Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda or Uganda

Silverback gorillaThere can be few more moving experiences than meeting the brown-eyed gaze of the hugely endangered mountain gorilla whilst gorilla tracking in Africa. You must be prepared to trek for up to 6-7 arduous hours for the reward of an encounter with a 220kg ‘silverback’ but the anticipation is matched only by the euphoria after the hour-long audience. Uncontrolled hunting and the accelerating human encroachment into its high-altitude rainforest habitat have brought the mountain gorilla to the brink of extinction. Due to conservation efforts, numbers are once again slowly increasing and there are now about 700 individuals in the wild.

Roughly half live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the remainder in the volcanic Virunga Mountains. Gorilla families can roam freely in the Virungas, crossing borders between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Within Rwanda, the Volcanoes National Park has been set up to protect both the Virungas mountains and its wildlife Here a handful of family groups have become habituated to limited human contact.

In the Volcanoes National Park there are 7 habituated mountain gorilla groups which are highly protected so this is one of the best places for gorilla tracking in the world. The number of gorilla tracking permits is strictly limited. Only eight people a day can visit each family and can stay for just one memorable hour so that means a maximum of 56 permits per day. The permits can be booked up to two years in advance and we recommend booking as early as you can.

The gorilla tracking permits are expensive (currently $750 per person in Rwanda and $500 in Uganda) but this money gives these poor countries an economic reason to conserve this highly endangered primate with armed trackers who guard each group of gorillas 24/7.

Common Questions about a Rwanda Gorilla Safari

How much trekking is involved – Each trekking group is assigned to a group of gorillas so your gorilla tracking experience will vary from 3 hours to up to 6 or 7 hours. (They consider fitness when assigning walkers to specific groups with the fitter walkers heading to the furthermost groups of gorillas but this is not an exact science as you can imagine!) So you need to be prepared to walk for some hours in what can be muddy wet conditions.

Level of fitness required – this is uphill walking at altitude so a fair amount of fitness is required. But it is not a route march so the pace is not strenuous. However the terrain and altitude will make it a relatively arduous experience. Generally speaking the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda offers a greater chance of seeing the gorillas without needing to trek for 6 hours.

Chances of seeing the gorillas? – Nothing is guaranteed with any wildlife safari and gorilla tracking is no different. Having said that, they do try to maximize your chances by sending out trackers early in the morning with radio contact to both locate and then stay with the gorillas so that hopefully your trekking guide will have a good sense of where he needs to get to when you set out. So nearly everyone sees the gorillas. If your budget allows, staying longer than one full day and purchasing two permits for gorilla trekking will obviously increase your chances.

What is the terrain like? Gorillas preferred the habitat of bamboo forest and so getting to them usually involves a combination of steep muddy slopes, dense vegetation, slippery underfoot conditions after rain and high altitude.

Uganda or Rwanda? – This is the fifty million dollar question. Broadly speaking Gorilla tracking in Rwanda is easier than in Uganda. The Bwindi Impentrable Forest in Rwanda is further from Kampala and so it takes quite a bit of time to travel there. The treks are on average a little longer and sometimes you start high and need to trek downwards to reach the gorillas. What goes down must come up which means you are often hiking uphill later on in the day. Given the distance, we recommend allowing 3 nights/2 full days for gorilla trekking but the permits are considerably less in Uganda ( but still a hefty $500 per permit price.) The Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda lies only 2 hours from Kigali so it is easier to combine a short visit to Rwanda for gorilla tracking with a safari in Tanzania or Kenya for example. Generally speaking the trekking is a little easier as there are some groups which tend to stay relatively close to the park headquarters. However the permits are an eye-watering $750 per permit. Allow 1 day/2 nights or more if you have the budget.
For a more personal sense of what it’s like check out Peter’s article on gorilla tracking in Rwanda.

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Kate Bergh is co-founder of Cedarberg African Travel, a specialist tour operator for Southern and East Africa.

She heads up the South African office, having lived in South Africa since 1993. Her home looks up to the Cedarberg Mountains, where she enjoys hiking and cycling, when she’s not out discovering new places to visit, with her three children in tow. Kate has travelled extensively throughout the region to Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as most areas of South Africa. She also loves history, meeting people and a good thriller...

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