Mountain gorillas can only survive in the wild, so trekking into their native forests is your only chance to catch a peek. This adventure activity into the misty jungles to see the elusive creatures is what ia known as Gorilla Trekking or Gorilla Tracking to some travelers.
Sitting in silence on the cold ground of a Ugandan forest for 60 minutes might be one of life’s greatest privileges. There are just about 1000 mountain gorillas in existence, and gorilla trekking provides a rare opportunity to observe the everyday interactions of these gentle, mysterious primates.
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.
Reasons to make Uganda your base for this incredible journey.
You’ll Be Where More Than Half the World’s Mountain Gorillas Live.
There are two gorilla trekking spots in Uganda: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Gorillas don’t pay mind to political borders, so populations across the Virungas are relatively fluid. Uganda has an edge, however, since Bwindi alone is home to more than half of the world’s mountain gorillas.
Mountain gorillas live only in the dense forests on and around the Virunga mountains in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park (also called “The Place of Darkness” due to its dense treetops) is an ancient, montane and lowland forest spanning 128 square miles. The region was named a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its incredible biodiversity and the large number of endangered species that call it home.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park accounts for 13 square miles of the larger Virunga habitat, which stretches across 168 square miles into Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The national park includes three of the eight major Virunga peaks: Mount Gahinga, Mount Muhabura and Mount Sabyinyo.
You Can Fight Habitat Destruction by Supporting Community Enrichment.
Habitat destruction is the main threat to mountain gorillas. Communities around the parks are heavily populated, and residents have traditionally used land around national park boundaries for farming or logging.
Since tourism is now Uganda’s most lucrative industry, and the majority of tourists come to see the mountain gorillas, trekkers are encouraged to seek out ways to give back to the communities they visit. One popular option is to hire a porter, who is always a local resident and occasionally a reformed poacher. The landscape within the parks is unpredictable and difficult; porters help guide trekkers through river crossings and up steep, muddy inclines.
Other options is to participate in community-led cultural initiatives. In Bwindi village, the Bwindi Bar trains disenfranchised young adults in hospitality through rigorous classes and work experience. Around Mgahinga, elders of the Batwa tribe lead visitors on a forest tour along the Batwa Trail, explaining how their self-sufficient, forest-dwelling tribe traditionally used medicinal plants.
You’ll Find More Affordable Trekking Permits.
There are strict regulations in place to make sure the gorillas stay healthy and wild—starting with the gorilla trekking permit process. Daily viewings of each gorilla group are extremely limited, so visitors should apply well before their desired dates.
In Uganda, the gorilla permit costs $700. In contrast, permits in Rwanda now cost $1,500 per person per trek.
Most trekking in Uganda takes place in Bwindi, where there are multiple starting points and several gorilla families to track. Visits are led by park rangers and groups of eight are allowed to observe the gorillas for one hour, in silence and at a safe distance.
You Can Take on Challenging Terrain.
One look at southwestern Uganda’s green terraced hills and rolling volcanic slopes and it’s clear this area of the country is not for the faint of heart. Add in the high altitude and the challenging terrain, and gorilla trekking in Uganda promises to be the adventure of a lifetime.
It’s hard work to reach the gorillas. It requires navigating uphill and downhill through thick tangles of vines, thorns, and roots. The appropriately named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is only accessible by foot. There are no paths, no signs, no directions—and more often than not, no clearings (which is why the park rangers carry machetes). The good news? The reward seems that much better after all of the hard work.
When is the Best Time To Go Gorilla Trekking in Uganda?
Gorilla trekking in Uganda is a year round activity and permits are issued every day. However, most people prefer to stay dry and travel during Uganda’s dry season which is May-September and January and February. Bright and sunny days are more prominent during these months and visitors are much less likely to experience those rains down in Africa.
You could go gorilla trekking in the middle of March – low and rainy season in Uganda. Crowds are fewer and rates can sometimes be cheaper. We experienced rains, but they aren’t non-stop rainstorms all day. Instead, they are short amounts of heavy rainfall throughout the day keeping us cool and comfortable.
I Have to See Mountain Gorillas!
If you have your heart set on seeing the rarer mountain gorillas you are looking at a trip to Uganda or Rwanda and here are is what you should consider:
Mountain Gorillas: Rwanda vs. Uganda
Cost: Gorilla permits in Rwanda have recently (as of 2018) increased to $1500 per person. They are $600 per person in Uganda. The permit gets you an hour of time spent with the gorillas with an 8 person group. If you buck at the price think of it this way. You are contributing to the preservation of gorillas and as a “thank you” you get to spend an hour with them. Remember only 80 people a day get to see them and their habitat is very fragile. Every time you walk through the forest you are leaving a footprint.
Ease of Access: Rwanda provides the easiest access to gorilla trekking so it is your best option if you are combining it with a safari to Kenya or Tanzania or if you only have a few days. The town of Ruhengeri, the jumping off point for trekking in Volcanoes National Park, is only a few hours drive on excellent roads from the capital (and its international airport) Kigali. Seeing gorillas in Uganda is more of a process and involves an 8-10 hour drive from the international airport in Entebbe. I recommend making Uganda a full 8-day trip with stops along the way instead of just a place to see gorillas whereas you could see gorillas in Rwanda in just a few days.
Trek Difficulty: Seeing mountain gorillas can involve 2-4 hours of hiking to find them. In both Uganda and Rwanda this is going to be a long day and the hikes can vary quite a bit depending on where the animals spent the night and which troop you are seeing. That being said, the general experience is that treks in Rwanda are slightly easier while those in Uganda are slightly more strenuous. Again there are no guarantees either way. I have friends who hiked for three hours in Rwanda before finding a troop while my group came across a troop in just over an hour in Uganda. For more information about what to expect (and what to bring) on the day of the trek click here.
Don’t underestimate the tiring effects of being at high altitude. Trekking takes place 8000-10,000 feet above sea level, not high enough for altitude sickness but high enough to knock the breath out of anybody, no matter how fit, who has just flown in from a low altitude. For this reason, visitors who are spending a while in Rwanda might think seriously about leaving their gorilla tracking until they have been in the country a week or so, and are better acclimatized (most of Rwanda lies at about 5000 feet). Likewise, if you are coming from elsewhere in Africa try to plan your itinerary so that you spend your last pre-trek days at medium to high altitude. For example if you are flying in from Kenya, a few days in Nairobi (7500 feet) or even the Maasai Mara (5200 feet) would be far better preparation than time at the coast.
Better Gorillas: There is no difference. There are 10 habituated troops in Rwanda and 12 in Uganda and they can move freely between the countries so this really doesn’t need to be a consideration. The gorilla trekking system is similar in all countries and because gorillas are followed on a daily basis, a sighting in all the locations is virtually guaranteed.
So here’s what I would say it comes down to:
If you have time and are not looking to do a traditional savannah safari, Uganda is a great option. It is a fabulous country and you can easily spend 8-10 days there.
If you are in a rush and/or are adding gorilla trekking to a larger safari then you will want to go to Rwanda.
Where to Stay?
In terms of accommodation, each country offers great places to stay. Here are a few of our recommendations:
My favorite luxury accommodation is Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge because it is high up on hill, has great views, cozy rooms with fireplaces and amazing service. I have also visited Virunga Lodge which is a beautiful eco-lodge but an hour’s drive from the trek starting point. When you already have to be up and ready at 6am adding an hour drive to that is not insignificant. For a medium budget the best choice is Mountain Gorilla Lodge. It does not claim to be more than it is but it very convenient and the rooms are quite spacious. For the more modest budget Le Bamboo was perfectly comfortable.
For Uganda my favorite option is Buhoma Lodge. It is an eco-lodge with a rustic, comfortable feel and is one of two properties actually inside Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The lodge is set into a hill with beautiful views of the forest. Probably the most luxurious option in the Bwindi area is Gorilla Forest Camp but this is not one of my favorites because it is quite dark but it is well-designed and has great service. For a modest budget Traveler’s Rest in Kisoro has simple, comfortable rooms and was a frequent stop for Diane Fossey when she traveled through Uganda. It is about an hour’s drive from the Bwindi park gate.
Mountain Gorillas: Been There Done That…
If you are an experienced Africa traveler and you are looking for a unique and seriously off-the-beaten path experience, then tracking western lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo might be the perfect adventure for you.
To see Lowland Gorillas our recommended trip would take you to Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the north of the Congo near the border with Gabon. Odzala-Kokoua is one of Africa’s oldest national parks. It covers 1,360 million hectares of pristine rain forest and is an integral part of the Congo Basin ecosystem. Protected within its boundaries are forest elephant, forest buffalo and 12 primate species including globally-significant populations of western lowland gorilla. One of the great features of gorilla trekking in Republic of Congo is that the cost of the permit is included in the trip and you have access to the gorillas over two days. While in Odzala you will travel with Wilderness Safaris and stay at Lango and Ngaga Camps.
Whatever country you choose gorilla trekking is guaranteed to be a moving and life-changing experience.
Tourist Activities To Do in Uganda
Golden Monkey Trekking
The endangered golden monkeys of the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda offer a unique trekking experience. These playful creatures are found in the bamboo forests set high up in the park, so expect a fairly lengthy uphill trek to around 7000 to 9000 feet above sea level to find them…
In Uganda, visitors pay up to 600 USD to spend one hour in the presence of endangered mountain gorillas, the country’s most famous wild residents. Yet, for a fraction of the cost, did you know you can spend an entire day observing chimpanzees in their natural habitat?
With 10 national parks, various large and small game reserves and an endowment of natural resources, largely covered by vegetation and huge expanses of tropical forests so rich in flora and fauna; and unique physical landscapes, lakes and rivers…
White Water Rafting
For the go getters that want to feel the right amount of adventure adrenaline, this here is the real deal. Adrift go things down there near the source of the mighty Nile river. You know, the longest river in the world (6,853 km/4,258 miles.