Tracking Mountain Gorillas in Africa

What you need to know

Seeing Africa's magnificent Mountain Gorillas, rightly deserves it's place at the top of many bucket lists.

Coming face-to-face with a mountain gorilla is arguably the world’s most spine-tingling wildlife encounter. These are the world’s largest living primates, standing as tall as the average male person, but up to three times as bulky. Yet despite their fearsome appearance, these archetypal gentle giants feed solely on fresh bamboo shoots and other vegetarian fare, and their deep brown eyes seem to seek an active connection with human visitors. The poignancy of this once-in-a-lifetime experience is enhanced by the recognition that, aside from chimpanzees, gorillas are our closest living relatives, and mountain gorillas specifically are highly endangered, with only 1000 individuals left in the wild and none at all in captivity. 

Little wonder, then, that gorilla tracking ranks highly on the wish list of most wildlife lovers. But many people are also concerned about the expense of tracking permits and the difficulty of hiking through the African jungle. Here, we answer some of the questions most frequently asked by prospective gorilla trackers

Where can I track Mountain Gorillas?

The global mountain gorilla population is split across two mountain ranges in three countries. The two most reliable tracking destinations are Rwanda and Uganda, both of which have well-organized tourist industries and a good selection of amenities. A more leftfield option is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

In Rwanda and the DRC, tracking is undertaken in the Virungas, a chain of volcanic mountains protected in the former’s Volcanoes National Park and the latter’s Virunga National Park. In Uganda, it is possible to track gorillas in Mgahinga National Park, which also protects part of the Virungas, but the country’s main tracking venue is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which currently hosts 19 habituated gorilla groups.

How much do gorilla tracking permits cost?

This varies between countries. Rwanda has the most expensive permits at US$1500 per person, but for many visitors this is offset by the relative accessibility of Volcanoes National Park, which lies just 60 miles north of Kigali International Airport. This makes Rwanda very time-efficient when it comes to appending gorilla tracking to a longer safari to the Serengeti (connected to Kigali by daily flights) and elsewhere in Africa.

Uganda is considerably cheaper. Tracking permits for either national park costs US$700 per person, a huge saving in isolation of other costs. However, coming from elsewhere in Africa, the logistics of getting to Uganda’s gorilla tracking venues are somewhat more complex. Either you need to drive or fly from Entebbe International Airport, 300 miles to the east, or cross overland from Kigali, which is closer but necessitates an additional border crossing. 

Tracking permits in the DRC are significantly cheaper at US$400, but the added security risk is a deterrent for most travellers. Rwanda and Uganda are both offering significant discounts at the time of writing due to the pandemic, but this is unlikely to last once tourism resumes as normal. 

Although gorilla tracking isn’t cheap, permit fees contribute to the conservation of these endangered creatures and their specialized montane habitat, and a significant portion also helps support local communities bordering the parks.  

Standard tracking permits allow visitors to spend a maximum of one hour with the gorillas. Those who want to spend longer could consider signing up for Bwindi’s gorilla habituation experience, which costs US$1500. This allows you to spend all day with the gorillas, but because you will be tracking a group that is still in the process of being habituated, they may be relatively shy and elusive.

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How difficult is tracking gorillas?

This is probably the most frequently asked question about gorilla tracking, and the most difficult to answer, because so many variables are involved, some more predictable than others. In most cases, the hike will not be terribly challenging to moderately fit people under the age of 50, but older and/or relatively unfit travelers may find it very demanding, especially if they are unused to the high altitude. That said, practically everybody who does it agrees that it’s well worth the effort. Indeed, no matter how demanding the hike, it’s incredible how your exhaustion dissipates when first confronted by a gorilla.

If you’re worried about fitness, try doing a little training in advance (ideally being able to walk for up to two hours with ease) and aim to visit during the dry season when the slopes are less slippery. A good walking stick will help enormously, as will hiring a local porter to carry your daypack and encourage you through difficult patches.

Are some gorilla tracking destinations easier than others?

On average, that’s a definite yes. But conditions might vary from one day to the next at any given destination, so there are no guarantees. 

Overall, Rwanda is probably the best bet for those unsure about their hiking abilities. The different habituated groups of here are strongly territorial, and the guides will allocate the more close-by groups to older or unfit looking travelers. Typically, the hike to these ‘easier’ groups is unexpectedly flat and takes 60 to 90 minutes in either direction. 

Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is less predictable, partly because it incorporates four geographically discrete tracking hubs: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. At Buhoma, the most established of these hubs, the hike to the gorillas frequently takes 30 minutes or less, but this cannot be relied upon, and occasionally you might be looking at three to five hours. Steeper slopes and more tangled vegetation mean that conditions are usually tougher when you track gorillas from Ruhija or Rushaga. Nkuringo is the most challenging of all tracking hubs, since the hike invariably starts with a steep one-hour descent into the gorillas’ territory and ends with a two-hour ascent back to the trailhead. 

In our experience, tracking gorillas at Mgahinga or in the Congo tends to be tougher going then at Buhoma or in Rwanda, but the relatively untangled vegetation typical of the Virungas make it less demanding than Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo.

Is it better to track gorillas before or after a safari?

It probably doesn’t make much difference. For those who live at sea level, an argument for leaving it until later in the trip is that it will give you time to adjust to the higher altitudes typical of the African interior. On the other hand, if seeing gorillas is your main reason for visiting Africa, and you’re anxious about the hike, there’s a good case for getting it out of the way at the start of your trip. 

What is the best time of year to track gorillas?

The best times for gorilla tracking are the relatively dry months of June to August and December to February. This is when underfoot conditions on the sheer slopes of Bwindi and the Virungas tend to be least slippery, and also when tracking is least likely to be interrupted by a cloudbreak. That said, gorilla tracking runs throughout the year and so long as you are reasonably fit, you should be fine during the rainy season. Those combining gorilla tracking with a safari elsewhere in Africa might want to factor in seasonal conditions at the other places they are visiting.

How certain am I to see gorillas?

All but certain. The official success rate of gorilla tracking in all three countries where it can be undertaken is around 99%. In fact it is probably higher than that; the only instance in which you are likely to miss out is if you find the hike too strenuous and turn back.

How safe is gorilla tracking?

Despite their imposing appearance and bulk, gorillas are quite peaceable creatures and so long as you listen to your guide, there is no significant risk of being attacked. When it comes to more general security, Uganda and Rwanda are generally considered to be safe travel destinations and there is no significant risk attached to tracking gorillas in either country. By contrast, the DRC remains politically volatile; security concerns have forced Virunga National Park to close to tourists on several occasions in recent years, which makes it unreliable for long- or medium-term planning.

How is the accommodation and other amenities?

An unexpectedly varied selection of lodges and campsites catering to most tastes and budgets is available. When it comes to truly top-of-the-range all-inclusive lodges, Rwanda, Mgahinga and Buhoma (the most established gorilla-tracking hub in Bwindi) are the standout options. Accommodation options in and around Ruhija and Rushaga tend to be more midrange and budget orientated. Accommodation in DRC’s Volcanoes National Park is limited to a handful of park-managed lodges, but these are very well run and more comfortable then you might reasonably expect.

What other activities can I add to a gorilla tracking trip?

The Virungas ranks among the most spectacular of African mountain ranges, comprising a chain of eight majestic volcanoes whose individual peaks rise to between 10,300 and 14,790 feet. Day and overnight hikes to various volcanic peaks can be arranged in all three countries. In Rwanda, the most popular hikes lead to Karisoke Research Centre, which was founded by Diane Fossey in 1967 and is now the site of her grave, and to the pretty crater lake at the summit of Mount Bisoke. In the DRC, the hike to the rim of Mount Nyiragongo, where a rudimentary overnight camp overlooks a permanent lava lake that bubbles like a giant red cauldron of molten rock, is one of Africa’s most thrillingly underrated adventures. Other activities include tracking Endangered golden monkeys in Rwanda or Uganda, and visiting traditional Batwa pygmy communities at Bwindi and Mgahinga..

How should I include gorilla tracking in my Africa trip?

To some extent that’s a question of personal taste and temperament. For one-off visitors to Africa, it can be tempting to include gorilla-tracking in a multi-country highlights itinerary,  that might also incorporate such icons as the Serengeti wildebeest migration, Victoria Falls, Okavango Delta, Zanzibar and the winelands around Cape Town. But an itinerary such as this can be logistically exhausting, involving a lot of time in airports, as well as numerous border crossings and visa formalities.

A more realistic combination for those wanting to combine a wildlife safari with gorilla tracking would be to spend a few days exploring the main safari reserves of Kenya or Tanzania before they heading to Uganda or Rwanda.

That said, it would be a mistake to underestimate Uganda or Rwanda as standalone safari destinations. Uganda, in particular, has a multitude of safari offerings including the opportunity to track chimpanzees in Kibale Forest, look for tree-climbing lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park, cruise past buffaloes and elephants on the Nile below Murchison Falls, take a foot safari in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, and tackle some of the world’s most spectacular Grade 5 Rapids. Rwanda, though only slightly less varied, now hosts all the big 5 in the underrated Akagera National Park, along with chimpanzees and a host of monkeys and forest birds in Nyungwe National Park. In short, travelers who prefer to explore one country in depth will find both Uganda and Rwanda to be exceptionally rewarding destinations in their own right.

#YOLO - You Only Live Once. Make sure to seize each day.

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