Gorilla Trekking Trips

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Have you ever dreamed of watching wildlife in their natural habitat? It can be especially interesting to observe one of the most enigmatic species that we as humans can identify with: gorillas.

Gorilla trekking is a type of trip in which guides lead a group through the forest to witness mountain gorillas in the wild (it's also possible to trek to see the more common lowland gorilla). The most uncommon primates in the world, there are fewer than 800 gorillas left in the world. Around half of them live in Uganda, though they can also be spotted in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These three destinations require commitment to reach the gorilla habitats, but it's well worth the effort and cost.

Gorillas share 15% of their genetic composition with humans, so the rare act of observing them in the wild can be a moving and profound experience.

Although mountain gorillas can be found in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the mountainous regions where they live are very close together, right along the borders.

It is not safe at present to travel to DRC because of rebel fighting. While this does not affect every part of the country, many Western governments have warned against all but essential travel to DRC at present. In the meantime, Rwanda and Uganda are more popular gorilla trekking destinations.

Rwanda

  • Best time to go: Year-round, but peak seasons June-September and December-February.
  • Highlight: Volcano National Park, which is easily accessible from Kigali.

Rwanda is the favored destination for shorter gorilla trekking trips. This is because the places to see mountain gorillas are closer to and easily accessible from the capital city, Kigali, where most visitors to Rwanda fly to.

The trekking tracks in Rwanda are considered to be generally easier than those in Uganda.

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda takes place in Volcano National Park, within the Virunga mountain chain. Gorillas here live at between 2,300 and 4,500 meters.

Uganda

  • Best time to go: Year-round, but peak seasons June-September and December-February. Permit prices are cheaper in Uganda outside these months.
  • Highlight: Bwindi National Park and Mgahinga National Park

Uganda is the favored destination for longer gorilla trekking trips. Because the parks are far from the airport in Kampala, gorilla trekking in Uganda is, therefore, best combined with other safaris in the country or the region, to make the most of your time and travel required. Uganda has the most wildlife in general, so you have the option of visiting other national parks in the country, such as the Kibale Forest National Park, where you can witness other primates.

There are a couple of places to go gorilla trekking in Uganda: Bwindi National Park or Mgahinga National Park. The more consistent gorilla habitat is Bwindi.

Bwindi is an ancient forest and can be very dark because of the dense vegetation. It sits at between 1160 and 2607 meters. The volcanoes within Bwindi are not extinct, but those within Mgahinga are.

Democratic Republic of Congo

  • Best time to go: Year-round, but peak seasons June-September and December-February.
  • Highlight: Virunga National Park.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the place to see mountain gorillas is in Virunga National Park. You can also see lowland gorillas in DRC, especially Odzala-Kokoua National Park, on the DRC-Gabon border.

To go gorilla trekking in Rwanda, Uganda, or DR Congo you will need to book through a company. A range of accommodation price ranges are possible, but gorilla sighting permit fees are fixed.

What to Look For In a Tour

Companies should be able to arrange your gorilla permit, book accommodation close to the park, offer transport and send you a copy of the permit before the trek. Double check that the cost of the safari includes the cost of the permit.

Trekking/safari companies should also offer you a range of accommodation price brackets—budget, medium, or high-end—so that you can find a trip to meet your budget.

Booking a safari with agents with lodges close to the gorilla habitats is the most reliable way of seeing the gorillas. If you book with a company that has lodging further away, you will spend more time traveling to the forest and less time trekking.

If trying to decide between gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda, keep in mind that the gorilla sighting areas in Rwanda are closer to the airport than in Uganda. Therefore, you will spend less time traveling. Uganda is a favored destination for longer safari trips that visit other wildlife and habitats, too.

Average Gorilla Trekking Tour Cost

The cost of the gorilla trekking permit is likely to be your highest expense, unless you choose luxury accommodation. Permits themselves cost $450-600 in Uganda, depending on the season. In Rwanda the permits are more expensive, at $750. For the price of the permit, you (with your group of up to eight people) will get to spend an hour with the gorillas. The costs of the permits go towards conserving the gorillas and their habitat.

Budget to luxury accommodation options are available in both Rwanda and Uganda, with costs as high as $900 or as low as $70 per night. Booking a safari package with a company is the most reliable way of seeing the gorillas you’ve come to see and getting the most out of your gorilla trekking experience. Safari companies offer a range of accommodation price ranges, from budget to luxury.

Packing Tips & Gear Rental

Gorilla trekking will involve hiking through thick, damp forest at high altitude. Hiking boots, warm layers, wet weather clothes, thick gardening gloves (to wear while moving through thick vegetation), and insect repellent are necessary.

Binoculars are also a good idea, as you are not meant to go too close to the gorillas, but will probably want to observe them closely.

Rebel fighting is occurring in parts of DRC. It is a very large country, and not all parts are affected, but many Western governments have warned against all but essential travel to DRC. The threat to the lives of visitors in some areas has been called ‘probable’.

Although mountain gorillas are large and strong, they are also gentle. Those you will see while trekking are habituated to humans. There is very little risk to humans from the gorillas. They may be curious about the human visitors, but they will get on with their activities.

Visitors are not allowed to get closer than 7-10 meters to the gorillas. This is to protect the gorillas, rather than the human visitors. Mountain gorillas are susceptible to human diseases because they share so much DNA with humans, but they haven’t built up immunity to many human diseases. Illnesses -- even just a common cold -- can be fatal to gorillas. You will not be allowed to trek to the gorillas if you are currently sick.

Gorilla trekking can be quite strenuous because it occurs at high altitude. You may feel out of breath from the trekking more quickly than you would at lower altitudes. The trails are also quite steep, and you may be walking for quite a long time to find the gorillas, so gorilla trekking is best is you are in good shape.

As well as the routine vaccinations (hepatitis, tetanus, rabies, etc) when traveling to Rwanda, Uganda, or DRC, it's also necessary to be immunized against Yellow Fever, and to take anti-malarial medication.

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