In the last 40 years the mountain gorilla population has doubled. From the latest statics, there’re about 1,000 mountain gorillas remaining in the world today. Uganda alone has close to 500 gorillas and 11 gorilla families have been habituated for mountain gorilla trekking experience. The mountain gorillas populations are increasing steadily, thanks to the combine efforts of Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan governments, park rangers and the support of conservation NGOs and researchers.
Gorilla Trekking in Uganda is surreal and unlike any other experience in Africa. The atmosphere of the trek through the jungle mist is dreamy. With each step your anticipation builds and the reward of seeing the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world is spectacular. The setting, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is arguably one of the most mystical in all of Africa.
Gorilla trekking is the experience of hiking up the Virunga Mountains through the thick misty jungles with the help of a gorilla tracking guide cutting foliage with machete and following tracks in search of the mountain gorillas. The gorilla guide leads a group of tourists to a selected mountain gorilla family and when you find the group, the tourists are allowed only one hour to hang and familiarize with the gorillas at a distance of 7 meters.
Gorilla Trekking allows you the opportunity to have a close encounter with these gentle giants of the jungle in their natural habitat. The trekking take place either in Southwestern Uganda, Eastern Congo or Northwestern Rwanda organised by the country’s wildlife authority in partnership with a tours and safari agency.
The wildlife authority will charge you a fee (gorilla permit fee) to take you to a mountain gorilla group. You need not feel that you are exploiting these animals by paying good money to go trek to see them in their natural habitat. In fact the ever-growing number of tourists keen to see the gorilla proves to be an important factor in their survival. The gorilla permit fees help to set up and finance patrols that are instrumental in protecting the gorillas from poachers and their lethal snares.
Well, you don’t ask. Gorilla trekking in Uganda takes place in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga National Park both located in the Virrunga massive, Southwestern Uganda, at the borders of Rwanda in the south and DR Congo in the west.
Uganda holds 60% of the total mountain gorillas left in the world with about 400 of them residing in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Bwindi is the most popular place to trek the gorillas in Uganda. The park is located in the Southwestern part of the country and is one of the most diverse national parks in East Africa.
Bwindi is divided into four regions: Buhoma region, Ruhija region, Rushaga region, and Nkuringo region. Private firms with the help the government have contructed travel worth lodges that can accommodate tourists coming to see mountain gorillas and you can book a gorilla permit from any of these four regions.
The Buhoma region is the most popular region for trekkers. There are four groups of gorillas near Buhoma that are habituated to humans; Mubare, Habinyanja, Rushegura, and the Nkuringo group and like mentioned earlier, you’ll need to purchase a gorilla permit from Uganda Wildlife Authority to be allowed near the mountain gorillas.
A gorilla permit cost in Uganda currently is US $600 (2018). In Rwanda a gorilla permit costs $1500 and Congo, it would cost you $400. The first thing to appreciate is that mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda or Rwanda can be quite expensive (especially if you’re going solo). These animals exist in extremely remote locations, which means the logistics of a gorillas visit are a challenge in themselves.
On another note, the money you pay for a gorilla permit fees help to set up and finance patrols that are instrumental in protecting the gorillas from poachers and their lethal snares. Thus helping these endangered species flourish in their natural habitat.
Gorilla Permits for both Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga National Parks can only be purchased from Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWAs)headquarters in Kampala, either directly or through Gorillas & Chimps Luxury Safaris Agency. On each particular day, up to about 120 persons can visit Bwindi gorillas, 8 persons allowed to trek each gorilla family.
The easiest way to acquire gorilla trekking permits in Uganda is to go with a local operator. A packaged deal that includes your lodging, transport, food, and permits will save you a lot of time and headache when booking. However, it is possible to do the trek by yourself if you have your own transport or patience on a local Ugandan bus and can get to Bwindi.
It is not advisable to show up to the park without gorilla trekking permits, as they only issue a set number per day and during high season (June, July, August, September, December and February) it can get busy and getting one can seem like looking for a needle in a haystack. Instead, I suggest contacting the Ugandan Wildlife Authority at least one month before your arrival to Uganda to set up your gorilla trek on your own. If this is not an option check out their office in Kampala to see if you can get a gorilla trekking permit in person.
On our wildlife & gorilla safaris, gorilla trekking is an optional activity and the cost of the permit, transfer and local service fee is to be paid on the full safari quote. We also offer a 4 day Fly-in Gorilla Safari, please note that on this trip the cost of the gorilla permit, transfer and service fee is included.
Bwindi Forest, Queen Elizabeth, Kibale Forest
It’s important to know what you’re getting into before setting out on a gorilla trek. The good news is, gorilla trekking in Uganda isn’t Basecamp. The hike through the forest is challenging and tough-going (your guides will often have to machete a path through the ferns that clog the undergrowth), but it’s within reach for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. You will get muddy though. And sweaty. Beneath the forest canopy the humidity is very high, and it’s a good idea to bring a canteen of fresh water to hydrate as you go.
The trek starts in the early morning after you’re transferred from your lodge to a ranger’s station where you’re briefed about the simple rules of gorilla trekking in Uganda. Your rangers will lead you through the cultivated lands and then into the dense rain forest and as close as is allowed to a gorilla family. The rangers monitor the gorillas on a daily basis and have a fairly good idea of where they are. However, they are free roaming animals, and their sighting cannot be guaranteed. Trekking can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 8 hours and it can be quite strenuous, so a reasonable level of fitness is required.
Eventually, after bush-bashing your way through the scrub, you’ll come across a gorilla family, peacefully playing in a forest clearing. Your trekking guides and rangers will have prepared you for what to expect. If you’re worried about the trek we would recommend hiring some of the local porters. They porters come from the surrounding villages and cost $15 day plus a tip.
There’s no direct interaction with the gorillas (unless one moves past you), but you should get pretty close. You’ll have a good 45 minutes to an hour to just sit and observe these animals in their natural habitat. We promise it’s something you’ll never ever forget
To ensure the gorillas do not get too used to the presence of humans and because they share many of our genes (and are therefore able to catch our diseases), the maximum time permitted to spend with them is 1 hour. You will have plenty of time to watch their activity and to take photographs. The rangers will be able to provide you with a background to the family you are visiting.
Although the groups of gorilla that are sought out on a jungle trek have been habituated, they have not been tamed and their behaviour is not demonstrably different from that of non-habituated groups. Nobody forces them to stay with you for the allotted hour, and they can fade into the forest as you appear, if they wish to do so. Further, as gorillas are EXTREMELY sensitive to human disease, the park authorities will not allow anyone they consider to be in poor health to visit the gorilla groups. Additionally, no children under 16 years of age are permitted to visit.
Mountain gorillas live way up in the cloud forests, ranging from an altitude of 2200m to 4300m (a not insignificant height – you may feel a little short of breath. Remember to let your guide know if you feel a headache coming on).
The vegetation on the lower slopes will be dense, often a mix of bamboo, ferns and gallium vines. As you climb, the undergrowth should thin out a bit. The zone where the gorillas live is misty, damp and (depending on the weather) can be a bit cold. Mountain gorillas move around depending on the season, spending time in the sub-alpine regions to feed on senecio trees during certain times of the year.
To refresh your mind, mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda is done in the tropical rain forests of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, both located in southwestern Uganda.
Tracking mountain gorillas can be done all year round, but being that it’s in the tropical rain-forest and Uganda is located within the equator region where weather is can be quite unpredictable, knowing the best time to travel for gorilla safaris is very helpful as each season has it’s own advantages and disadvantages.
Uganda and Rwanda are blessed with climates made up of two rainy seasons, the short one in October and November and a longer one from mid March to May. The remaining months are dry although the current variations in weather patterns make it difficult to forecast the seasons.
This is in the months of January, February, June, July, August, September and December where there is less rainfall and sometimes even no rains at all. Most travellers choose to travel during this season because of the dry weather and it is because of this that there is a high demand for the gorilla permits at this time. This means travellers have to book their permits months in advance.
The dry season is perfect for trekking mountain gorillas, the mountain gorillas are found in the temperate weathered regions with raised landscapes, this means the climate remains cool all year round – perfect weather for length treks.
This is the best time for people travelling on a budget, many people have enjoyed travelling to see the gorillas throughout the low season. The low season is known for its heavy rains between the months of March, April, May and November, and it is this rainfall that discourages many prospective travellers. So getting a gorilla permit is so easy.
Lodge costs in the low season are also more favourable than during high season, since the occupancy rate is low, low prices are set to attract budget travellers. To add to all the discounted rates and with less people trekking mountain gorillas in the low season, the few who trek are allocated to different gorilla families, which provide them with closer and more exclusive interactions with them.
However despite the advantages during this season, rains make trekking difficult. The grounds become slippery and muddy, together with the showers and droplets, and can make for an uncomfortable or interesting experience for less experienced walkers.
But despite the rain the trek will continue! There has never been a whole day lost to the rain. This means that the sun shines shortly after the rain has fallen, enabling trekkers to continue with the activity – albeit slightly wet!
Mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda is done every day not minding whether it’s raining or shining. For all the years that gorilla trekking has been done, no single day has ever been cancelled because of bad weather.
Boots – Essential. A good quality pair of hiking boots from a store like Kathmandu will serve you well. They’re expensive, but so are your ankles when they break. Don’t risk it with a cheap pair of sneakers.
Gloves – During the trek you might be grabbing trees, branches and vines, and your hands can get a bit scratched and generally beaten up if you’re not careful. Pack a tough old pair of gardening gloves. They’ll look lame, but you’ll be glad you brought them.
Light rain jacket – Bwindi and Virunga are both tropical rainforests, and there’s a good chance of rain almost the year-round. Pack a light-weight poncho or rain jacket that you can roll up in your bag and bring out if necessary.
Energy snacks – The trek to the mountain gorillas isn’t impossible, but it is tough. Energy snacks like nuts, dried fruit, chocolate or power bars are a great idea. Just remember to take any rubbish with you as you go.
Water – Avoid buying plastic water bottles while you’re in Uganda or Rwanda. They’re terrible for the environment. Bring a reusable canteen (preferably with a purifying filter built in) or a pack of filtration tablets. You’ll need to drink a lot during the trek.
Long pants and shirts – It’s best not to expose too much skin during the jungle trek, and remember to tuck your trousers into your socks – you really don’t want safari ants crawling up there.
There are a number of accommodation options around Bwindi National park ranging from luxury to camping. % minutes to the park in Buhoma is Silverback Lodge, the latest addition to the Marasa Africa properties. You’ll definitely love it. They provide full board, all alcoholic drinks, comfortable beds, complimentary massages, and laundry. The lodge is eco-friendly and generate power by solar panels and heat their water with solar tanks. It is a ten-minute walk to the park entrance as well. For a more budget-friendly option I recommend checking out Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge or Silverback Lodge.