Gorilla trekking in one of the world’s most Impenetrable forests in Uganda is a once in a lifetime experience that will exceed all of your expectations. This adventure should be on every travelers bucket list and has to be a part of your Uganda itinerary! In this article I will share as much information and as many Uganda travel tips so you can plan your Uganda Gorilla Safari accordingly. With this guide you can prepare yourself for an incredible trekking to see one of worlds rarest wildlife.
As you might know mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals on our planet. Its population has endured years of war, hunting, habitat destruction and diseases. Thanks to conservation efforts, the population is rising slowly and because of that they were moved off the ‘critically endangered’ list to ‘endangered’ in November 2018. At the moment, the total mountain gorilla population is estimated to be around 1000 individuals. In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park there are 459 gorillas.
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This blog is originally written by professional travel photographer Kim Paffen, a member of the Traveltomtom team. She did the gorillas trekking in Bwindi National Park in 2019. Very recently in May 2021 I, Traveltomtom, went myself. Therefore you will find some additional info throughout this blog with some of my experiences and of course with updated info as per May 2021.
1. Where to see and find mountain gorillas in Uganda?
The mountain gorillas only live in the dense vegetation of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and along the volcanic Virunga mountain range that stretches across Congo, Rwanda and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. As the name suggests in Bwindi you’ll find very thick and sometimes impenetrable forest. Mgahinga is the smallest national park in Uganda and more open and easier to trek through. It’s your choice, but in my opinion Bwindi National Park and its misty hills is a must visit when you travel to Uganda! The trekking in Bwindi is available from 4 different areas: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. Each of these areas have accommodations close to the trekking area.
Nowadays mountain gorillas in Uganda get subdivided into the area where they live: the Virunga gorillas and the Bwindi gorillas. The ones who live in the higher situated Virunga area, like the ones in Mgahinga, are bigger and have a thicker coat. The downside of a trekking in Mgahinga is that there’s a possibility of not seeing the habituated trans-boundary Nyakagezi gorilla group because they trek through the border area with Rwanda and Congo. Bwindi is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its ecological uniqueness and natural beauty. The forest is home to half of the world’s remaining gorilla population and has a lot more habituated gorilla groups. Therefor I recommend a Uganda gorilla safari in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
Habituated means they are used to human presence and will not run away or hide if humans approach. This process takes around 2 years and is always accompanied by the same ranger. The gorillas remain wild and the interaction takes place under the careful eyes of highly trained mountain gorilla trackers. This is the only way to see wild mountain gorillas! You can’t go into the forest by yourself. It’s protected and because of the dedicated rangers and staff these great apes are able to survive.
2. Is gorilla trekking in Uganda safe?
There is no doubt that gorilla trekking in Uganda is safe. Uganda is a very safe country for tourists and mountain gorilla trekking is a valuable source of income. There are high security levels on the border regions with Congo and Uganda military, police and armed rangers are there to maintain the tourists and the mountain gorillas’ safety.
RELATED: the Ultimate Uganda Itinerary.
3. When is the best time to do a gorilla trekking in Uganda?
You can do a gorilla trekking all year round. The hike can be more challenging during Uganda’s two rainy seasons from March to May and November to December. The advantage of a trekking in the wet seasons is that gorillas tend to stick to the lower slopes as there’s enough food and temperatures are milder. Therefore the trekking time can be much shorter.
However wildlife is unpredictable and I recently went on a gorilla trekking myself in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, yes Traveltomtom himself, and in total we walked 7,5 hours through thick vegetation. We had a 1 hour break of course, spending time with the gorillas.
4. Is everybody allowed to do Uganda gorilla safaris?
No, due to the rugged terrain, only those older than 15 years are allowed to go on a gorilla trekking in Uganda. Because gorillas are prone to human related diseases you are also not allowed to track when you’re ill or having a cold. In case you’ll get ill and bring a letter from the doctor you will get a 50% refund.
5. When to buy a gorilla trekking permit for Uganda?
Secure your gorilla trekking permits prior to arrival to avoid disappointment. I advise you to apply for a permit 6 months prior to the date you want start your trekking. Permits from June-August and December and February tend to sell out quickly. Last minute bookings may be possible during low season. I bought my Uganda gorilla permit around 2 months before the trekking (low season).
6. What is the price of a Uganda gorilla permit and where can I get it?
Price of the mountain gorilla trekking permit in Uganda raised to $700 for foreign non-residents (2019) and the 4 hours gorilla habituation experience permit is $1500. However due to the global pandemic prices have temporarily dropped to $400, but are likely to change again back up to $700. I did the gorilla trekking in May 2021 and paid the reduced price of $400.
It is an all-day trekking where you will participate in the habituation process. The permits are issued by UWA that markets them through Uganda Tour Operators to the public. Therefor it’s best to book your trekking permit (or a trekking tour) with an operator that is a member of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators.
7. How high is the chance of seeing the gorillas?
The chance of seeing mountain gorillas in Uganda is almost 100%! There are many gorilla families in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and it’s very rare that you will not see any at all. On a trekking the rangers try to search until 15.00. If that doesn’t work out you’ll head back, because it gets dark around 18.00. You will get a 50% refund if the mountain gorillas have been located but it’s too hard or late to get to them or you will be swapped to see another gorilla family.
If you go for trekking but fail to reach the mountain gorillas due to fitness issues you will not get a refund.
8. Is it necessary to hire a porter?
You will have the opportunity to hire a porter (around $15) to carry your bag. My experience is that most of the tourists hire one. These porters are often students or locals who earn a little bit of extra money by doing that. That way you also support the local people in that area. They stay with you during the hike and will help you steadying your balance if necessary.
On my gorilla trekking in 2021 I was one of the few people that actually hired a porter. Did I need one? NO! But supporting local economies can't be any easier. You are paying a shit ton of money for a 1 day trekking through the jungle, I am sure you can support a young local with $15.
In the end two older ladies that said they didn't need a 'local helicopter' were super happy with my porter, because they ended up using them. Don't take the trekking too light, some member of my group said it was the hardest thing they ever did.
9. How to prepare for a mountain gorilla trekking?
- Wear good worn-in and waterproof hiking shoes with ankle support
- Bring gaiters to keep water, stones, mud and sand out of your shoes. The larger ones will even keep the bottoms of your trousers dry
- Dress in layers and choose neutral (nature) colours in moisture-wicking fibres or cool cotton
- Do NOT wear animal prints or military camouflage designs
- Although it’s hot wear long trousers and thin long-sleeved cotton shirts to protect your arms and legs from bugs and scratches
- Hat or/and scarf
- Some people wear gardening gloves to grab onto plants and branches for support. I took them with me in my daypack, but didn’t use them
10. What to bring on a gorilla trekking?
- Packed lunch and enough drinking water
- Rain jacket
- Insect repellent and sunscreen (biodegradable please!)
- Mini first-aid kit with antiseptic, plasters and wet wipes
- Phone and/or camera gear (no flash) including a rain sleeve for you camera
- Small microfibre towel for rinsing hands and face
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11. Mountain gorilla trekking rules
- Keep your voice low to not to scare the gorillas or other wild animals
- Don’t drop any garbage inside the forest
- Keep a distance of about 7 meters from the gorillas
- When gorillas become aggressive keep in mind to never look directly into the gorillas eyes and stay still as you wait for them to pass (not run away)
- Flash photography is not allowed, so be prepared to take photos in dark conditions (low aperture and high ISO)
12. My Gorilla trekking experiences
Kim did the Uganda mountain gorilla trekking from the Rushaga area in the Southern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and I have met the habituated Bweza gorilla family, which counts 11 members. The youngest was only 6 months (so cute) and the oldest Silverback was 43 (very impressive). The family is habituated for 12 years. Initially this was a joint family with the Nshongi group. Before it split up, they were the biggest family ever to be habituated in the Rushaga area.
This mountain gorilla family was very interesting to watch. I loved the playful juveniles and the cute baby in his mother’s arms. The permits for the Rushaga area tend to run out last and if you’re lucky you will get a group of only 5 people in your mountain gorilla trekking instead of the maximum of 8. This gives you more space to observe and photograph the gorillas during that one hour you’re allowed to stay with them.
Briefing and group assign
A day of gorilla trekking begins early, departing from your lodge during dawn. For the Rushaga area I would recommend to stay at Gorilla Safari Lodge, because it’s only a few minutes away from the headquarter and gathering point. After a briefing about the do’s and the don’ts on a mountain gorilla trekking you will be assigned to a group of up to 8 trekkers plus rangers and porters. Visitors get divided and selected on age and fitness level in relation to the heaviness of the trekking.
There are roughly 3 treks. Trek 1 is very close to the gathering point with gorilla families moving around, trek 2 is further away and a harder hike than trek 1. Trek 3 is the heaviest hike for people with the best fitness level or conservationists. Of course you will never know if Gorilla families move around a lot, so in the end you don’t know exactly how easy or heavy your trek will be. I had bruised ribs due to a fall and mentioned it to the persons who classified the groups. They put me in a group with some of the oldest people who were participating and we got a gorilla family that was easier to trek (depending on where they were last seen and the easy walk to that point).
Hire a porter
Before you leave the gathering point you can hire a porter. I highly recommend doing so! Although you might think your bag isn’t heavy, it will become heavier during the gorilla safari. I carried enough water, packed lunch, energy bars, a rain jacket and my camera equipment, so my bag was pretty heavy. It costs around $15 and you are supporting the local community.
The trekking itself
When everybody has a walking stick (provided for free) and your group is ready to go you’ll either walk or drive to the starting point, nearby the mountain gorilla family you will visit. We drove for about 15-20 minutes and from that point it wiould take you anywhere from one to six hours to find your gorilla family. It depends on where the family was last seen the day before. Because of the huge food supply, they will move at most 0,5 to 1 km, so usually it will take you around one to three hours to find them.
Before entering the thick forest of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park we walked up and down along the forest edge and the river. After an hour we crossed a small wooden bridge over the river into the forest and from there we walked around 15 minutes to a point where we sat and waited one hour for a sign of the rangers.
When they finally found the gorillas it took us another half an hour to get there. Inside the forest we had to navigate uphill and downhill through thick tangles of vines, thorns, roots and swampy areas. It was very slippery at some points, so please wear closed hiking shoes. Because you can’t find normal paths in the rain forest, the rangers usually follow game tracks of bush elephants or other wildlife. Sometimes the game tracks are already overgrown by fast-growing ground cover. In that case, the ranger in front of the group has to use his machete to cut a way through the thick forest.
The mountain gorilla encounter
Suddenly there’s that moment of truth, when the gorillas emerge from the foliage. That moment you finally see them and hear them communicate is breath taking! From there you’re allowed to enjoy their company for one hour. Yes, one hour sounds very short and although I could easily spend a few hours in their presence, one hour is enough to observe and photograph them and to remember that moment for the rest of your life. If a Uganda gorilla permit wasn’t that expensive I would go for a second trek! Compared to the excitable chimps the gorillas are very relaxed animals. They didn’t move a lot and were mostly feeding or dozing.
After 10 minutes it started to pour. Quite normal in a rainforest. The gorillas fled under the leaves and bushes and we had to put away our cameras and put on our rain jackets. I was afraid I would only see the gorillas for 10 minutes but luckily it stopped raining after 15 minutes and the gorillas started to come out again. This time they moved to a more open space where we all had first-class places to watch them interact. The juveniles where very playful and the two silverbacks watched them (and us) very closely. At some point one of the silverbacks made a mock charge; probably to let us know that we were making him uncomfortable because the juveniles came quiet close and one or two tourists were standing between the silverback and the two playful juveniles.
The silverback is the keeper of his family and will necessarily give his live to protect them. One of the young ones was very curious about my camera and wanted to touch the lens, but when he came too close the ranger stopped him by making a particular noise. The rule is to beware a distance of 7 metres, but it’s always possible the gorilla chooses to come closer. After all, they are habituated and used to human presence.
After spending one hour with the mountain gorillas, you’ll have to walk back to the starting point. It took us 1 hour and 45 minutes to get back. At the end you’ll have a small ceremony and will be rewarded with a Mountain Gorilla Trekking certificate. It’s absolutely amazing to encounter these wild and gentle primates; an unforgettable experience, which more than repays the effort needed to trek through the forest.
Other places to visit in Uganda
Uganda offers a lot more than encounters with the endangered primates. The pearl of Africa is a great safari destination to spot the Big Five and has mind-blowing landscapes. Read all about it in my ultimate Uganda travel guide and Uganda Itinerary. For an answer to all your questions about traveling to Uganda, read this article for 20 essential things to know before you travel to Uganda.
May you have any additional questions about mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda please leave me a comment and Im happy to help.
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