the way to Volcanoes or Bwindi I’d recommend you explore more of the region. Nyungwe Forest is home to a dozen different Congo Basin primate species, including chimpanzees.

It’s a good add-on in Rwanda. Spend longer in Uganda and you can travel north, with a safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park and chimpanzee trekking in Kibale.

The Gorillas Look Different in Each Country

Although the same species, Uganda’s gorillas have shorter shimmering fur, while Rwanda’s gorillas have longer, shabbier hair. I personally think the Ugandan gorillas are more beautiful, but that’s purely personal preference.

Best Time for Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla trekking is a year-round activity and the experience doesn’t change much month by month. There is no bad time to go. Both countries have a similar climate.

The rainy season lasts from mid-March to early-June and it gets very wet, with torrential downpours each day. There’s a shorter rainy season around November as well.

June to August is often considered the best time to go. It is drier and it’s definitely more popular with tourists. Book far in advance for these months. If it’s rainy season then Uganda offers discounted gorilla treks.

Read and Understand More About Mountain Gorillas

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