What is it like to Go Gorilla Trekking in Uganda?
Gorilla Trekking in Uganda is surreal and unlike any other experience in Africa. The atmosphere of the adventure through the jungle mist is unreal. 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.
Many tourists before they travel to Africa tend to research from different travel advisories and blogs of other travelers who have made their way to Africa about their experience in this part of the world and many have highlighted their gorilla trek experience as their once in a lifetime African travel experience.. “To see the gorillas is incredible, it’s worth the high cost to see them in their natural habitat,” many tourists attest. It is a rewarding decision to add gorilla trekking to your Africa bucket list.
Whenever there is an opportunity to go gorilla trekking most tourists from all corners of the world find their way in Uganda to visit the largest population of mountain gorillas in the world. Not only does Uganda have the largest population of Mountain gorillas left in the world, one of the gorilla habitat – Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the most diverse park in the region.
Gorilla trekking is a hike into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a jungle that is home to mountain gorillas. The trek involves getting a little dirty and bushwhacking through thick jungle with experienced park guides and rangers that will help you track a family of habituated gorillas.
Where do we find the Mountain Gorillas in Uganda?
Mountain Gorillas can only be found in the Virunga Mountains in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda and also in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. 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 with three gorilla families, Ruhija region – has four gorilla families, Rushaga region- five gorilla families, and Nkuringo region with only one gorilla family. This gives us a total of 13 habituated gorilla families for tourists’ gorilla trekking experience with over 36 families yet to be habituated. Make sure to book your accommodation where your gorilla trekking permit has been secured- gorilla permit availability is the determinant of which accommodation facility you will stay.
Most of the time, many travelers planning their gorilla safari in Uganda will not shy to mention Buhoma as their preferred destination for gorilla trekking- in fact most tourists confuse Buhoma being Bwindi. The Buhoma region is the most popular region for trekkers- it is where the first gorilla family was habituated and where the first gorilla trekking experience in Uganda was conducted. There are three groups of gorillas near Buhoma that are habituated to accommodate the presence of humans. The group names are Mubare, Habinyanja and Rushegura. The buhoma region boasts of the most accommodation facilities but with time other regions have surpassed Buhoma in the number of Habituated gorilla families and a range of accommodation facilities are emerging.
What to expect when you go for a Gorilla Trek in Uganda?
A typical day of trekking starts at a designated meeting point- park headquarters. Trekkers normally gather at the information center in the respective regions in Bwindi at 7:30 for a short video and gorilla briefing with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. From there tourists are divided into groups assigned to the different gorilla families.
Groups consist of no more than eight people. Small numbers are easier to manage and do not overwhelm the gorillas.
Some groups start their trek from the park headquarters, while others will have to drive to a starting point into the forest. You typically will not know until the day of trekking, if you will need to drive or start your trek from the headquarters. Once assigned a gorilla tracking group, the different sets of 8 tourists head off to their respective starting points accompanied by a park guide and a couple of armed park rangers into the thick forest is search of the mountain gorillas.
Length of the Gorilla Trek
Finding the gorillas can take anywhere from one to five hours or even longer. These are wild animals and the trackers have to locate where the gorillas have gone each day. The trek can be short once the gorillas are located a short distance along the trail or for longer periods where you have to venture deep in the jungle. The trek is mildly difficult, tourists have to exercise a good level of fitness. I would say that if you are in at least decent shape and health a gorilla trek in Uganda will prove enjoyable.
If you’re worried about the trek we would recommend hiring some of the local porters. The porters come from the surrounding villages and cost $15 day plus a tip.
Interacting with our second closest living relatives
Once you find the mountain gorillas you are allowed one hour to observe, ask questions, and take photos and video of your encounter. There is no drinking or eating around the gorillas and flash photography is prohibited.
Gorillas share about 98% DNA with humans and they are highly susceptible to human diseases so humans should not walk closer than seven meters from the gorillas, unless they approach you.
Once with the gorilla family, you can hardly blink for the entire one hour allowed for viewing. The mountain gorillas, each had their own personality and demeanor that will make for the most intimate wildlife encounter. When the gorillas look into your eyes it is humbling. Some times during the experience on of the members in the gorilla family might come up to you to and get hold of you out of playfulness and curiosity.
These gorilla groups are familiar with humans. One should never feel like they are in danger with the mighty animals. You will just have a feeling like you have wandered into a foreign home and quietly observed the father, mothers, and children going about their daily lives.
After an hour of viewing, your unforgettable gorilla time is up. Too much time with the gorillas could do harm and make them agitated and uncomfortable. After the one hour of gorilla viewing you will do the trek back through the forest. You will assemble somewhere for your picnic lunch (should be arranged with your accommodation facility and packed prior to the start of the trek) while reminiscing about your once in a lifetime wildlife encounter.
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.
Uganda receives most tourists during the period between June and September every calendar year and this has been the traditional peak season in the tourism industry in Uganda. There are high sales in gorilla trekking safaris during this period and permits sale out very first. If you are planning to travel during the peak season, you have to plan your gorilla trekking safari well in advance. This period is normally warm and dry but you should never rule out a chance of rains in the Bwindi region.
Uganda has the months of February to May and October to November as the low season periods. During this time there is less tourism activity mostly attributed to the weather and the travel trends across the world. During the low season in Uganda, the experiences and encounters are more intimate because most of the time you will find small groups which means that you will be able to keep up with your guide more efficiently. You can be assured of a more intimate experience with the gorillas. It’s also worth noting that gorilla permits are reduced during the rainy season from $600 to $450 to encourage tourism in Uganda and you are able to get discounted packages for a Ugandan tour operator or safari lodge owner.
How Many Mountain Gorillas Are There in the World?
Sadly due to poaching, war, disease, and habitat loss it is estimated that there are only around 850 Mountain gorillas left in the world. The good news is that with implemented conservation efforts between Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC their numbers are slowly rising.
Uganda Gorilla Permit Cost
Ugandan gorilla permits cost individuals $600(Foreign nonresidents) for one day or one hour with the gorillas. This is the mid-range price point. The Rwandan gorilla permits cost $750 (UPDATE they are now $1500) and DRC gorilla permits cost $400. Gorilla trekking in Uganda is cheaper than in Rwanda and the country is more stable and safe than the DRC.
Uganda also holds more gorillas than neighboring countries and besides the gorillas, there are plenty of other wildlife and birdlife to see in the country! Such as, the tree climbing lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park, the chimpanzees of Kibale National Park and adventure along the Nile from Jinja through to Murchison Falls National Park.
In the off season, (April, May, and November), permits run for a discount. The cost is $450. This means fewer people, a little more mud, and a lower cost. However the promotional discounted gorilla permits are due till the end of 2017 as asserts the Uganda Wildlife Authority. There are also discounts for the East African residents (with a visa or work permits of at least 2 years) who can buy gorilla permits at $475 each and East African Community members at $150 per gorilla trekking permit in Bwindi and Mgahinga gorilla parks.
The gorilla trekking permit fees you pay help a lot in conservation of these endangered gorillas and support of the communities around Bwindi like settlement of the Batwa people who once shared Bwindi Impenetrable Forest with the gorillas for livelihood.
How to Acquire a Gorilla Permit
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 it can get busy. Instead, I suggest contacting the Ugandan Wildlife Authority or a local tour operator at least one month before your arrival to Uganda start arrangements of your gorilla trek in Uganda. If this is not an option check out the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kampala to see if you can get a gorilla trekking permit in person.
Is there age limit for gorilla trekking experience in Uganda?
The adopted age limit or minimum years for gorilla tracking in Uganda, Rwanda and DRC is 15 (Fifteen years) and above for anyone willing to see endangered mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Maghinga National Park, Virunga National park and Volcanoes National Park. Below the age of 15 years, one is regarded as a child by all standards and will not be allowed to go on any gorilla trek in Uganda, DRC or Rwanda.
Mountain gorillas in the region have been declared endangered due to the fact that we only have approximately 880 individuals left on planet earth and as such all sorts of measures to save them have been implemented. It is believed that children below the age of 15 years are very prone to communicable diseases and can easily spread them to mountain gorillas while on their trek. To avoid this, Uganda Wildlife Authority, Rwanda Development Board and other stake holders in the conservation of mountain gorillas came up with an age limit to check this.
The other reason of not allowing children under the age of 15 years is that you will never tell how they will react or behave when they encounter mountain gorillas. If a mountain gorilla charges for example, a child may run instead of sitting down and this may be followed by mountain gorillas attacking you. In order to avoid this, children below the age of 15 are not allowed to trek gorillas much as the visited gorilla families are habituated to entertain visitors.
On requesting for a gorilla permit to trek gorillas in either Uganda, DRC or Rwanda, respective authorities will request for the passport copy of the client. Although at this stage this may not be mandatory but if you provide it, they will then detect if you qualify to trek gorillas by seeing how old you are. If you are below the minimum age, then you will be automatically be denied.
If by chance you manage to get a permit on booking, you may not escape being spotted on the actual day of gorilla trekking. Before gorilla trekking briefing takes place, all clients are requested to provide original copies of their passports and in a situation where your age is doubted, they may ask for your birth certificate or deny you the chance to trek mountain gorillas.
For the much elderly who are not physically up to the task, you may need to prepare extra dollars of a man made carrier that will see you being carried by porters throughout you gorilla trek at a fee of about $200 to $400. This is a community based initiative and it directly benefits the people offering that service.
What to Bring and Pack for Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Come prepared for muddy and wet conditions. It’s pretty green forest, meaning things get a little moist.
What to wear for a gorilla trek
- Lightweight and waterproof safari clothes are recommended. The goal is to blend into the forest so greens, khakis, and general dark colors do well in Uganda. I cannot stress the importance of layers and long sleeves enough. The altitude is forever changing and one minute you are cold and the next burning hot. Whatever you do – bring one long sleeve shirt! The meanest of mean fire ants reside in the forest and they will find you and “kill you”. Okay, they won’t kill you, but you will want to kill each and every one of them as they attack your bear skin
- I would recommend also bringing a rain jacket in case you get caught up in a morning shower.
- Gaiters or long hiking socks are recommended through the thick bush and to avoid those ants up your pants.
- We recommend a good pair of hiking shoes.
What to bring for a gorilla trek
- Walking Stick: we were provided one of these where we stayed at Bwindi Lodge, which is an ideal place to stay while tracking the gorillas.
- Binoculars are never a bad idea in Africa.
- Gardening gloves: If you like to grab trees and things when on a hike then make sure to bring some basic gardening gloves. Many of the trees and branches have tiny thorns on them.
- Insect repellent with DEET. Might as well throw some sunscreen in just in case.
- Bring a good carry-on sized backpack or great travel daypack to keep all your belongings in. It is advisable to bring one to two liters of bottled water on your trek as well. Make sure to have your nearby lodge provide you with a packed lunch in case those gorillas take four to five hours to find.
- I almost forgot to mention a camera! You’re going gorilla trekking so I’m sure you will want something to take photos with! Well, you will need a good lens camera to capture your moments with the gorillas and remember, no flash photography unless you want to flex with the silverback. After the whole African experience, guard that camera jealously until you have backed up all your captured moments
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Accommodation
There are a number of accommodation options around Bwindi National park ranging from luxury to camping. Most of the luxury accommodation facilities provide full board, all alcoholic drinks, comfortable beds, complimentary massages, and laundry. A good number of lodges are eco-friendly and generate power by solar panels and heat their water with solar tanks. The Midrange and budget lodges will offer basic facilities with good food, laundry, en-suite facilities and one can chose to have a full board arrangement or bespoke meal plan. Like earlier mentioned, the location of your gorilla trekking determines or limits your accommodation choice. Go after the experience first, “comfort” will come next. There are lodges in and around Bwindi with stunning views like Chameleon hill that will enable you view the Virunga Mountains like a bed across Uganda, Rwanda and DRC over the stunning Lake Mutanda.
How to Save the Last Mountain Gorillas?
Visit them! The price to see the gorillas for just one hour is expensive. However, it’s important to understand that gorillas are critically endangered animals. You should appreciate that 25% of the money earned from gorilla trekking in Uganda goes back to the local communities. The tourism creates local jobs. And the majority of the permit contributes to the conservation of the mountain gorillas. I’ve seen and chatted with many Ugandans, trekkers, and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority and they care about the preservation of these animals. It is possible that they will still be living in the wild for future generations. Gorilla trekking is not only an unforgettable African wildlife experience, but a donation to rural communities and wildlife conservation.
Organize your gorilla trekking adventure to either of the destinations in the region and you will have everlasting memories of this lifetime experience. Once you have experienced this adventure, remember to share to the rest of the world- it is something they should not miss out.