How to see mountain gorillas: Mind-blowing Bucket-list Trip
It’s the moment of truth. After a long, sweaty scramble, your guide ushers you quietly into the clearing. Troop 13 are taking their midmorning break: hillocks of black fur protrude from the glossy greenery on every side – a crooked elbow here, a swollen belly there. Above the drip-drip of the foliage come sporadic snores and the soft sound of wind. Yes, there’s little going on, but you have never felt so alive. You inch forward and reach for your camera.
“Gorillas ? compared with excitable chimps ? are very relaxed animals”
David Attenborough’s breathless encounter with mountain gorillas in 1979’s Life on Earth remains an all-time television favourite. Back then, such an experience had seemed as improbable as walking with dinosaurs, and just as dangerous. Today we know better: we have nothing to fear from these gentle and highly endangered primates. And visiting them in their natural habitat – the mountain forests of equatorial Africa – has become one of the planet’s ultimate wildlife experiences.
Scientifically speaking, the mountain gorilla is a high-altitude race of the eastern gorilla, the larger of Africa’s two gorilla species, and distinguished by its denser fur, which protects it from the colder highlands climate. It lives in troops of 10-30 individuals, over which a “silverback” male (named for his cape of white hair) presides. This formidable individual, sometimes topping 200kg, seldom uses his great strength in anger. Indeed, gorillas – compared with excitable chimps – are very relaxed animals.
Today the mountain gorilla is confined to the Virungas, a cluster of forested volcanoes that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is much rarer than its lowland cousins further west but – thanks largely to American primatologist Dian Fossey, of Gorillas in the Mist fame – much better known. Fossey’s work in Rwanda during the Sixties and Seventies radically changed our perception of these animals and, in the process, paved the way for today’s tourist industry.
Today you are likely to go gorilla trekking in either Rwanda or Uganda, with security concerns ruling out the DRC for all but the most adventurous. Your first requirement is a permit. $750/£500 (Rwanda) or US$600 (Uganda) gets you one hour with the gorillas, plus the time it takes to hike there and back.
Your gorilla trek is conducted under the supervision of park rangers. They will guide you to one of several habituated troops, whose movements are monitored around the clock. Some may feel this makes the experience a little stage-managed. In reality, it is the only way to see wild gorillas. You cannot simply wander off by yourself: the terrain is too dangerous; the apes too elusive; and the rangers too focused on battling poachers to allow tourists to blunder off-piste. Indeed, it is only through the efforts of the dedicated park staff that the beleaguered apes survive at all.
“You cannot simply wander off by yourself: the terrain is too dangerous; the apes too elusive.”
Gorilla treks set out daily. Rangers keep park HQ informed by radio of the gorillas’ whereabouts, so sightings are virtually guaranteed. After an obligatory briefing, you will be assigned to a group of up to eight trekkers, plus guides and porters. Each group is allocated to a particular gorilla troop. The trek, including one hour with the gorillas, may take anything from three to nine hours, depending on the location of your troop. If you miss the briefing, or show up with a cold – which poses a serious health risk to the apes – you will be turned away, permit or no permit.
The dense undergrowth, high altitude and steep, slippery trail will soon have you scratched, muddy and exhausted. Tantalising clues – steaming droppings, munched bamboo – ramp up the excitement.
But nothing prepares you for the intensity of the encounter. Many leave in tears, convinced that they’ve felt a “connection”. While such ideas may be fanciful, there is no denying that sitting among the apes, meeting those searching, intelligent eyes in a face that seems to reflect your own, is a powerful experience.
“Nothing prepares you for the intensity of the encounter. Many leave in tears.”
Your guides will explain the rules. You should keep quiet and still and preserve a distance of seven metres – although there’s nothing to stop the apes approaching you. Generally, nothing much happens: the gorillas are dozing or feeding, with some occasional rough and tumble among boisterous youngsters. The silverback is awesome to behold but nothing to worry about. If feeling tetchy, he may beat his chest or make a brief “mock” charge. This sets the pulse racing but you need only keep still, avoid eye contact and let his bluster burn out. Your guides will be in control.
“Gorilla trekking is intimate ? more like entering a family sitting room than racing around on safari”
Gorilla trekking is, above all, an intimate experience – more like entering a family sitting room than racing around on safari. Once you have got your snaps, you can enjoy the privilege of observing an extraordinary animal close-up. One hour is not enough, but it is an hour that you will remember for the rest of your life.
Where to go
Rwanda or Uganda have a similar number of habituated gorilla troops, but there are important differences.
Rwanda’s gorillas live in Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans), about two hours’ drive north west from the capital Kigali. There are several good lodges in the vicinity. A trek can be done over a stay of just two nights, though another night will allow you to relax and explore further. All treks start from park HQ in the village of Kinigi.
Uganda’s gorillas are just over the border in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a full day’s drive from Entebbe or Kampala. Allow three nights. Treks start from four different points, several hours’ drive apart. This will determine which lodge you stay in.
Rwanda offers the easier trekking: your chances of a shorter hike are higher and you will have more flexibility on the day, with rangers allocating groups to troops according to fitness levels. In Uganda the hikes are often longer and steeper, although some prefer this “wilder” challenge.
Permit costs in Uganda are cheaper than in Rwanda ($600/$750). Revenue from permits helps fund both gorilla protection and community support; porters and refreshments cost extra.
When to go
Gorilla trekking is a year-round activity. During the “long rains” of late March to early May conditions are at their wettest and hiking at its toughest. November is the short rainy season. Peak season is July and August.
What else to do
Uganda is an excellent safari destination and wildlife hotspots include Queen Elizabeth National Park (lions and other big game) and Kibale Forest (chimps). Other attractions include Murchison Falls. Rwanda’s more limited attractions include the beautiful Lake Kivu, and Nyungwe Forest, a haven for chimps and other wildlife. For a full Big Five experience, you can combine your Uganda gorilla trek with a savannah safari in Uganda (most operators offer combined packages) or the parks in Uganda.
Wild Discoveries Uganda Safaris offers gorilla trekking tours. We also arrange for you gorilla permits but you should know that they are limited and in high demand: aim to book six months in advance – or, in peak season, a year.
Here are some ideas:
Four-day gorilla safari: Includes one gorilla trek plus activities in Volcanoes National Park (visit Dian Fossey’s grave; spot rare golden monkeys) and accommodation in a scenic lodge. From £2,040pp, excluding flights
Uganda gorillas and game: One-week trip, with two nights at Bwindi (one gorilla trek) and three nights in Queen Elizabeth National Park (game viewing). Includes accommodation and transfers by air to/from Entebbe and flights. From £3,283pp
Gorillas and Serengeti Safari: Combines four nights in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, with five nights in Serengeti/Ngorongoro, Tanzania. Includes two gorilla treks, and Serengeti game viewing. From £5,904pp, including regional flights
Budget and independent travel
Wild Discoveries Safaris offers trips with larger groups and more basic accommodation. Alternatively you can obtain your permit from National Parks and turn up under your own steam.
Gorilla trekking protocol
- Wash your hands before setting out
- Do not eat or drink when near the gorillas
- Try to stay at least seven metres from the gorillas; retreat if they approach
- Keep your voice low – but feel free to ask quiet questions of your guide
- Do not trek if suffering from a cold or flu; the gorillas have no immunity
- Assess your fitness. A gorilla trek is not an endurance test, but some degree of fitness helps. In Rwanda you can usually opt for a shorter hike
- Flash photography is not allowed, so prepare to take photographs in dark conditions (low f/stop and high ISO help).
- Protect camera gear with waterproof bags
- Go twice, if you can afford it. You will see new things second time around
What to pack
- Light raincoat/waterproofs
- Lightweight hiking trousers and long-sleeved top
- Hiking boots, or sturdy hiking shoes with ankle support
- Gardening gloves, for handling nettles on the trail
- Field guide to birds of East Africa
Before you go
- Read: Gorillas in the Mist (Dian Fossey, 1983); In the Kingdom of Gorillas (Webber and Vedder, 2002); Bradt Guide to Rwanda/Uganda (both Philip Briggs)
- Watch: Life on Earth – episode 12 “Life in the Trees” (BBC TV, 1979)