There's perhaps no more extraordinary privilege on the planet than trekking up into the mist of the world's densest mountain forests to come face to face with a habituated mountain gorilla family.
These gentle giants not only share one of the closest matches to our own DNA in the animal kingdom (a staggering 98%) but are critically endangered and unable to survive in captivity. Hiking into their shrinking native habitat is the only chance we get to catch a glimpse.
There are four national parks in central Africa where the world's 1000 or so mountain gorillas call home. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Odzala-Kokoua National Park in The Republic of Congo is home to a large population of Western lowland gorillas.
Here are some frequently asked questions to consider when it comes to gorilla trekking:
Where is best for gorilla trekking?
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda are the most popular destinations for gorilla trekking.
What is gorilla trekking in Rwanda like?
Rwanda offers a more exclusive and accessible gorilla experience.
Lodges tend to be higher-end, trekking permits are more expensive, and there are more habituated gorilla families than in Uganda. Considerable foreign investment makes it possible to drive up to lodges at the edge of the gorilla habitat (two hours of tarmac from Kigali, Rwanda's capital), and so trekking is less strenuous, although altitude is higher. In Rwanda, guides tend to give each trekking group a specific gorilla family to find, and hikes vary from two to five hours.
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What is gorilla trekking in Uganda like?
Uganda, on the other hand, is more accessible when it comes to price, but trekking is more strenuous.
The 331km² World Heritage Site Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park lives up to its name with a never-ending series of steep-sided, densely vegetated valleys only accessible by foot. Over half of the world's mountain gorillas live here, and there are about 17 habituated groups. It takes an 11-hour drive or a charter flight from Kampala (Uganda's capital) or nearby Entebbe to reach the forest's edge.
Uganda's Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a 33.7km² chunk of the larger Virunga landscape that spans into Rwanda and the DRC. There's only one habituated gorilla family here that has been known to walk across borders but the hiking here is excellent.
What other options, apart from Uganda and Rwanda, are available?
Rwanda and Uganda are the go-to destinations to trek into Great Ape territory. However, the DRC or the Republic of Congo may suit those after a hardier adventure.
In the DRC's Virunga National Park, it's possible to track mountain gorillas as well as habituated chimps and see a gorilla rehabilitation project. Although plagued with security concerns and the tragic ambushing of rangers in recent years, tourists are rarely a militia target. Those who go to DRC, marvel at such a tightly run conservation project in one of the world’s 'most dangerous countries’.
The Republic of Congo is home to one of Africa's oldest national parks, Odzala-Kokoua, where there's a large population of Western lowland gorillas. Unlike any other destination, here, it's possible to track gorillas through the forest for three days straight for an altogether more intrepid experience.
Is gorilla trekking ethical?
The protection of gorilla populations is one of tourism's great conservation success stories.
In the 1980s, it was estimated that there were only 250 mountain gorillas left globally, but thanks to investment in rangers and park patrols, the population has been steadily rising ever since. The high permit prices make this investment possible, so gorilla trekking is a direct way to invest in much-needed conservation efforts and community development around the parks.
As with most large-scale conservation efforts, it's not without some controversy. To protect the gorillas and create larger protected areas, populations throughout Uganda and the DRC have at times been displaced from their homes and livelihoods. Although often reported to be voluntary resettlement to encourage people to create new lives outside of the national parks, there are reports of up to 35,000 people being violently forced to leave Virunga National Park.
One of the best ways to ensure you're on the right side of conservation efforts is to embark on an itinerary that gives back to or is run by the local community. If people living in and around the national park make income from tourism, conservation efforts are much more likely to work in the long term. Bwindi has some well-regarded projects like the Bwindi Bar, which trains up disadvantaged young people in hospitality. In Mgahinga, the Batwa Trail enables the elders of the displaced Batwa tribe to show visitors their traditional way of life and make some income from tourism.
How long do treks last?
In Rwanda, the whole experience takes approximately five hours, while in Uganda, it can take longer. Guests need to stay in the trekking lodges for at least two nights to get a full day for trekking, although longer is preferable. In DRC, it's possible to do the gorillas in one day. In all three destinations, groups are given approximately one hour with the gorillas.
Will I see the gorillas?
You can never guarantee anything in nature, but it's scarce for a trekking group not to see gorillas in all three destinations. Trackers set off much earlier in the day, so each group knows precisely where it's heading.
How close can I get?
Seven meters is the regulation, although gorillas aren't always aware of that!
How fit do I need to be?
In Uganda, treks reach an altitude of 2,000m and can be strenuous, so fitness is vital. Trekking is usually shorter and less strenuous in Rwanda, but it's essential to know that this isn't like a safari experience where you can sit tight in a jeep. The forests and gorillas are unpredictable, and so some hikes will be more challenging than others. Each day, trekking groups are formed based on fitness, with harder to reach gorilla troops assigned to those up for more of an adventure. In either country, we recommend hiring porters to carry your camera and belongings, making hiking a little easier and employing more local people.
How much are gorilla permits?
Permit costs depend on the time of year. In Uganda, April, May and November permits are US$450, and the rest of the year, they cost US$600. In Rwanda, permit prices have been recently doubled to ensure the parks and rangers get the investment they need — they now cost US$1,000 year-round. In the DRC, permits are US$400, and in the Republic of Congo, US$350.
How many people are in a group?
In Uganda and Rwanda, trekking groups are limited to eight, whilst in the DRC, groups are a maximum of six.
When should I go gorilla trekking?
Gorilla trekking is a year-round activity. Although rain is omnipresent in these lush rainforests, December to February and June to September are the driest months. Some recommend travelling during the short rains from March to May when gorillas are at a lower altitude.
Is gorilla trekking safe?
Despite their size and strength, gorillas are peaceful creatures. Only habituated troops are visited under strict guidelines and security, making this a very safe and responsible wildlife experience. It's our job to ensure the utmost safety of our clients and so carefully monitor any security and safety concerns in specific countries.
Do I need to take anything specific?
We recommend taking:
- Face mask
- Gloves (if hacking through dense vegetation)
- Insect repellent
- Light rain jacket
- Hiking boots or shoes
- Neutral-coloured hiking clothes