Gorilla Trekking Tours in Uganda & Rwanda
Trek the mountain gorilla giants of the east-central African rainforest and spend a once-in-a-lifetime moment with the king of the African rainforest and his family.
A gorilla trekking tour in East Africa’s mountain jungles will offer you a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the most celebrated mountain giants. This experience cannot be duplicated anywhere in the world. Mountain Gorilla adventures have seen a spiking interest in Africa safari travelers in the recent decade because of their successful conservation story that has seen them off the critically endangered IUCN list. Visitors that have had this experience can testify how no other wildlife encounter in Africa matches the outstanding experience of spending time face-to-face with East Africa’s wild mountain gorillas.
Gorilla Trekking takes place in a handful of far-flung East Africa jungle locations, adding a layer of exotic adventure to Africa safaris that is hard to match any other itinerary. The fact that gorillas as a species are on the brink of extinction and treks are a highly restricted activity, encountering wild gorillas is considered a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience. To watch a family of mountain gorillas relaxing in their lush forest home is an awe-inspiring privilege and a memory you would take away and remember forever.
The Mountain Gorilla
Standing at 4-6 ft tall and weighing about 300-485 lbs (136 to 220 Kgs), the mountain gorilla (scientific name Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of the two subspecies of the eastern gorilla. With just about 1070 individuals occupying the montane and bamboo forest jungles of Cental & East Africa’s volcanic mountain slopes at an altitude of 2,200–4,300 meters (7,200–14,100 ft), mountain gorillas are listed on the ICUN Red List as endangered species.
Of the four gorilla species, Mountain gorillas live in the most extreme environment. There are two populations protected within small central-eastern Africa border reserves of three countries. One of the gorilla populations is in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa, within three National Parks: Mgahinga, southwest Uganda; Volcanoes, northwest Rwanda; and Virunga, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The other population occupies the jungles of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
In collaboration with wildlife conservation bodies, governments where mountain gorillas live, have habituated some gorilla groups for tourism. Armed with a gorilla trekking permit, any traveler above the age of 15 years can be escorted by trackers into their habitat to spend those precious moments with the primates.
Where To See Mountain Gorillas
Mountain gorillas live in the most extreme volcanic mountains environment at an altitude of 2,200–4,300 meters (7,200–14,100 ft). They are unique to a small section of central-east Africa, the Virunga Massif, which is comprised of three parks located in three countries; Uganda, Rwanda, and DR. Congo.
In Rwanda, travelers can see mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, located 66 mi (106 km) north-west of Kigali capital. The park is about 2.5 hours drive from Kigali International Airport and is dotted with excellent travel accommodation spanning from budget to top world-class luxury lodges. Seeing gorillas on Rwanda’s side is considered mostly by high-class travelers because of the price-tag on the gorilla permit, which more than doubles that on Uganda and DR Congo.
In Uganda, you can see mountain gorillas in one of the two habitats; Mgahinga National Park, which shares habitat with DRC and Rwanda, or in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which protects a different gorilla population within the borders of Uganda. The two rainforest parks in Uganda are less than 300 square miles (10 times smaller than Yellowstone National Park in the USA) and protect more than half of the mountain gorillas’ total population.
In DR Congo, mountain gorillas occupy the slopes of Virunga National Park. Because of the difficulty to access the park in DRC, fewer travelers chose to go that route. Although the Virunga National Park offers a raw and most challenging trekking experience that seasoned hikers would prefer, there are unstable security concerns within the region to consider.
Tailor-made Gorilla Trekking Tours
Gorilla trekking is the hiking into the jungle escorted by park rangers and a tracker/guide to find a selected habituated mountain gorilla group. When the trekkers find the gorilla family, you’re allowed to stay with them, watching them forage, eat and go on their daily chores for an allotted time of one hour.
Mountain gorillas are watched and protected by rangers round the clock. This means the rangers and tracker trekking with you will be communicating with the group that is watching the gorillas for directions on how to reach them. In essence, you’ll not be tracking their location but following a previously laid out route. There, the success rate of gorilla trekking and seeing the mountain gorillas is 98-100%.
Gorilla trekking starts very early in the morning at any of the trailheads indicated on your gorilla permit. But before the rangers escort you into the jungle, a park supervisor will brief you and your entourage on the simple rules and regulations of the whole exercise at the trailhead’s main office. The primary laws include wearing a facemask and staying 10 meters away from the gorillas. Only eight trekkers are allowed to visit one gorilla family in a single day for just one hour.
Trekking to reach the gorillas can take from 30 minutes to 4 hours, depending on where the gorilla group is located in the park. It’s not possible to predict how far the gorillas have moved from the previous day or what direction they’ve taken, so patience is definitely a good state of mind while following trackers at this time. But sooner or later, they will find the group they are seeking.
Most important to note is that the jungle is a seemingly everlasting thicket of tangled green with no street signs, walking trails, or Google Maps voice directions. The forest floor is damp, with no particular path to follow. In some areas, you’ll be cutting through thick foliage, it could be misty with little visibility, and it could rain anytime. So be sure to know what to wear, how to protect your gear, and most importantly, the terrain is uneven and steep and will require you to visit the gym before you embark on this challenging experience.
The first sight of gorillas is unforgettable! Inside the intense green of the dense vegetation, you’ll see dark shapes as you got closer. It takes a few seconds to realize that these shapes are wild gorillas, right there in front of you. Amazingly, they are perfectly calm. The gorillas may glance at you at first but will quickly resume their normal activities. Please make sure you have your facemask on and stay ten meters away to protect the gorillas from any human diseases
Gorilla Habituation Experience
Wild mountain gorillas do not tolerate humans’ presence because of the gruesome history they’ve had with sapiens. Humans have hunted and killed gorillas for hundreds of years, forcing them into inhabitable regions high up the mountains. Thanks to the excellent research work of Dian Fossey on mountain gorillas in 1966, gorilla habituation was introduced.
Gorilla habituation is the slow progressive process of preparing a gorilla family for the human presence within their natural habitat. To become habituated to our company, each gorilla group has undergone a too delicate process, lasting around five years, gradually getting accustomed to the presence of humans. Park rangers, doctors, and researchers start by spending a short period with the gorillas every day, at a certain distance that represents the limit of the gorillas’ comfort zone. As the years go by, they gradually increase the time and reduce the length until they deem the gorillas ready for paying clients to visit them.
In July 2014, UWA introduced the Gorilla Habituation Experience to allow paying participants to join researchers and rangers in the process of habituating a gorilla family, giving paying participants at least 4 hours in the presence of Africa’s wild gorillas. Such a once-in-a-lifetime experience has been described by many as unmatched in all Africa safari activities.
In Uganda, gorilla habituation experience happens in the Rushaga region of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Tourists can now move with researchers to experience how mountain gorillas are habituated. The price for mountain gorilla habituation experience is USD 1,500 per person per day, and one can stay for up to four hours with the gorillas. That’s three hours more than the gorilla trekking experience in Uganda and Rwanda.
Gorilla trekking is exhilarating but not as close as a habituation trip. Gorilla trekking will allow you only one hour in the presence of gorillas, but the habituation experience allows four hours with the mountain gorillas. Because of the dangers and adrenaline rush involving habituation, the price tag on habituation doubles gorilla trekking (at USD 1,500 pp).
Gorilla habituation experience only takes place in regions that have mountain gorillas under habituation. As of now, it’s only in Rushaga where new gorilla groups of Bikingi and Bushaho are under habituation. In terms of tracking numbers, gorilla habituation is limited to only four people, while tracking allows up-to eight people per gorilla group.
Like gorilla tracking, the minimum age for gorilla habituation is 15 years, and above and all booking guidelines are the same as those for gorilla trekking.
To see mountain gorillas, you must first obtain a tracking permit from the UWA in Kampala or RDB in Kigali. If you prefer avoiding the bureaucracy, Members of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators can purchase gorilla permits on your behalf for up to 2 years from the month of tracking.
Gorilla trekking tour experts at Nkuringo Safaris will help you obtain a trekking permit for either one or the park sectors (Nkuringo, Buhoma, or Rushaga Sectors) Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. We’ll also process for you gorilla permits in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, base on availability. Contact our gorilla trip experts to help you plan your safari vacation.
Each Gorilla Permit in Uganda costs USD 700 (July 2020) and Nkuringo Safaris’ processing fee is US$30 per tracking permit. A Gorilla Permit in Rwanda costs USD 1,500 per person.
We cannot make tentative bookings for tracking permits with UWA or RDB. All bookings we make with the wildlife authority must be supported with payment in cash when making the reservation.
Gorilla Tracking Fees 2021
Uganda Wildlife Authority gorilla permit prices are USD 700/$600/Ush 250,000 for Non- Residents/East African Residents/East African Citizens, respectively.
Rwanda Development Board gorilla permits cost USD 1,500/$1,500/$1,500 for Non- Residents/East African Residents/East African Citizens, respectively.
- No persons under 15 years of age may trek Gorillas.
- Gorilla tracking begins at 08.30. Arrive at least 15 mins before this for registration and briefing.
- Permits include a park entry fee, guide fee, a trekking certificate, and a community levy.
- A permit gives you access to a single trailhead and is not transferable. Make sure you’re familiar with which trailhead or park sector where you’ll be starting your gorilla tracking experience.
Best Time For a Gorilla Trip
Rwanda and Uganda’s raised topography means a cooler climate than its tropical setting suggests. Still, if you’re planning a gorilla trek on your East Africa safari holiday, it’s essential to know the best time to go for the most comfortable trekking conditions.
Although gorilla trekking is a year-round activity, the best time for a gorilla trekking trip is during the region’s two dry seasons: January and February and June to September. There are fewer rains during the dry season, the roads are more comfortable to navigate, and you’re sure your itinerary will not be interrupted by a downpour. You should also note that during this time, everyone else will be thinking of traveling to see mountain gorillas, which makes permits very scarce, accommodation is expensive, and privacy hard to secure.
The wet seasons from September to November and March to May usually pull in fewer crowds, accommodation is cheaper, and it’s easier to process a gorilla trekking permit. But choosing gorilla trekking during the wet season would mean you endure the unfriendly experience of torrential rains, impassable roads, and difficult photography. Some travelers choose the wet season for the experience and price tag on safaris.
Game viewing in Uganda’s savannah parks is best at the end of the dry seasons – February and March and September/early October – when wildlife is concentrated around water sources. Bird watching is fantastic all year round but is at its peak between November and April when migrant species are present. Even when considered the rainy season, April and May is a great time to visit Uganda and the Gorillas. The views are stunning, and it rains mostly in the afternoon for 1 hr and not tempering with activities.
Mountain Gorilla Groups/Families
Uganda has two mountain gorilla habitats; Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, separated thousands of years ago from the Virunga Forest, is home to more than 459 mountain gorillas, and Mgahinga National Park is part of the Virungas shared with Rwanda and DRC. More than half the world’s total gorilla population finds sanctuary in both Ugandan habitats. As of December 2020, Uganda hosts 18 habituated gorilla families for tourism, and one group is available only for research. These include Mubare, Habinyanja, Katwe, Rushegura, Oruzongo, Kyaguriro, Muzika, Bitukura, Nshongi, Kahungye, Mishaya, Busingye, Kutu, Bikingi, Bweza, Nkuringo, Christmas, Bushaho, and Nyakagezi found in Mgahinga National Park.
Rwanda has one mountain gorilla habitat that is shared between Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC. Rwanda’s side of the habitat, Volcanoes National Park, is found on the lower slopes of five of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains. As of December 2020, Rwanda hosts 12 habituated gorilla families for tourism. The gorilla groups include Susa (24 members), Sabinyo (20 members), Amahoro (24 members), Umubano (14 members), Kwitonda (34 members), Hirwa (17 members), Agasha (25 members), Ntambara (14 members), Isimbi (20 members), Igishya (32 members), Muhoza (13 members), Pablo (25 members). Read more …
Trekking in Uganda or Rwanda?
A common question among travelers is whether to trek gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda. Both countries offer excellent trekking experiences, but since we offer tailor-made trips, we lay down the pros and cons for either country and let you weigh what works for you.
But your choice comes down to a few options including, the terrain for physical fitness, driving distance from the airport, accommodation choices, permit pricing, and entry restrictions. Otherwise, the gorilla-watching experience is the same in both countries, and the chance of seeing the gorillas is the same.
Rwanda offers more upmarket travel options for accommodation. The price of the gorilla permit is more than double that of Uganda. It is a shorter distance from the airport, and the terrain of trekking the jungle is not so demanding. On the other hand, Uganda offers a raw and challenging experience with more options to combine trekking with savannah game drives, relatively more accommodation options for all markets, and more trekking trailheads/gorilla families in Rwanda.
You can read more in our post about which choice to make: Rwanda or Uganda?