Understanding how challenging a gorilla trek in Rwanda can be.
One common question arises when planning gorilla trekking tours in Rwanda: Is trekking to see gorillas difficult? A gorilla trek in Rwanda can be tough, although the experience can vary widely based on different factors. Depending on the circumstances, the trek could be a demanding venture through the wilderness or a more relaxed and enjoyable stroll.
Mountain gorillas live in thick jungles with uneven landscapes, high humidity, and elevations reaching 3,000 meters. While the journey to encounter gorillas in Rwanda can be demanding, it’s generally achievable for individuals with moderate physical fitness. Guides often clear paths with machetes through the dense jungle, and there’s assistance available from porters to navigate the toughest sections of the forest. Anticipate getting muddy and sweaty during your hike. Additionally, we strongly recommend spending a day or several days in Kinigi to acclimatize to high altitudes before starting your gorilla trek.
In this article, we explore various factors that influence the level of challenge you might face during a gorilla trek in Rwanda.
Stages of trekking gorillas in Volcanoes National Park
The journey to see gorillas in Rwanda can be broken down into two main parts. The first part involves walking 30 to 60 minutes from the closest parking area to the park’s boundary. The time it takes depends on how fast the trekkers walk and where the gorilla group is located.
The second part is the trek through the forest to actually find the gorillas. These gorillas are usually tracked in advance by scouts who stick with the gorillas and send back location bearings to your team. This part of the journey can take anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. On average, for groups closer to the edge of the forest, it’s around 20 to 30 minutes.
The first part is relatively easy to predict. It is generally quite flat and not too demanding, except for the more challenging uphill climb to reach the Susa Group. However, the second part is more unpredictable. It depends on where the gorillas are and how steep the terrain is.
The density of the vegetation also plays a big role. Trekkers might need to bend, crawl, and find their way through the jungle, especially when dealing with sharp nettles. The weather adds another layer of complexity. If it has rained recently, the ground can be muddy and slippery.
Fitness Levels and Age Considerations
It’s important to recognize that your age and fitness level play a crucial role in determining how difficult gorilla trekking in Rwanda can be. This is particularly noteworthy if you’re assigned to track the most demanding group, the Susa Family. Susa Group aside, individuals who are moderately fit and under 40 years old usually don’t experience significant difficulties. However, it’s worth noting that many trekkers are in their 50s or 60s, which can make the hike more taxing for them.
Even if you’re someone who bikes to work daily, don’t underestimate the toughness of a Rwanda gorilla trek. You might still need to take regular breaks due to the effects of high-altitude breathing. So, spend a day or two outside the park to acclimatize.
While the gorilla trek can be quite challenging, especially for older travelers, it’s quite rare for them to feel so overwhelmed that they decide to turn back. The experience is very motivating, and people usually push through the difficulties.
Location of Rwanda’s gorilla groups
One of the key factors that determine how challenging your gorilla trekking experience in Rwanda will be is the specific gorilla group you are assigned to visit. As a general guideline, the trek to reach the Susa Group is typically the most demanding (but also the most rewarding, as it has around 19 members). On the other hand, the Sabyinyo Group is usually the easiest to access.
Trekking to groups like Kwitonda, Hirwa, and Group Thirteen is usually relatively easy. In contrast, the hikes to the Amahoro and Umubano Groups can be more strenuous, though not as tough as the trek to the Susa Group. It’s important to note that any group might present unexpected challenges or be relatively easy to reach on any given day.
Additionally, it’s not possible to guarantee in advance which specific group you’ll be assigned to by the park authorities. However, the guides at Kiningi make a conscious effort to match individuals with the most suitable group, especially if you express your preferences. Typically, those trekking to the Susa Group are often younger individuals with a lean physique, while the opposite tends to be true for the Sabyinyo Group.
Challenges of Terrain, Weather, and Altitude
There are two more important factors to consider: the uneven terrain and the high altitude. Many visitors who come to the gorilla highlands are used to living in towns and cities with well-paved roads and sidewalks. The paths they walk back home are usually well-maintained and easy to navigate. However, when trekking in the gorilla habitat, you’ll encounter uneven, slippery paths due to changing seasons.
If you find it challenging to deal with these conditions, it’s wise to avoid the rainy seasons, especially from March to May, when the paths can become quite muddy and difficult to traverse.
Altitude is another factor to consider. Gorilla tracking in Rwanda takes place at elevations of 2,500 to 3,000 meters. While not high enough to cause altitude sickness, it’s still enough to make even physically fit individuals feel breathless, especially if they are coming from lower altitudes. This is especially true for travelers who arrive by air from places with lower altitudes.
Most of Rwanda is situated above 1,500 meters in elevation. For travelers concerned about altitude, it’s a good idea to spend a couple of days in the Nyungwe Forest area (altitude 2,000 meters) to acclimate to the higher altitudes before heading to the Virunga Mountains.
Similarly, if you are traveling overland from other parts of Africa, planning your Rwanda gorilla safari itinerary to spend some time at medium-high altitudes before the challenging gorilla trek is recommended. For instance, if you’re coming from Kenya, spending a few days in Nairobi (2,300 meters) or the Maasai Mara (1,600 meters) will better prepare you for the higher altitudes of the gorilla habitat than spending time at the coast.
Local guides and helpers or porters
When you start your gorilla trek, guides will often offer you a simple walking stick, not something mass-produced, but it can be really helpful as an extra support on uneven and slippery paths.
If you’re carrying photography gear or daypack, it’s a good idea to hire a porter for a reasonable fee. These local helpers come from the surrounding communities, hoping to make a buck by offering muscle help. They can carry your daypack and even help you through the challenging sections of the trail.
Once you’re on the trail, the guide sets the pace according to the slowest person in the group. So, take your time and feel free to ask for breaks whenever you need them. It’s important to bring and drink plenty of water and have some energy snacks on hand. You can easily buy biscuits, chocolate, and energy bars from supermarkets in places like Kigali or Musanze.
The good news is that most people who go gorilla trekking in Rwanda discover that the hiking part is more accessible than they anticipated. In almost all cases, any tiredness you might feel during the climb will quickly fade away when you catch sight of the magnificent silverback gorilla. The excitement of the encounter tends to wipe out the exhaustion!
In conclusion, embarking on a gorilla trekking adventure in Rwanda presents challenges and rewards. While the difficulty varies based on factors like age, fitness level, group allocation, terrain, weather, and altitude, the experience offers a unique opportunity to connect with these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. The physical demands are worth it, and with proper preparation, the journey becomes more manageable. So, if you’re ready to embrace the excitement and wonder of encountering Africa’s gorillas up close, don’t let the potential challenges deter you. With local guides, porters, and the thrill of the sighting itself, your gorilla trek in Rwanda can be an unforgettable and truly fulfilling experience.