A mountain gorilla trek often comes second on travel Bucket Lists to a classic Big 5 game drive in Maasai Mara or Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
Trekking the Mountain Gorillas takes more effort, more time and more expense than a traditional big five safari. But as said: you get what you pay for.
Below is everything you need to know about trekking with mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda:
Where do the mountain gorillas live?
There are only three populations of mountain gorillas left in the world. The first lives in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa, with groups scattered between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The second population lives deep in Bwindi and the other Lowland gorillas are found in the south Kivu region of Congo in Kahuzi Biega National Park.
As per the latest gorilla census from IUCN in 2019, the mountain gorilla population living in the Virunga mountains has increased — from 800 in 2015 to 1000 as of 2019. This is a combination of Virunga and Bwindi nat park Gorilla Population in the region.
What options do I have to have to see the mountain gorillas?
Firstly, Mountain Gorilla visit are quite expensive (going solo is often even more so). Gorilla live in an extremely remote locations, around Central Africa where sometimes logistics and tourism infrastructures aren't well established such as Congo's Virunga National Park. Tour groups must also pay permits for expert guides to lead them through Virunga, Bwindi or Volcanoes National Park.
Like most big game safari in Africa, the experience is completely worth it, and we’re yet to hear anyone come back from a gorilla visit underwhelmed, but it’s just something to keep in mind. It’s also worth noting that the cost of a permit to trek in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park doubled in early 2017, which makes a trekking permit in Uganda around a third of the price, and a far more economical option.
Short Uganda Gorilla safari: Budget – A Simple 3 day itinerary from Kigali to Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. You’ll be staying in budget lodges, which makes this is an economic option if you’re looking to trek gorillas in a budget option.
Gorillas & Game Parks – A more comprehensive 10-day itinerary, that combines gorilla trekking in Uganda with safaris in the Queen Elizabeth National Park. This one is for the serious wildlife buffs!
Remarkable Rwanda & Gorillas of Uganda – The medium 9-day itinerary will see you travelling by 4×4. Learn about Rwanda’s devastating history with visits to different genocide museums, cycle around the Twin Lakes of Ruhengeri, before trekking Gorillas in Uganda.
What to expect on your trek
It's important to note that the hike through the forest is challenging and tough-going (your guides will often have to machete a path through the ferns that clog the undergrowth), but it’s within reach for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. You will get muddy though. And sweaty. Beneath the forest canopy the humidity is very high, and it’s a good idea to bring a canteen of fresh water to hydrate as you go.
If you are particularly concerned about the terrain, consider hiring a local porter. The porters will carry your bag, and help to you navigate some of the steeper, or trickier sections of the trek. In fact, hiring a porter on a gorilla trek is a common practice by travellers of all ages and abilities. Not only does it make the trek easier for you, but you’re also providing a valuable source of employment for locals. The minimum cost of hiring a porter on a gorilla trek in Bwindi is $20USD, or $10USD in Virunga. Of course you can choose to provide a tip in addition to that.
Eventually, after bush-bashing your way through the scrub, you’ll come across a gorilla family, peacefully playing in a forest clearing. Your trekking guides and rangers will have prepared you for what to expect. There’s no direct interaction with the gorillas (unless one moves past you), but you should get pretty close. You’ll have a good 45 minutes to an hour to just sit and observe these animals in their natural habitat. We promise it’s something you’ll never ever forget.