Countless intrepid adventurers say that encounters with Africa’s wild gorillas make the bucket list of top 50 travel things to do before you die. Amen to that!
Two of the best places to see gorillas in Africa are undoubtedly Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda highlands and Volcanoes National Park in northwestern Rwanda Virunga mountains slopes. These two places have the best conservation and sustainable programs wrapped around gorilla trekking adventures and great infrastructure, including some of the best jungle retreats for a memorable vacation getaway in the remotest parts of Africa.
The only two species of Gorillas worldwide live only in Equatorial Africa, with one species (eastern gorilla) found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda, and Rwanda. The other western gorillas are found in Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Angola, and DRC. The best five countries that offer the best adventures to see wild gorillas in Africa are Uganda, Rwanda, DRC, the Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic (CAR). These destinations have excellent tourism infrastructure for gorilla trekking adventures.
Honestly, trekking into Africa’s untamed forest jungles to find the largest living primates on earth is something to populate your thoughts, bag as an experience and even look cool talking about the adventure. Go ahead, take a moment of silence to ponder about the idea.
If you’re wondering why the attention, let’s first explore some facts about these massive creatures taking all the attention in the wilderness. Gorillas are giant primates with a gentle character (not like Holywood’s King Kong). They possess many human-like behaviours and emotions like laughter and sadness.
Like chimps and bonobos, our closest living cousins, gorillas share 98.3% of the human genetic code. They’re stocky, with broad chests and shoulders, large, human-like hands, and small eyes set into hairless faces. They live in primitive human-like family groups of usually 5 to 30 plus, led by a dominant adult male called a silverback. The bond between the silverback and his females forms the basis of the gorilla’s social life.
Two gorilla species still survive in equatorial Africa, separated by about 560 miles of Congo Basin forest. Each species is subdivided into two sub-species living in lowlands and highlands. The ones you see in zoos around the world are lowland gorillas—the smaller species. The highland gorillas can’t survive anywhere outside their habitats.
Although both species are very similar, they have a few differences. For example, mountain gorillas have long dark hair, are taller and heavier than the lowland gorillas.
Mountain gorilla trekking in the lush Virunga volcanic mountain slopes of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the most rewarding adventures for intrepid travellers. To see the lowland gorillas, vacation adventurers will head into the forest jungles of central and western Africa in Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Massive work by governments, conservation organizations, and natural scientists has gone into preserving their natural habitats while protecting the gorillas. Scientists have habituated a few groups for tourism out of the undocumented gorilla family groups roaming Africa’s tropical forests. That means people can visit them in their natural environment without fear of harm while contributing to their conservation.
Now that you’re well-schooled for your next summer adventures, let’s take a look at the five great destinations that offer the best adventures to see wild gorillas in Africa.
The best adventures to see wild mountain gorillas in Africa are definitely in Uganda’s two mountain jungles. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, fiercely protecting almost half of the gorilla population and Mgahinga National Park, contingent with Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and DRC’s Virunga National Park. Between the two parks, more than half of the world’s mountain gorilla population finds refuge: making Uganda a top destination for watching mountain gorillas within their protected natural wild.
The two gorilla habitats straddle the southwestern Ugandan border, about 491 km (305 mi) from the capital city on a 90% well-paved road. It would take about a 10-hours drive or 1-hour small local flight to reach the gorilla destinations.
Two small airfields two hours outside the north and south sections of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park give easy access to those who want to avoid the born-jarring drive through the rugged Nepal-like landscape. However, if you’ve driven through Nepal or heard about it in a conversation, a drive through southwestern Uganda’s quintessential landscapes to reach the wild gorillas is worth a go.
Wild mountain gorillas live in family groups we call troops or bands. An unspecified number of troops live within the protected jungles away from regular reach. However, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, with help from scientists and wildlife experts, has habituated 20 gorilla families and availed them for tourism. Hailing from any of the five gorilla trekking starting points in Uganda, any tourist can trek and encounter any of the 20 human-habituated gorilla groups. All you need is a gorilla permit from UWA for about $700 bucks apiece.
Bwindi alone has 19 human-habituated gorilla families spread around four trailheads where adventures to see wild gorillas start every morning throughout the year.
Buhoma Sector in the north of Bwindi is the pioneer trailhead with five (5) human-habituated gorilla groups. Buhoma also stands out as the favorite among tourists because it has the widest selection of safari rentals. And, tourists can easily connect to other safari destinations on the western circuit.
Nkuringo and Rushaga sectors in the south of Bwindi are the other two trailhead favorites to offer the best encounters with Africa’s wild gorillas. Eleven (11) human-habituated gorilla families are between the two trailheads, with another two groups reserved for research. You’ll find a great selection of safari vacation rentals at the two trailheads, but most of all, tourists get to spend more time with wild gorillas (about four (4) hours) on a gorilla habituation experience.
If you’re hoping to spend more than the typical one-hour experience offered on a gorilla permit of $700, then book the four-hour gorilla habituation experience permit for $1,500: only offered in the Rushaga sector. The four-hour experience with wild gorillas is only in Uganda, and the tickets are scarce. So book yours with Nkuringo Safaris (firstname.lastname@example.org) within a manageable schedule.
Mgahinga National Park, sharing the Virunga slopes with Rwanda and DRC’s gorilla parks, offers one human-habituated gorilla family that some tourists prefer. Especially those that want to add hiking the Virunga summits and watching the endangered golden monkeys (only found here) to the gorilla encounter.
It doesn’t matter which gorilla park sector you choose; the gorilla adventure experience is more-less the same. Expert trackers and rangers escort tourists in small groups of eight tourists every morning to find a gorilla family. There’s no telling how long it takes to find the wild gorilla family, maybe 30 mins to 4 hours. Once they encounter the wild giants, the trackers will allow the tourists to spend at least an hour about 10 meters from the wild creatures with facemasks and strict instructions to avoid contact.
If you’re up for more wildlife viewing after your incredible adventures to see Africa’s wild gorillas in Uganda, get on the western safari circuit up north. Uganda’s safari destinations a worth adding to a gorilla trekking experience.
In Queen Elizabeth National Park, a few miles north of Bwindi, you can watch the incredible tree-climbing lions, pods of hippos, herds of elephants, buffalo, and crocs on Kazinga Channel banks. In Kibale Forest, you can meet our human-habituated chimpanzee cousins and a dozen other primate species. Further north, in Murchison and Kidepo Valley, you can find some of Africa’s incredible creatures roaming the untamed savannah plains.
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In Rwanda’s far northwest are the imposing Virunga Mountains that make Rwanda a dream African adventure destination. Rwanda protects the world’s most precious primates, the mountain gorillas, on the magnificent Virunga mountains slopes in its aptly named Volcanoes National Park.
Apart from gorilla trekking in Uganda, the second-best adventures to see wild gorillas in Africa are in Rwanda, along the slopes of the Virunga Mountains, where almost half of the world’s population finds refuge. The Virunga’s are shared between Uganda, DRC, and Rwanda. Rwanda’s side of the Virunga is protected under Volcanoes National Park, and within the park are twelve (12) human-habituated gorilla family groups available for tourism.
To trek Rwanda’s wild gorillas, you’ll drive northwest about two hours from Kigali capital city on a well-surfaced road and spend a night in Kiningi, a small town spread on the foothills of the gorilla park. Here you’ll find a great selection of vacation lodges spanning from budget home-stays to tranquil luxury forest getaways to match your budget.
Depending on where you spend the night, be at the starting point at the park headquarter by 08:00 for a briefing before expert trackers lead small groups of about six tourists into the steamy jungles to find the habituated gorilla group. When you encounter the wild patriarchal silverback and his family, you’ll spend at least one hour watching their antics and social dynamics with the expert guide’s voice-over and guidance.
Encounters with Africa’s wild gorillas in Rwanda are favorite with tourists that want to avoid the long drive to the gorilla destinations. Although the gorilla trekking experiences in Rwanda and Uganda are similar, the $1500 price tag on Rwanda’s gorilla permit is selective to only those that can afford the hefty charges.
Apart from the varied cultural experience that Rwanda offers, there are few activities tourists can add to their primate adventure into the Virungas. Everyday adventure experiences in Rwanda that feature on a typical Rwanda safari package include hiking the Virungas, visiting Diane Fossey’s Karisoke Center, tracking the habituated chimps in Nyungwe Forest, and a meager wildlife viewing experience in Akagera National Park.
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Not many tour operators would recommend viewing Africa’s wild gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo because of its never-ending civil wars on the borders with Rwanda and Uganda. However, DRC is unapologetically untamed, more adventurous, and cheaper than Uganda and Rwanda, if you have the hearts for it.
DRC is the only country globally with western lowland, eastern lowland, mountain gorilla species, and good-enough gorilla tourism infrastructure. If you manage to navigate the logistics, the chances of seeing Africa’s wild gorillas in DRC are about 20% for western lowland gorillas, 60% for astern lowland gorillas, and 98% for mountain gorillas.
Some western lowland gorillas roam the far west of DRC in the lush Mayumbe Area, Bas-Congo, crossing back and forth from Cabinda (Angola). Because of the challenging security in the far eastern DRC, you’re best off adventuring to encounter the western lowland gorillas in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic, Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo, Lopé National Park in Gabon, and Monte Alen National Park in Equatorial Guinea.
The other gorilla species in DRC, the eastern lowland gorillas (aka Grauer’s gorilla), live in the forests and swampland just to the southwest of the Virunga Volcanoes. They spend more time in the trees than their mountain counterparts. Kahuzi-Biega National Park is the main stronghold for eastern lowland gorillas, where you’ll have the best encounters with human-habituated eastern lowland gorillas. You’ll access Kahuzi-Biega from Bukavu town, a few miles south at the Rwanda border, where you’ll find beautiful lakeside hotels. However, carefully check the security situation before heading that way from Rwanda.
Virunga National Park, DRC’s side of the Virunga Mountains, offers excellent adventures with wild mountain gorillas. The park’s security has dramatically improved, and one can now access Virunga from Kisoro in Uganda or by flight through Goma town on the northern bank of Lake Kivu.
Just like in Uganda and Rwanda, expert trackers and armed rangers lead out small groups of tourists into the mountain jungles to track any one of the nine(9) human-habituated gorilla family groups in Virunga National Park. When they encounter the wild giants, the tourists spend at least an hour, ten meters from them, protected with facemasks.
High on the summer bucket list of many savvy adventurers is a visit to DRC’s Virunga National Park. Especially for those that have watched Netflix’s big hit “Virunga” — an Oscar-nominated true story of the rangers risking their lives to save Africa’s most precious national park and its endangered mountain gorillas.
Although not on the scale of Bwindi and Rwanda’s Volcanoes, Virunga’s vacation accommodation options do not disappoint. For those looking to relax and unwind amongst stunning views, check out the luxurious Mikeno Lodge, the serene simplicity of Tchegera Island, and the newly built Kibumba tented camp—the starting point for gorilla trekking adventures in Virunga.
The nonviolent Republic of the Congo (aka Congo-Brazzaville), a central African nation sandwiched between Garbon, Cameroon, CAR, and DRC, offers some of the best encounters with Africa’s western lowland gorillas.
In Congo’s largely unexplored rainforest reserves, about 125,000 western lowland gorillas roam the swampy rainforests alongside chimpanzees, forest elephants, and hundreds of species of birds—a perfect African jungle adventure destination.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park, in the northwest of Congo, presents some of the best western lowland gorilla tracking and viewing adventures. The park was reopened in 2012 after being sadly disseminated by the Ebola outbreak. Within its dense forested jungle are two human-habituated gorilla family groups available for tourism. The best adventures with these wild primates are in the swampy areas that contain a rich blend of salty minerals, water, and sweet grass.
Gorilla tracking adventures in Odzala consist of 3-4 tourists, an expert tracker, and a guide. These small groups head out every morning on foot from Ngaga Camp and Sangha Lodge—the best lodging options for exploring Odzala-Kokoua National Park—and spend an hour with the gorillas.
In the north of Congo—contingent with Cameroon’s Parc national de Lobék and CAR’s Dzanga-Sangha National Park—is the famous Mbeli Bai in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, a true untamed African wilderness for the intrepid traveler. The park’s swampy tropical rainforests are filled with animals, including a population of about 100 western lowland gorillas and the highest number of forest elephants in the world. Opportunities for unique wildlife encounters in Dzanga-Sangha are undeniable. Gorilla groups can be seen wading into the marsh to forage for water plants alongside forest elephants, buffalo, and antelope such as sitatunga.
Mbeli Camp and Mondika Camp provide the best and most affordable rustic vacation accommodation. Amazingly, visitors can view the massive silverbacks on a forested island from a boat. From here, tourists can also head out to view rescued western lowland gorilla orphans being rehabilitated back into the forest in the Léfini Reserve (two hours’ drive north of Brazzaville).
The adventures into the undiscovered Central African Republic’s wilderness are not for the faint-hearted. Searching for wildlife is quite challenging, although equally, African jungle encounters here are some of the wildest and most rewarding on the continent. The country protects the highest concentration of western lowland gorillas and forest elephants worldwide.
In CAR’s Dzanga-Sangha National Park, the country’s southern tip is where tourists can encounter two of the three human-habituated western lowland gorillas. The other is in DRC.
Journey to the rainforests of the remote Dzanga Sangha Reserve, track endangered western lowland gorillas, observe forest elephants, bongos, and mangabey monkeys, and join the local Ba’Aka tribe on a net hunt in the jungle dense rainforests.
Nkuringo Safaris (local safari operator) conducts gorilla trekking adventures in Uganda and Rwanda with safari extensions in Kenya and Tanzania. We take care of the nitty-gritty of planning your vacation adventures itinerary so you don’t have to, like booking your gorilla permits (which can be cumbersome for many travelers), booking your accommodation, and organizing your local transport and transfers.
Although DRC and the other central African destinations provide cheaper vacations, your best encounters with Africa’s wild gorillas will be in Uganda and Rwanda because the two countries have a robust gorilla tourism sector. Logistics, accommodation, and transport for gorilla viewing experiences in Rwanda and Uganda are well cultured towards the most rewarding jungle experience and sustainable goals for the conservation of gorillas.
Additionally, your visit to see gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda will profoundly benefit the communities around the gorilla sanctuaries: and that’s what modern leisure travel is all about.
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