Gorilla Trekking: A Guide
The sound of rustling, or perhaps a stick breaking, clearly interrupts the other forest noises, and your adrenaline surges. You have just come across a group of mountain gorillas, and the memory of every exertion, every bead of sweat it took to get here melts away as you settle in for one of nature’s most profound wildlife experiences. In the hour you spend observing them, as they rest, eat or play, you will be amazed and perhaps moved by just how similar their dynamics and social structures are to our own. These gentle giants are the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas, and although their population has grown from when Sir David Attenborough shone a light on their plight back in 1979, their numbers are still estimated to be just over 1,000 total, living in the rainforests of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo.
Spending time face to face with the gorillas is an intimate, powerful and often emotional experience, bearing witness to the last of a species in their own natural habitat, and particularly a species that is so like closely linked to us. There are some unique logistics that go into getting you in front of these amazing creatures, and several considerations to keep in mind.
Gorillas: There are two species of gorillas that can be found in Africa, and each has an upland and a lowland variety. The first and more commonly visited are the mountain gorillas referenced above. They can be found in two main areas: the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda, and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and generally at the higher altitudes provided by the mountains of the region. This is actually the same protected area – it just happens to have a political border across it, about which the gorillas, of course, do not care. These gorillas tend to stick to the dense forests and are larger and have darker, shaggier hair than their lowland cousins. Their populations are slightly on the rise; however; they remain critically endangered as their habitat continues to disappear.
Years of instability, political strife, logging and hunting in neighboring Congo has placed even more pressure on the remaining populations of lowland gorillas. Due to their remote nature, the true number of how many are left in the wild in unknown, but they have also been known to live in isolated corners of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. The more accessible populations in the Congo stick to lower, swampy forests and are smaller and lighter in color, with shorter hair than those found in the mountains. Increased research and tourism to this region are already making in impact with local communicates who are seeing the value in protecting these creatures as a resource for generations to come. For those who are truly adventurous, you can go in search of the lowland gorillas too, and we are happy to help you find out how.
The Experience: The rise of tourism to the stunning mountains of Rwanda and Uganda has led to increased awareness, education, and an incredible amount of conservation to protect the forests the gorillas call home, and claw back some of the habitat that has been lost. A network of dedicated rangers, scientists, doctors, teachers, and conservationists work in tandem to safeguard the forests for future generations, both human and ape. A visit to see them will positively impact these projects and ultimately aid in conservation.
Searching for the gorillas is done in the capable hands of a team of rangers, scouts and porters, and in small groups. There are a limited number of permits, per area and per day, and this is strictly controlled to make sure that the gorillas do not get too comfortable with humans and that the utmost respect is shown to them in their habitat.
In the early hours of the day, you will have a quick breakfast and depart for the park gates, where you will have a briefing from the head ranger on what to expect, and meet your fellow trekkers. The rangers know roughly where the various family groups of gorillas are on any given day. They will assess the group’s fitness levels and ages to try and make this activity accessible to as many people as possible. You you will need a basic level of fitness, as the hike can be steep and hot, and it may last anywhere from 1-6 hours, depending on the gorillas’ location that day. Your guide will make sure you stop along the way to stay hydrated and fed through the sometimes-tough conditions. On top of that, we always recommend you think about your gear – footwear especially – and bring a comfortable pair of well broken-in hiking boots, good socks, and rain gear, for both yourself and your camera. Other essentials may include gaiters to protect your lower legs and ankles, hiking poles, and a daypack to carry anything you need. Gaiters and poles can often be rented from your lodge or from the park gate, but not always.
When you do find a gorilla family, your ranger will ask you to leave everything but your camera. He will then take you close enough to observe the gorillas intimately without threatening them. There are no fences between you; only mutual respect. The gorillas are habituated to human observers and go about their natural business – foraging, grooming and napping – without fear. Indeed, the youngsters are often curious about humans and have a very playful attitude that tests the patience of their teenage gorilla babysitters. The placid nature of the gorilla family is wonderful to see, but remember that your presence is shrewdly observed by the patriarch of the family: the massive silverback male. We recommend that you spend part of the time taking photos, but at least 20 minutes just observing – you’ll come away with a far greater sense of having experienced a group of gorillas in their natural habitat.
Once you come across the particular family group you are headed for, you will have one hour to spend as you watch these amazing creatures go about their secret forest lives. Your ranger will direct you where to settle in so that you can observe the gorillas in an immersive way without presenting a threat to them. These creatures are semi-habituated to the presence of humans and generally go about their business, eating, playing, sleeping, or tending to daily grooming, paying you no mind, but it is important to remember that you are still witnessing wild creatures, in their natural habitat, so don’t be alarmed if you find yourself under the watchful eye of the silverback.
After your time with these majestic animals, you will say your farewells and head back down to your lodge for a well-deserved shower and some reflection on the day.
When to Go: Trekking to see the gorillas is a year-round activity with very little difference in climate, due to the close proximity to the Equator. If you have flexibility, you may want to consider visiting during one of the two drier seasons: the first is from December to February and the second lasts from early June to late September. While these can be slightly more comfortable, the forests will always be wet and humid, and mud is a given at any time of year, so it is important to be prepared for that and not let the seasonality dictate your trip too much. Occasionally there are even seasonal discounts offered on permits in Uganda, in what is considered “rainy season,” which can ease the expense of a trip and end up presenting similar conditions for a trek.
Did you know:
– We share 98.3% of our DNA with gorillas, and because of the close connection they are susceptible to human illnesses. If you are sick, have a temperature or even a slight cold, you will not be permitted to go on a gorilla trek.
-Even in the so-called dry season, the forests where the gorillas live will experience some form of precipitation most days – so be prepared. A good waterproof jacket, and rain covers for your day pack, cell phone or camera are highly recommended.
– While we can never guarantee anything when it comes to wild animals, because the population of gorillas is so small, and so well monitored by a vast network of researchers, guides, rangers and visitors like you, there is a 99% chance that you will see them. They travel in large family groups, leaving trails, and often settle in one area for days at a time, making them fairly easy to track.
– You will be in their home, and it is a very up-close and personal experience, so although these creatures have been semi-habituated to the presence of humans you should never touch them, regardless of how close they come or how much you might want to. The gorillas are wild and may do as they please; however, you will be asked to maintain a distance of about 25 feet at all times.
-While photos will be a memorable keepsake from your time with the gorillas, we strongly suggest that you spend a portion of your time simple observing, without the lens or the screen. This often has a far bigger impact than you think, as you reflect on your time spent with these creatures.
– Porters are available for your trek, and although it might seem silly to hire someone to carry your daypack, there are a few reasons why we encourage you to do this. For a small amount, generally about $20 USD, you are actually creating steady employment for local communities, contributing to a sense of pride and ownership over the natural resources of the area, encouraging conservation and, in some cases, allowing legitimate work for someone whose only other option might be logging or poaching. We are happy to include the fee for a porter in your tour and always ensure that everyone is fairly paid.
– As mentioned above, some gear like gaiters and walking polls can be rented, but not at all lodges, and we cannot guarantee the quality of the gear, so we highly suggest you look into bringing your own.
-While most gorilla encounters are up close and personal, more skittish creatures like new moms, playful babies or stern silverbacks may take refuge in nests or trees, making them harder to see, so we always suggest binoculars to enhance the experience.
-All levels of fitness are welcomed, but if you have any particular concerns or issues, please do let us know and we will do our best to accommodate, plan ahead and make this experience a reality for you.