Sitting in silence on the cold ground of a Ugandan forest for 60 minutes might be one of life’s greatest privileges. There are about 1000 mountain gorillas in existence, and gorilla trekking provides a rare opportunity to observe the everyday interactions of these gentle, mysterious great apes.
Mountain gorillas only live in the dense vegetation of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and along the dormant volcanic Virunga mountain range that stretches across Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In 1981, environmentalists estimated there were only 254 mountain gorillas left in the world, but the small population is rising slowly thanks to intense international conservation efforts. Since these critically endangered creatures can’t survive in captivity, the only way to see them is by trekking up to their natural habitat: misty cloud forests that can reach altitudes of 14,763 feet.
Gorilla Trekking in Photos
The Gorilla Trek
Mountain gorilla trekking is 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.
You are likely to go 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. US$1,500 (Rwanda) or US$600 (Uganda) gets you one hour with the gorillas, plus the time it takes to hike there and back.
Your 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.
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.
Meeting the mountain gorilla
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.
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, 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.
When to go gorilla trekking
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.
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 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)