Africa Adventure Consultants Journey Specialist Angie enjoyed a Rwanda and Uganda safari adventure this autumn, including spending time with mountain gorillas. The differences between the two countries are not well known and Angie joins us on the blog to dive deeper into the various gorilla trekking regions in each country to help travelers choose the right locale for their unforgettable gorilla experience!
Gorilla trekking is one of Africa Adventure Consultants’ top adventures in Africa. Sharing approximately 98 percent of our DNA, gorillas are powerful, intelligent and entertaining! There is something humbling and soul-shifting about being so close to these beautiful creatures and sharing a space in nature with them. In October, I returned from a voyage to both Uganda and Rwanda and was privileged to get further insight into various regions and trekking opportunities, as well as taking a rare peek into the world of the mountain gorilla!
We understand how overwhelming all the options can be when planning a primate safari while also understanding the importance of selecting ‘the right fit’ for each traveler. Beyond just designing tailor-made adventures to suit individual interests, travel preferences, wish lists and budgets, when it comes to primate trekking it is also important to factor in individual fitness levels and general health.
I have put together a guideline on the various gorilla trekking regions of Uganda and Rwanda with the aim of giving you the best opportunity to maximize your experience and match your fitness potential! Please note that this is a guideline only, as gorillas roam freely in wild spaces, so an element of unpredictability is the only guarantee! With that said, the success rate of seeing mountain gorillas is almost 99% and in over a decade of being a Journey Specialist I have yet to have a trekking guest return without spending time with these gentle giants.
Uganda holds approximately 60% of the total population of mountain gorillas left in the world. Travelers can trek in two parks in Uganda – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and/or Mgahinga National Park.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is home to 23 mountain gorilla families. Of these, 19 family groups are habituated (gorilla habituation is the deliberate and careful introduction of a family of wild gorillas to the presence of people). These groups are spread across four sections of the park that include Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. A few other families completing the habituation process will be added to the list of families to be tracked which will increase the number of habituated gorilla families in Bwindi shortly.
The Buhoma sector setting is absolutely stunning! It is my personal favorite ‘backdrop’ for observing the gorillas. The forest is dramatic, dense and green. The chorus of birds and running water is the soundtrack to your trek and the lush greenery feels other-worldly. If fairies did exist, this is where they would call home!
There are multiple habituated families in the Buhoma sector so treks can range from easy to difficult depending on which family you are assigned. As there are a larger number of families here there is a higher likelihood of (some) families being located closer to the park headquarters, though gorillas move as they wish, disregarding borders and other human constructs.
It is important to note that the majestic mountain setting impacts the trekking experience despite whatever easy/moderate/difficult distance one must trek to reach their assigned family. Sections can be wet and muddy, and although the majority of our trek was along natural trails, we were required to trek through low vegetation for some of our adventure. There are also sections of some ‘ups’ and ‘downs’. We highly recommend hiring a porter for trekkers of all abilities. They will help carry your gear and help you navigate through the more difficult sections of your trek. This also helps to support local employment.
This sector is approximately 90 minutes’ drive from Buhoma. It is often used for when limited permits are exhausted in the Buhoma sector. It is home to just three families and is the quietest and most secluded of the four sectors in Uganda. It is at one of the highest points of the forest, so it affords picturesque views of lush rolling hills and the Virunga mountains in the distance.
Along with six habituated gorilla families, this is the only sector in Bwindi to offer the gorilla habituation experience. This experience allows for travelers to join researchers on their daily visit to a select family of wild gorillas. Habituation is the process of familiarizing gorillas with people and it can take from two to three years. The habituation trekking group is smaller with only 4 travelers (vs the normal 8) and you can spend up to four hours with the family once located. An advanced level of fitness may be required to keep up with the family should they start to move. It is important to note that trackers are not always able to locate the families in advance of the trek, so you may be involved with that process which can involve a lot of trekking.
Like the Nkuringo sector (see below) this trek may be challenging due to undulating hills. The Rushaga sector provides great vantage points with uninterrupted views of the forest canopy, Lake Mutanda and the Virunga Mountains. The opportunity to be a part of the team of researchers and observe the gorillas for four hours is the greatest reward!
Trekking in the Nkuringo sector is the most challenging and you need to be prepared to trek for up to 6-8 hours. There is a steep descent at the beginning of a trek, making the return trek extra taxing. I did not trek for gorillas in this sector but did hike the Ivy Trail from the Buhoma sector that covers a small section of the Nkuringo sector and offers views of the surrounding landscape. Expect rugged, high hills and prepare for many ascents and descents. It is not for the faint-hearted and is best suited for travelers who enjoy a challenge!
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in southwestern Uganda is one of my favorite regions. It is off the beaten path with very few accommodation options. The experience here feels more intimate. It is the smallest of Uganda’s national parks and has only one habituated gorilla family. I was assured that the family is often near the park headquarters or close to a second starting point (reached by vehicle), so trekking can be less of a challenge. There is just one family, so if on your given trekking day they are high up – that’s where you have to go! The ecosystem ranges from woodlands and bamboo forests to moorland and tree heathers. It is also beautiful with a very different feel to Buhoma.
The slogan of the region is ‘where silver meets gold’ as it also offers travelers the experience to trek for gorillas and golden monkeys.
This park is a great option to combine gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda as it is a short 2-3 road hour transfer from Mgahinga National Park into Rwanda’s Virunga region. I love the combo of Mahinga Lodge and Virunga Lodge!
Rwanda offers the most luxurious accommodations, improved infrastructure and is where Dian Fossey did her ground-breaking work with mountain gorillas. If fitness is not entirely your thing (but seeing the gorillas is) – Rwanda (with Buhoma a close second) can be the most promising. There is just one gorilla trekking area in Rwanda and treks are through forests of bamboo and farmlands, and sometimes on the sloped sides of the dormant volcanoes. The vegetation tends to be quite open and great for easy viewing. It is important to note, however, your assigned family can move higher into the mountains, so as with any region, it’s best to mentally prepare for 6 hours of trekking as well as trekking at high altitude.
Only a limited number of daily permits are available and in Uganda and Rwanda trekking groups are limited to only eight guests each day. Permits must be pre-booked and cost USD 1,500 in Rwanda and USD 700 in Uganda (gorilla habituation is USD 1,500) with a large portion going towards research, conservation and supporting local communities.
Let us know what your fitness level is at the planning stage so we can recommend the best trekking area for you. We have contacts and long-standing relationships allowing us to request (not guarantee) that you are assigned a family to best match your fitness level.
Unless opting for a stretcher/sedan chair, best to prepare for a challenge no matter what your fitness level may be! We do our best to select best-fit regions and make special requests for our guests but ultimately you are trekking for wild animals who can be on the move at any given moment. Permits are limited so wildlife authorities also need to make assignments on best chance of successful treks for all trekkers. We think the reward will outweigh the challenge!
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Photos courtesy AAC Journey Specialist Angie Voigt and Volcanoes Safaris