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AAC President Kent Redding’s Gorilla Trekking Tips

August 11, 2023  By: Kent

Recently, my family and I had the great fortune to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda. This was the first time for my sons but not for my wife Kelly and me. But for all of us, it was an exciting privilege to get up-close-and-personal with these amazing primates.

Redding family with gorilla
"Of all the experiences I’ve had in Africa, seeing mountain gorillas in the wild feels like the biggest privilege. They are so amazing and impressive and so incredibly rare that I can’t imagine anyone seeing them and not feeling the same way.” - AAC President Kent Redding

A subspecies of eastern gorillas, mountain gorillas are found only in high mountain forests in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at elevations between 8,000 and 13,000 feet. They are endangered but numbers are growing due to increased conservation and protection in recent decades. The most recent count was 1,063 individuals.

adult gorilla with open mouth

About 600 of those – more than half of the total population – live in 22 groups in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Six groups live in Virunga National Park in DRC and one group in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. All three of these parks border each other protecting the Virunga mountains and the wildlife that lives there. There are 13 more groups in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park about 80 miles to the north.

boys with silverback gorilla

Mountain gorillas can reach a height of over 5 feet when standing on two legs and weigh up to 450 pounds. They can live to 35-45 years and are quite intelligent and immensely strong. They typically spend their lives in family groups that range from a few individuals to up to 40 or more. Their groups consist of one or more ‘silverbacks’, the leaders of the families, along with younger ‘blackback’ males (their color before reaching full maturity), females, juveniles and babies.

gorilla up close

Africa Adventure Consultants doesn’t offer treks in DRC but we do happily offer them in Rwanda and both parks in Uganda. Trekking for mountain gorillas can be an easy stroll through some farmland or a strenuous, steep and slippery multi-hour slog to the top of a mountain. Most times, it’s somewhere in between with hikes of a few hours to spend one precious hour with the gorillas. The rangers in all the parks do their best to assign guests to a gorilla group that matches their hiking ability and motivation.

baby gorilla in tree

On our trek in Volcanoes National Park, we visited the Kwitonda group who are 18 strong. We were able to see nine of them including the impressive and hungry silverback and a playful baby who loved pulling on the older gorillas and hanging from vines and twirling like an acrobat in a Cirque du Soleil show.

baby gorilla playing
“While the silverback was impressive, watching the younger ones playing and wrestling was the most fun to see while spending time with this group,” said Grady Redding. “When the baby was hanging on the vines it looked like they could drop at any moment and they did slip a couple times, but mostly just looked like they were enjoying the ride.”

In Mgahinga Gorilla National Park we visited the Nyakagezi group who has nine members including three silverbacks. It was here that we had our most exciting sightings. Park regulations stipulate that visitors stay a safe distance away from the gorillas, but the gorillas don’t follow the same rules and we had two silverbacks get very close on multiple occasions.

“This was the best gorilla trekking day by far,” said Tate Redding. “The three silverbacks were really big and you could see them really easily as they moved in the open areas and even climbed trees. They got so close I could have touched a couple of them when they moved by us.”
Grady and Tate with gorilla

Other highlights for us were golden monkey trekking in Rwanda (also available in Uganda), cultural visits to local communities, and visiting the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. To get the most out of your next gorilla safari, here are my tips and recommendations:

  • Fly in and out of Kigali. It’s a 2.5-hour drive to Volcanoes National Park and 3.5-4 hours to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
  • Bring a rain jacket and poncho: While we saw little rain on our trip, it can pour just about any time of year and you want to keep yourself and your gear dry.
  • If you want the best photos, bring a digital SLR camera. But if you aren’t into photography then just take pictures with your eyes and your iPhone.
  • Bring gaiters and trekking poles and consider light gloves to prevent abrasions from grabbing on to vegetation as you hike. (Note: Traditional walking sticks are usually available to rent or borrow at the trailheads and some lodges provide gaiters and trekking poles to guests. See our lodging info below.)
  • Bring an N95 mask, as masks are required when near the gorillas. The guides usually have some basic ones to share but N95s will be best at preventing the spread of diseases to the gorillas.
  • Hire a personal porter – it’s a great way to give a local person a job for the day and you might be very happy for the help carrying your backpack and the helping hand on steep or slippery slopes.
  • Trek at least two days per visit. The hour you’re allowed with them goes by really fast and every day is different.
  • Bring lots of small bills in US dollars for tips. In addition to tipping safari guides and gorilla trekking guides, it’s also nice to tip the trackers, assistant guides, personal porters and more. It is also customary to see the basket handed around by local dancers, musicians and guides during your trip.
  • Pick a great lodge. You will want a hot shower and great meal after a strenuous hike. We thoroughly enjoyed our stays at Volcanoes Safaris Virunga Lodge in Rwanda and Mount Gahinga Lodge in Uganda. At each, the staff was friendly, the food delicious and the chalets cozy and comfortable. Volcanoes Safaris also includes gaiters, trekking poles, fleeces, jackets, robes and slippers for their guests and has a spa which provides one free massage per stay. The Volcanoes Safaris properties also offer cultural visits to local villages including the Batwa in Uganda, a marginalized group of former hunter gathers who are attempting to coexist with and integrate into mainstream society.

Interested in learning more about gorilla trekking?

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Photos courtesy AAC President Kent Redding and family