Everything You Need to Know About Tracking Africa’s Mountain Gorillas
By Philip Briggs | Updated August 27, 2021
Coming face-to-face with a mountain gorilla tops the bucket list of many a wildlife lover. And rightly so. The world’s largest living primate is as tall as the average human male, but up to three times as bulky and altogether more fearsome looking. Yet despite their King Kong-like façade, gorillas are the most Zen of creatures, usually to be found chilling in forest glades chomping on bamboo shoots and other vegetarian fare like hirsute Buddhas. Thrilling as it might be, however, many people are put off tracking gorillas by fears relating to safety, expense and the potential difficulty of hiking through the African jungle. Here, we address some of these issues by tackling some questions frequently asked by prospective trackers.
Where’s the best place to track mountain gorillas?
The options are limited. The global population of 1,000 mountain gorillas is restricted to two mountain ranges in the Albertine Rift: the volcanic Virungas, which are split between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Bwindi, which lies entirely within Uganda.
The most popular gorilla-tracking venues are Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which each host more than 10 habituated groups and issue eight tracking permits per group daily. Logistically, Rwanda is the more straightforward destination for those tagging a gorilla-tracking excursion onto a Big Five safari in Tanzania, Kenya or elsewhere, whereas Uganda offers greater variety to visitors who prefer to stick to one country.
Gorillas can be tracked in Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park, whose solitary habituated group stands out for containing three massive silverbacks. A more leftfield option is the DRC’s Virunga National Park, which is cheaper then Uganda or Rwanda, but plagued by ongoing political instability.
How much do gorilla tracking permits cost?
Gorilla-tracking permits are not cheap, but the money helps fund the conservation of these endangered creatures and their montane habitat, as well as supporting nearby communities. Prior to the pandemic, a permit cost US$1,500 in Rwanda, US$700 in Uganda and US$400 in the DRC. All three countries have offered significant discounts during the pandemic, but this is unlikely to continue once a semblance of normality is restored.
It’s worth pointing out that while Rwanda is by far the most expensive option if you view permit prices in isolation of other costs, this may be offset or overridden by the accessibility of Volcanoes National Park (only 60 miles north of Kigali International Airport, which is connected to the Serengeti by daily flights) relative to other gorilla-tracking destinations.
How long can I spend with the gorillas?
Standard tracking permits allow for a maximum of one hour with the gorillas. The gorilla habituation experience at Bwindi (costs US$1500) allows you to spend all day with a group that’s still in the process of being habituated, so may be relatively shy.
How difficult is the hike?
That depends on several variables. Nine times out of ten, the hike won’t be too taxing for moderately fit people under the age of 50, but older and less fit travelers may find it challenging.
This depends greatly on how long it takes to locate the gorillas. Typically it will be no more than 90 minutes, with a few steep and slippery sections, while the return leg will be shorter and more downhill. That said, wild animals are unpredictable, and up to five hours is possible.
No matter how demanding the hike, practically everybody who does it agrees that any exhaustion dissipates when first confronted by a gorilla in the wild.
If you live at sea level, try to spend a few days at higher altitude before the hike.
Which is the easiest place to track gorillas?
Rwanda is the best bet if you’re unsure about your fitness. This is because the gorilla groups here are predictably territorial and the guides usually allocate older or unfit looking travelers to the closest ones.
Bwindi is less inherently predictable, partly because the vegetation is thicker and partly because there are four discrete tracking hubs. Of these hubs, Buhoma usually offers the easiest hiking conditions, Nkuringo is almost invariably the most challenging (a steep one-hour descent at the start and two-hour ascent at the end are unavoidable), while Ruhija or Rushaga fall somewhere in-between.
In our experience, Mgahinga and the DRC are usually tougher going than Rwanda or Buhoma, but the relatively open vegetation make them less demanding than tracking out of Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo.
Should I train in advance?
If you can’t walk for two hours with reasonable ease, it would be a good idea to build up to that level of fitness. Otherwise it’s probably not necessary.
What is the best time of year to track gorillas ?
Gorilla tracking runs throughout the year. The relatively dry months of June to August and December to February are when underfoot conditions are driest and tracking is least likely to be interrupted by a cloudbreak. That said, reasonably fit travelers should be fine during the rainy season, and if they are combining gorilla tracking with a safari elsewhere in Africa, they may prioritize seasonal factors in the other places they’re visiting.
How certain am I to see gorillas?
Gorilla tracking excursions in all locations enjoy a 99% success rate. The only circumstance in which you’re likely to miss out on seeing gorillas is if the hike is too strenuous and you decide to turn back.
How safe is it?
Gorillas are peaceable creatures; listen to your guide and you’re at no significant risk of attack. In terms of general security, Uganda and Rwanda are both relatively stable countries with well-organised tourist industries. By contrast, political volatility has forced the suspension of gorilla tracking in the DRC on several recent occasions and makes it suitable only for last-minute visits.
What special equipment do I need to pack to track gorillas?
Sturdy hiking boots or trail running shoes are ideal on the steep, muddy slopes. Wear long sleeves and gloves to protect against nettles, and full-length trousers you can tuck into thick long socks to deter biting ants and insects. A hat and a poncho or raincoat might come in handy.
What else should I pack?
If you have a good walking stick, bring it. If not, the porters can usually fashion one on the spot. Carry sunscreen, sunglasses, antihistamine (in case the nettles or bugs do get you) and a few packaged snacks in your daypack, along with drinking water (at least 2 liters). Don’t forget your camera (or phone).
Where can I stay?
Lodges and campsites catering to most tastes and budgets exist at all gorilla tracking hubs. Rwanda, Mgahinga, Buhoma and Nkuringo stand out when it comes to all-inclusive luxury lodges. Accommodation at Ruhija and Rushaga falls more into the midrange and budget category. The park-managed lodges in DRC’s Volcanoes National Park are comfortable and well run.
What other activities can I add to a gorilla tracking trip?
There are some really exciting options which I’ve already discussed in a previous blog (https://fairtradesafaris.com/news/ten-great-add-ons-to-a-gorilla-tracking-safari/)