Visitors and tourists who have had the opportunity to view the gorillas find no words to describe the feeling. No wildlife guide-book or study can ever prepare one for this poignant experience. The gorillas are huge. The male can be three times as big as the average man. Yet, in comparison, they are so remarkably peace-loving! After the Chimpanzees and bonobos, gorillas are the next closest living relatives to humans.
Here is a near-complete guide to gorilla tracking in Uganda and Rwanda. We have arranged the issues in a simple question and answer format that is easy to follow.
How can I visit Mountain Gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda?
As long as you are 15 years and above, you can apply for a permit to visit the mountain gorillas. The remaining mountain gorillas can be found in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. Tour operators will be able to assist you with the planning of gorilla tours. The operators make all the necessary arrangements including accommodation, transportation, guides and the permits needed to visit the gorillas.
Do I need to be ‘Fit’ to do the trek for gorillas?
Being ‘fit’ is a relative concept. In most cases, it is related to one’s age, general health well-being, the activity at hand and possibly, the environment one is in. This a fairly complex equation.
According to “Human Development: A Life-Span View” by Robert Kail and John Cavanaugh, both men and women reach the physical fitness peak anywhere from late 20s to early 30s. After this point, your physical strength will decline slowly throughout the remaining years of your life. It is mostly assumed that younger individuals are fitter than elderly persons.
When it comes to gorilla trekking tours in Rwanda or Uganda, some level of fitness is required. Needless to say, if you are suffering from some injuries or disease then it might be wiser to wait until you are 100% well – physically.
The mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda live in high altitude montane forest areas. To get to them, you will need to be able to trek up the wet muddy slopes, passing through thick growth. This requires a reasonable level of physical fitness.
Can I trek to see gorillas if I am over 60 years?
If you are over 60 years but ‘fit’ and healthy, you can take part in the gorilla trekking tours, just like any other person. However, if you are unfit or with a medical condition or with a form of physical challenge(s), there will be need to customize the trip to suit your needs.
In such case, we do recommend the use of a sedan chair. The sedan chair does of course cost a a bit more, then but you are sure to get up and down forest to see the gorillas.
When is the best time to visit the Gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda?
Generally speaking, one can take the gorilla trekking trip all-year round. In the rain forest climate zones where the mountain gorillas live, it is wet any day of the year. Of course, there are particular times of the year when it rains the most. This is during the months of April and May. If any time, is to be avoided, these would be the months to avoid.
However, there must be a time considered optimal. The best time to visit and trek mountain gorillas would be the months of January, February, and from June to September. In fact during this season will have the opportunity to see various other types of wild animals well.
During the above mentioned months, the region is experiencing the dry season and therefore accessing the animals is really simple.
Are you guaranteed to see gorillas when you set out?
With wild animals living in their natural habitat which is so expansive, it is never possible to give anybody a 100% guarantee that they will be able to see the mountain gorillas. However, instances of visitors trekking and getting back without having seen the gorillas are unheard of.
In both Rwanda and Uganda, the park authorities have developed a system that ensure that visitors have a chance to sight the gorillas. The park authorities have trackers who report the location of the habituated gorilla families the previous evening to know the general are the gorilla group is likely to spend the night. And on the day of your trek their is also an advance teams that leaves at dawn to locate the gorilla groups.
Once they trackers locate the group(s), they radio back the GPS co-ordinates to the park headquarters. This information is used by your guides so that before you set off, the guides know which direction to head to.
What sort of clothing should I wear?
As you hike toward the gorillas location, the physical effort and strain will keep you warm. It may feel cooler as you begin but will certainly get warmer as you proceed. It is therefore advisable to have layers that you can peel off depending on how you feel. Wear long trousers to protect your legs against nettles and if possible long-sleeved shirt.
You will need a waterproof jacket and proper hiking boots, preferably with good grip and water-proof. These become very important in case it rains the previous evening/night. Needless to say, warm clothing please.
A waterproofed day-pack is essential for your camera, water bottle and snacks. For a small fee, porters can be hired to carry your day-pack and help you up the steeper slopes.
Is there a minimum or maximum age to visit the gorillas?
Yes, there is age regulation for gorilla trips. For both Rwanda and Uganda gorilla safaris, one must be at least 15 years and above to participate. There is no exception to this rule. There is no upper age limit.
Besides Age Limit, Are there any other restrictions for Gorilla Tracking?
Yes, any gorilla family can only be visited by a maximum of 8 persons on any day. Gorillas, sharing up to 98% of DNA with human beings, are susceptible to human diseases. Likewise, humans can easily pick diseases from the gorillas. For this reason, persons with discernible signs of communicable diseases like flu or common cold may be restricted from visiting the gorillas. You will also be asked to turn away from the gorillas in case you have to sneeze during the trip.
Will I need a Tracking Permit?
Yes, permits must be obtained to tracking the gorillas. This is the case for both Rwanda and Uganda. The number of visitors per day is regulated so that the gorillas are not overwhelmed by visitors.
For Rwanda, there are only 8 gorilla trekking permits per day for trekking each of the 10 habituated groups in volcanoes park. This means that on any single day, not more than 80 permits can be issued to allow tourists to see the gorillas in Volcanoes Park in Rwanda.
Uganda – Just like Rwanda, a maximum of 8 persons are permits are issued per day to visit any of the gorilla families in Bwindi, and Mgahinga. At the time of writing this article, there are 12 habituated gorilla families that can be visited by tourists in Uganda. Eleven of these groups are located at Bwindi Impenetrable National park and 1 at Mgahinga Gorilla park. This means there can only be 96 permits available for any given day to see the gorillas in Uganda.
What is the Cost of Gorilla Permits in Uganda and Rwanda?
In Rwanda, starting from May 2017 gorilla tracking permit effectively costs US$1500 – up from US$750. This includes the park entrance fees as well. The permit can be bought in advance through the ORTPN office in Kigali or through your tour operators in Kigali and abroad. It is important to note that Rwanda has a flat rate the is applicable through out the year.
Subject to availability, permits can also be bought on the spot at Musanze or Kinigi, but there is no guarantee that a permit will be available on any given day. Trying to purchase your gorilla permit on the spot is not a good way of taking a gorilla tour.
Uganda – at the time of writing this article, gorilla permits for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga National Park costing $600 per person per trek. In comparison with Rwanda, Uganda wildlife Authority, does not always use a flat rate for the whole year. Instead, they have been responsive to the different safari seasons and travel dates – when there is less demand, they lower the rates and vice versa. For example, Uganda Wildlife Authority announced discounted rates for gorilla and chimpanzee permits in the low seasons 2017. The discounted fees applicable for April & May, Oct & Nov, was set at $450 gorilla for permits and $100 for chimpanzee permits. Uganda Wildlife Association always reviews tariffs yearly.
How many habituated Gorilla Groups or Families are in Rwanda and Uganda?
Habituation is an simple form of learning, in which a wild animal, after a period of exposure to a stimulus, stops responding.
Gorilla habituation, therefore, is a process where wild mountain gorillas are trained to get used to people. Gorilla Habituation may take between 2 to 3 years to be completed. During the period of habituation, researchers keep on visiting an identified wild gorilla group on a daily basis. They get to learn more about individual gorillas and the way they behave. With time, the gorillas in this group get used to these researchers.
In the long run, each individual gorilla is given a name. Once researchers are sure that these mountain gorillas can be trekked, they then introduce a mock exercise where some few people who may include scientists, journalists start visiting it.
Once such a gorilla family has passed mock exercise, then it is opened for trekking. At the time of writing this post (July 2017), Rwanda has 10 habituated gorilla groups while Uganda had 12.
Can I get a refund in case of cancellation of my gorilla Tour?
Uganda – 50% tracking fee shall be refunded by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), if the visitor fails to track due to illness. This will be at recommendation of the Warden in Charge and this clause only applies to visitors who have already tracked Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or Mgahinga National Park.
Visitors who fail to track the gorillas at Mgahinga National Park as a result of their movement to the neighboring country (Rwanda) shall receive a full refund on their permits. However, those who would have tracked the whole day and failed to view the gorillas for one reason or another will be refunded 75% of the tracking fee. All refunds shall be affected through the Reservation Office at UWA Headquarters in Kampala.
Rwanda – The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) shall refund 50% of the gorilla tracking fee for any visitor showing signs of illness. Any sick visitor shall not be allowed to track the gorillas if declared unfit by the Warden in Charge. The only applies to visitors who have traveled all the way to the park.
How long does it take to reach the Gorillas?
Whether in Uganda or Rwanda, Gorilla trekking day is going to be a long one. The hike to finding the gorillas can be short or long depending on where they would have spent the night before. Typically, it will be 2-4 hours. In some cases though, lucky visitors have been able to find a troop within their 1st hour of trekking. Having said that, the general experience is that trekking in Uganda is a bit more tougher than in Rwanda.
How much time can I spend with the Mountain Gorillas?
The gorilla permit purchased entitles you to 1 hour of spending time with the gorilla group. You will have time to observe and take photos and videos. Once in a while, your guide may allow a little bit more time if the hiking to reach the group was long.
Will Gorilla Permit Cancellation be covered by my travel insurance?
It’s definitely worth checking that your travel insurance does cover you for gorilla trekking as they may require an additional premium to be paid.
Is it possible to combine Gorilla Trekking Tours with Big 5 Safaris?
Yes, you can easily combine gorilla trekking tour with wildlife safaris. Within the major gorilla trekking countries, Rwanda and Uganda your Tour operator can easily help you put together a trip combining big five and primates. It I is also possible to take a wildlife safari in Tanzania combined with Uganda gorilla treks or Kenya Big Five safari with Uganda gorillas or Rwanda gorillas.
Gorilla Safari Packages to consider
Below are some wildlife safaris and gorilla trekking packages offered by Hallmark Travel Planners.
10 Days Kenya Big 5 and Rwanda Gorillas
10 Days Kenya Big 5 and Uganda Gorillas
12 Days Kenya Tanzania Safari and Rwanda Gorillas
12 Days Kenya Highlights and Rwanda Gorillas
If you are looking for a tailored gorilla safari or combined Safari and gorilla tour, click here to get a free quotation from Hallmark Travel Planners.