Last Updated on June 1, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Of all the wildlife experiences I’ve had, gorilla trekking still ranks high as my favorite wildlife adventure. Here’s a complete guide to gorilla trekking.
Gorilla trekking is unlike any other wildlife experience I’ve had. There is something humbling and moving about coming so close to an animal of this size and stature in the wild — with no fence or cage between you. In a place where gorillas roam freely, we humans are simply voyeurs, taking a rare peek into their world.
Mountain gorillas are some of the world’s most endangered animals in the world, with just over 1000 left on Earth. Being in their presence is an absolute privilege, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Gorilla trekking does require some advanced planning, so I’ve compiled this gorilla trekking guide based on my own experience to help you plot your own adventure.
Table of Contents
- A Guide to Gorilla Trekking
- Where to Go Gorilla Trekking
- Gorilla Trekking Permit Fees
- How to Book a Gorilla Safari
- When to Go Gorilla Trekking
- Get Travel Insurance for Your Gorilla Trek
- Is Gorilla Trekking Ethical?
- Is a Gorilla Sighting Guaranteed?
- How Tough is Gorilla Trekking?
- My Gorilla Trekking Experience
- What To Wear on a Gorilla Trek
- What to Bring in Your Daypack
- What to Expect on a Gorilla Trek
- Safety Tips on Your Gorilla Trek
- Gorilla Trekking: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience
A Guide to Gorilla Trekking
Where to Go Gorilla Trekking
Mountain gorillas can only be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda. According to the 2019 gorilla census, there are 1063 mountain gorillas left in the world. These gorillas have been habituated into 36 gorilla families altogether.
I’ve been to Uganda and Rwanda, and both countries are brimming with natural sights. Uganda holds 60% of the total mountain gorillas left in the world, with Bwindi Impenetrable Forest being the most popular choice for a gorilla tour. Rwanda has history and visiting the Genocide Museum in Kigali is a sobering reminder of its past. The DRC tends to be the least popular option, due to safety reasons and difficulties in visa application.
Gorilla Trekking Permit Fees
However, going gorilla trekking is expensive. You need to get a permit to see the gorillas. These permits are pricey, and only allow you to spend 1 hour with the gorillas. On top of that, you’ll need to pay for the gorilla tour.
But keep in mind that the money funds hundreds of conservation projects and anti-poaching security. 25% of the money earned from gorilla trekking goes back to the local communities. Here are the prices for the permits in each national park:
- Democratic Republic of Congo (Virunga National Park): US$400
- Uganda (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga Gorilla National Park): US$700
- Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park): US$1,500*
The above prices are accurate as of September 2021, but note that DRC and Rwanda permits are cheaper during off-season. Uganda authorities announced that they will no longer be any low-season discounts.
*If you combine trekking in three Rwandan national parks, you’ll get a 30% discount on your permit.
How to Book a Gorilla Safari
It is possible to obtain the trekking permits online and organize your trek independently, but the easiest way is to book a gorilla tour. I did my gorilla trek as part of a 1-month overland tour in East Africa, where we camped and traveled all over Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
I recommend going on a gorilla safari with local tour operators like Gorilla Trek Africa. They are a well-established local company and they organize gorilla tours that range from 2-day Rwanda gorilla treks to 5-day DRC gorilla safari and volcano hike.
When to Go Gorilla Trekking
The gorilla trekking permits are available all year round. However, the best time to go gorilla trekking is in the dry season: January – February and June – September. During the dry season, there’s less chance of rain, but it’s also high season.
The low season is the rainy season, in March – May and October. Permits can be cheaper during low season, but be prepared for long periods of rain and muddy wet ground. I went gorilla trekking in low season, but it wasn’t as muddy as I’d imagined (though my friends who went on the previous day had a different experience).
Get Travel Insurance for Your Gorilla Trek
I always recommend travelers to buy travel insurance, whether you’re traveling for a year or a week. Gorilla trekking can be considered an extreme activity, so check with your provider if it is covered.
Safety Wing is the most popular travel insurance company for COVID19-coverage. I use their Nomad Insurance plan, which covers COVID-19 as any other illness as long as it was not contracted before your coverage start date. Refer to my travel insurance guide for more details.
Is Gorilla Trekking Ethical?
The mountain gorillas have been habituated i.e used to human beings, as trekkers pass through their territory every day. Most of the trackers and park rangers have a close relationship with the gorillas — they can identify them, they know each of their characters and they genuinely care for them. Because of that, the gorillas know that humans are not a threat.
By going gorilla trekking, we are in fact contributing to the preservation of the gorillas and helping the local community. Tourism provides jobs, and killed by poachers or losing their habitat. The more awareness we help to raise, the more efforts governments will place in protecting the animals.
Is a Gorilla Sighting Guaranteed?
The possibility of seeing mountain gorillas is almost 99%. Every morning, park rangers and trackers trace the gorilla families and assign each trekking group to a particular family. They then give directions to travelers on where gorillas are located.
In case you fail to see gorillas after a full day of trekking, you are given a second chance to go gorilla trekking the next day. But everyone I know who’s been gorilla trekking has definitely had a sighting.
How Tough is Gorilla Trekking?
Gorilla trekking is no stroll in the park. The length and difficulty of your trek depends on which gorilla family you’re assigned to by the authorities. It can take anywhere from 1 to 8 hours. The trackers have to locate where the gorillas have gone each day.
We were extremely lucky, it only took us 1.5 hours of hiking to reach the Bwenza family, in Bwindi Forest. It was a moderate hike and relatively easy, but my friends who went the previous day had to do a challenging 4-hour hike, up vertical slopes and through knee-deep mud.
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 to hire for a day plus a tip.
What To Wear on a Gorilla Trek
Be aware that you’re walking on unmarked paths, up and down muddy and slippery slopes. The rainforest is full of horrible stinging nettles and the undergrowth can be so thick that it’s easy to step in and get entangled within a thorny thicket.
I recommend wearing gardening gloves and long-sleeves shirts and pants for the nettles. They were recommended by my tour operator, and I definitely found them to be super useful.
Mountain gorillas live in forests of high altitude, so wear layers and bring a thin rain jacket. So you can take a layer off when you get hot and add one when you get cold. Try to dress in green, khaki or dark colors to blend in with the forest (No bright red please).
- Long-sleeved lightweight top
- Long quick-dry pants
- Long hiking socks or Gaiters
- Hiking boots (with ankle support)
- Breathable waterproof hat
What to Bring in Your Daypack
When gorilla trekking you should bring with you a small day pack but only with a few essentials. I’m a firm believer of “less is more” — the less you carry, the more comfortable you’ll be on the hike.
For those who are traveling around Africa and looking to do more wildlife safaris in Africa, check out my packing list for an African safari.
- Comfortable hiking daypack
- Light rain jacket with a hood
- Hiking poles
- Gardening gloves
- Insect repellent with high DEET
- DSLR Camera + 300mm lens
- Packed lunch
- Water bottle (2L)
- Toilet paper
What to Expect on a Gorilla Trek
You’ll be assigned to a group (of no more than eight persons). In the morning of your trek, your group will get a safety briefing from your guide. One of the most important rules is that humans should not walk closer than seven meters from the gorillas, unless they approach you.
You’ll be accompanied by your guide, trackers and tourist police to ensure of your safety. The guides will also advise you on how to behave on the slim chance that one should become aggressive. For example, if a gorilla is advancing towards you, your best bet is to avoid eye contact and move slowly backwards.
Safety Tips on Your Gorilla Trek
- Don’t forget that even though these mountain gorillas have been habituated, they are still considered wild animals – you are not in the zoo. Respect their environment and their behavior. This goes without saying, but please don’t touch the gorillas.
- Gorillas share about 98% DNA with us and they are highly susceptible to human diseases. Don’t go gorilla trekking if you’re sick – a gorilla’s life is more important than your experience. If you sneeze or cough, turn your head away from the gorillas so as not to spread your germs.
- Gorilla trekking is an adventure, be ready to get sweaty, dirty and covered in mud. Leave any of your first-world expectations behind.
- To go on a gorilla safari, you’ll need to be comfortable hiking for hours up steep slopes. Unfortunately it’s not suitable for those with mobility issues.
- Follow your guide’s instructions and signals. Don’t move too close to a gorilla and don’t run from a gorilla. If one approaches you, just act submissive and crouch down.
- You are only allowed one hour with the gorillas — remember to put down your camera and take time to appreciate the presence of these wild animals.
- Even if you’re fit and don’t need help, it might be a good idea to hire a porter. By paying $15-20 for a porter, you’re supporting both the local community and gorilla conservation. I really enjoyed getting to know my porter and understanding more about life in the local community.
- For photography enthusiasts, I recommend bringing a long lens (around 300mm) and a mid-range one, preferably on two cameras. It is tricky to change lenses while navigating the hiking trail.
- This might be obvious, but please don’t use flash when taking photos of the gorillas.
Gorilla Trekking: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience
Gorilla trekking is an expensive experience — but once you lock eyes with a gorilla, you’ll know it’s well worth the money. Yes you only spend one hour with the gorillas, but it’s an intense, exhilarating and deeply soul-stirring hour.
I’ve seen many kinds of wildlife in my travels — from penguins in Antarctica to lemurs in Madagascar, and gorilla trekking remains top on my list of favorite wildlife experiences. It is a true adventure, and one that definitely touches the soul.
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