For an animal lover, there is nothing quite like seeing a species in their natural habitat. Being able to see Mountain Gorillas in the wild was one of the best things I’ve ever done. For years my friend Bianca and I have dreamt of doing this and finally the time was right and the funds were there, so we headed off to Rwanda and Uganda.
Out of all my wild animal encounters, nothing has been as special as trekking to see Mountain Gorillas. This isn’t something you can do every day; it’s expensive & challenging but also very unique. Mountain Gorillas aren’t found in captivity anywhere in the world (the Gorillas you would have seen are Lowland Gorillas), they’re only found in this small pocket of the world, in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo. We visited them in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
I think that anyone who loves animals needs to do this trip, it was just incredible. I’ll run though everything and feel free to contact me if I can help in any other way.
We started in Kigali, Rwanda and from there our driver William picked us up and we drove to the Cyanika Rwanda/Uganda border crossing. The process of crossing the border was easy, William told us where to go and it took about 25 minutes.
We spent 2 nights at Bwindi Jungle Lodge and the next 2 days Gorilla trekking in Bwindi NP.
After our second day trekking we headed back to Rwanda and spent one night at Gorilla Solutions Lodge. The next morning we visited Volcanoes NP to see the Golden Monkey’s before driving back to Kigali.
We booked this trip through Gorilla Trek Africa, who I highly recommend. (I’ll get into more booking details below)
How the tracking works:
There are 14 Gorilla families in Bwindi NP that have been habituated (meaning they aren’t new to human presence but are still wild). Everyday each family will have two trackers, employed by the park, who follow them until late evening when they start to set up their nest for the night. Gorillas sleep in a different location each night so the next morning the trackers will go back to the same spot and if the family has moved on, the trackers will follow the path from the nest. Looking for poo or a path of broken trees and pulled down branches. There aren’t any tracking devices on the Gorillas.
Each morning we’d start at the park headquarters for a briefing, then we’d be split into groups with other tourists and three guides. No group could have more than 8 tourists and once we found the Gorilla family we were allowed to stay with them for 1 hour. This would mean that each family could only be exposed to tourists for maximum of one hour per day and we were told that in low season it’s likely a family may not see tourists more than a couple of times a week.
Before I left home and told people what I was doing, some asked if I was scared, haha not at all. But some might be happy to know that along with the group there’s a guide that carries an AK47. Now this is never intended to be used to shoot the animal, they hold one in case an animal was to charge (they’re actually more worried about wild elephants than the Gorillas) then they’d fire the gun into the air as a scare tactic.
Once the groups were sorted, we’d head off into the national park. Our guide would have radio contact with the trackers and they’d advise them on what direction to start walking. It was so exciting when we caught up to the trackers because then we knew the Gorillas were really close. At this point we’d put down our sticks and bags, and proceeded to the gorillas.
It was recommended we stay at least 7m away from the Gorillas but they could always come to us.
One hour definitely isn’t long enough. I could have sat there all day! But I’m certainly happy that they do limit our time. We were extremely lucky to have had any time with them and I’m so happy that no one is able to take advantage of this experience.
I thought when I’d first see them I’d start to cry but I was just too excited. On our first day we’d been walking for around 3 hours by the time we saw them, so I just couldn’t believe we’d finally found them and were able to get so close. Each day we were lucky enough to see the whole family, babies through to giant silverbacks. Both our days were amazing but the second one was definitely the best. They were closer together and we got to see them interacting with each other; it was so cute. We had little babies doing flips in the trees above us and at one point Bianca even had an adolescent push past her leg to climb up the tree next to her.
I felt so comfortable being so close to them, I can see why Dian Fossey never wanted to leave (oh except at one point when a silverback screamed out and I thought it was aimed at me haha)
It’s cute because the Gorillas knew we were there but didn’t seem bothered at all and no one was stopping them from leaving. Sometimes I think they’d have fun with it, they’d look over at you, you’d get your camera ready, then they’d just decide to turn around.
I was surprised that we didn’t meet anyone else who had booked two days of Gorilla trekking, people wondered why we did. I figured if I’m going all that way and spending all that money, I may as well do it well. I’d highly recommend doing minimum two days of trekking, it obviously bumps the price up a bit but I promise it’s worth it. Each day you’ll track a different family, in a different area so no day is ever the same. Imagine if you got all the way there and it rained your whole trek so the Gorillas spent most of the hour hiding under bushes?
Do you need to be an athlete?
No, but you do need to have some kind of fitness and definitely the right mind-set. Your hike will depend on where the gorillas are; you could be walking for 40mins or 8 hours. Also it’s not always strolling along a path, you could be climbing though bushes or using vines to help you up and down steep hills. It can get pretty rugged.
It’s so fun though and not your average hike, I felt like I was in the Jungle Book.
At the start of the day you’ll have the option to hire a porter, for the cost of 15USD (plus tip if you choose). I’d highly recommend this and don’t think it should be looked at as being too lazy to carry your own bag. Firstly you’re helping the local community, these are generally un-skilled workers and by you hiring them they’re able to provide for their family. Secondly, they’re so helpful! Not only do they carry your bag, they’re always there to assist you when walking over slippery streams or climbing over a fallen tree.
What should you wear?
I think Bianca and I were the only ones who didn’t look like we’d just stepped out of the Kathmandu store.
The main thing is that you’re comfortable, well covered and wearing dark or neutral coloured clothes. I wore full length (active wear type) pants and to avoid having my ankles bitten by fire ants I pulled my socks over my pants (it’s definitely not a fashion show out there). Most people wore Gaiters over their shoes but I survived fine without them.
I’d definitely recommend wearing a waterproof jacket, there’s always a chance it could start pouring in the jungle and there’s nowhere to hide from it. Make sure you have supportive shoes as well, it can be very uneven ground you’re walking on.
Before leaving I’d read that a lot of people suggest wearing gardening gloves. I didn’t take any but I can see why this would be helpful. At times you are relying on prickly branches or vines to get yourself up or keep you balanced. There were a few times I’d just have to pull my sleeves down and cover my hands that way. Also at the beginning of the day the guides provided us all with walking sticks too, definitely grab one, it was so helpful.
This adventure was booked through Gorilla Trek Africa. Bianca and I did a lot of Google searches & emailed a few different companies but found Gorilla Trek Africa suited our needs and budget the most. All the organising was done via email with Nelson and he was very quick to reply and answered all our questions. They also had a lot of great reviews on trip advisor.
This wasn’t a group tour; we had a private car and the same driver throughout. The only time we were with a group was when we were actually out trekking.
I highly recommend this company, the service was excellent. If you book with them, ask for William to be your driver, he was awesome and very knowledgeable.
There’s a limited number of permits sold for each day so if you’re going in high season or not flexible with dates, I’d recommend booking at least a few months out. We went in February and had it booked by the September before. Gorilla Trekking in general is an expensive trip, but I believe it’s worth every cent.
The current permit prices for foreigners are (these can change at anytime), per person / per day;
Uganda $600 USD // Rwanda $1,500 USD // Congo $400 USD (you can also see Lowland Gorillas here).
Originally we had planned to trek in Rwanda because generally speaking Volcanoes NP is less physically demanding and it’s not too far away from a major city. But after the Rwanda government upped the permit price to $1,500 last year we took the option to travel a few more hours to Bwindi NP and have no regrets as Uganda was an absolute delight. One thing I would change if I had my time over, I would have loved a rest day between the two treks. It’s a long day with the gorillas and we were so tired, it would have been awesome to just hang out in our lodge and local area for the day. Bwindi Jungle Lodge is located on Lake Mulehe too, so it’s a really beautiful spot.
We did get to visit Volcanoes NP on our last day, only on the very edge though. We were there to see the Golden Monkeys; we walked about 20-30 minutes before we saw them. They were super cute but didn’t really compare with our previous two days.
The total cost for our trip was around $4,400USD for two people, 4 days / 3 nights and covered absolutely everything except alcohol. Once you remove the permit prices it wasn’t that much. We had a private driver and our accommodation was considered mid-range but was beautiful and the service at both hotels was amazing. The staff would even clean our shoes each night and we’d have a hot water bottle waiting for us when we climbed into bed.
One thing I should mention though, our lodge in Uganda (Bwindi Jungle Lodge) was about one and a half hours drive (along a dirt road) to the park meeting point. After the first day of trekking we were exhausted and it had just rained so we were soaking, the long drive back was a killer! Then on the second day we were dry and not as tired so I really enjoyed the drive and the beautiful scenery. There are accommodation options closer to the park if this isn’t your thing.
**Side note** Rwanda and Uganda both have Yellow Fever zones, so it’s advisable to get vaccinated against this and have a copy of your Vaccination Certificate with you. This is really important because depending on what country you’re flying to next, if you aren’t holding this certificate you could be refused entry.
Is this ethical for the Gorillas:
Some people may not agree with visiting animals in their natural habitat. I believe that if, and only if, it’s done in an ethical way it’s acceptable. And I strongly believe this is! The time you are with the Gorillas is limited and we found them to be very strict on this. At no point did anyone restrict the movement or direction of the Gorillas to benefit us and the guides did monitor how close people got to them and ensured we always kept our voices low.
Also, all this money we are spending on permits is doing a lot of good. A percentage goes to the communities who are located around the national parks and also a lot of people are employed to protect the parks, especially against poachers.
All the hard work by Uganda, Rwanda and Congo is paying off because this year they’re conducting a Mountain Gorilla census (This is done every 5 years). It’s still a couple of months off being competed but they believe the results will be over 1,000 & that’s a couple of hundred more gorillas than 5 years ago!
If you’re going to see the Gorillas make sure you stay as healthy as you can beforehand and don’t get sick. We share 98% of the same DNA and it’s possible for us to transmit diseases to the gorillas. If you have the slightest cold you’ll be unable to enter the national park. If you choose to lie to the guides and head into the jungle with the sickness, apart from the fact you’re a bit of an asshole, if the guides notice this they have the right to remove you and you won’t receive any refund on your permit. If you advise them you are unwell beforehand you’ll receive a 50% refund of your permit price.
Before leaving for this trip I thought about these days so much in my head and I feel it was as good as I expected. I definitely recommend doing at least 2 days as each encounter is different.
It was such a special experience and something I’m so thankful for.
They’re such beautiful and peaceful animals, happily going about their day. I can’t imagine how anyone would want to hurt them, but it’s wonderful to see that good has overcome bad and their numbers are dramatically increasing.
While I was in Africa I also visited parts of Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. Click here to join my mailing list and I’ll send you my next articles.