The Africa Adventure Consultants staff regularly travels to Africa so we can provide our guests with the most up-to-date and exciting experiences the continent has to offer. Gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda is one of our most often requested activities, and we believe it’s critical to have first-hand experience on the adventures we create for others. To that end, Marketing Manager Beth recently spent a day trekking through the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in search of mountain gorillas. She shares more about her experience and her packing tips for trekking below. Missed her previous blog? Click here to read about more of Beth’s adventures in Uganda.
Before I left for Uganda, people kept telling me that gorilla trekking would be one of the most amazing travel experiences I’ve ever had. I was concerned it was over-hyped and I would be a little disappointed when the day was over. I couldn’t have been more wrong! Gorilla trekking in Uganda was not only a highlight of my trip, but one of the best travel experiences of my life.
The day for trekkers begins around 8 am with a briefing at headquarters. We watched a short video about the history of the gorillas in the area, heard an introduction from a ranger, and then we were split into hiking groups to receive further instruction from our guide. Our driver-guide for the trip had previously chatted with the trekking guides about the skill levels and health concerns of those in our group. I cannot stress enough how important it is to honestly communicate to your guide ahead of time about your physical ability and if you have any concerns about the hike. The more the guides know about your health and skill level, the better it is for everyone!
While the trekking guides never know for sure where the gorilla families will be located, they are in communication with a team of trackers who head out early in the morning to help locate the families. Because the guides are in communication with the trackers, they often have a general idea which family will be closest or furthest from the trailhead. However, it’s never guaranteed that every group will find their assigned family or that they will be where the trackers and guide teams think they’ll be.
Before setting out, we had the option of hiring porters for the trip. Regardless of your physical ability, I highly recommend a porter. They carry your pack and provide stability on the uneven terrain. If you’re not an experienced hiker, I recommend two (or maybe three) porters. In addition to providing much-needed support during the hike, hiring a porter is a great way to support the local community and get to know a local.
Our hiking group consisted of a guide, eight hikers, porters, two security guards to protect against dangerous animals like forest elephants and a researcher. How long it takes to find the gorillas really varies. It took us four hours to find them, even though the same family had only been about 45 minutes away from the starting point the day prior, and sometimes groups can hike all day without ever finding the gorillas.
The hike itself was beautiful, with breathtaking views and lush vegetation all around us. While the gorillas steal the show for the day (rightfully so!), the hike itself was still a highlight of the trip. Bwindi National Park is surrounded by coffee and tea farms and you can often see locals at their homes or working in the fields from the trail. The area is filled with a variety of plants, including palm trees and beautiful flowers. You’ll likely be on a semi-cleared path though until you get closer to the gorillas. Despite being semi-cleared, it was slippery and uneven and everyone in my trekking group relied on their porter for assistance, even those of us who are used to hiking.
Our guide was great about checking the pace of the group often and adjusting as necessary. We also took plenty of breaks for food and water. Our lodge packed us a lunch and water to take with us in our day packs, as most in the area do. I recommend also packing some small, lightweight snacks as well in case of a long trekking day.
After about four hours trekking, our guide could tell we were getting very close to the gorilla family. At this point, the porters stayed behind with packs and the trekkers continued with just their cameras and the guide. This is the only part of the day where you won’t have assistance walking and it likely won’t be on a cleared trail. Our guide used a machete to clear low-hanging branches as we made our way through the dense forest until we came upon the Rushegura gorilla group. This group was habituated for trekking in 2000 and started receiving tourists in 2002.
My trekking group was lucky to see the entire family. Mountain gorillas and humans share 98 percent of DNA, and it is fascinating spotting the similarities in their behavior. From the alpha male silverback all the way down to the three little ones, each of the 16 gorillas gave our group something to admire, giggle at, and enjoy. The three juveniles, in particular, were so fun to watch. The two slightly older gorillas would lead the way, climbing trees, swinging and wrestling with each other. The youngest would tag along, trying to follow in their footsteps and playfully picking on the older siblings when she could. The adult gorillas spent time eating, grooming, resting and feeding their young.
Our hour with the gorillas passed by all too quickly, but it was well worth the $700 gorilla permit fee*, especially when you consider it goes toward helping to protect this endangered species. Our guide told us to all take one more picture and then we started our trek back out of the forest. Meeting up with our porters, we had a snack and then started hiking again. It took us only two hours to hike out, because we caught a different trail and left a different way than we had hiked in. The guide phoned our safari driver guide, who met us in a small village at the edge of the forest to drive us back to our lodge.
Gorilla trekking is an experience I will never forget, and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to see them. These beautiful animals are only found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and there are only about a thousand in existence. Mountain gorillas are unable to survive in captivity, so if you have a desire to see them let us help you plan your trek!
Gorilla trekking calls for a different packing list than a traditional safari. Here are my packing recommendations:
Gorilla trekking in Uganda directly supports gorilla conservation. Conservation efforts, supported through trekking permit fees, have helped the worldwide mountain gorilla population grow to over a thousand gorillas. The COVID-19 pandemic restricted gorilla trekking and therefore conservation efforts.
However, trekking is once again permitted with some additional safety precautions in place. Mandatory temperature screenings using non-contact thermometers and mandatory hand washing/sanitizing stations are in place at the park gates. Trekkers will also need to social distance from the other hikers and from the gorillas in order to keep the animals safe. And, like before the pandemic, hikers are not permitted to trek if they feel ill.
*permit fee subject to change