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Everything you need to know about trekking with mountain gorillas
Every traveller’s Bucket List contains ‘Mountain Gorilla Trek’ somewhere in the first couple of lines. It’s one of the most moving and exciting wildlife encounters because you get so close you can hear each breath, and because that moment of eye-contact will remain with you forever.

Mother Gorilla relaxing. Gorilla trekking Uganda.

Mother Gorilla relaxing. Gorilla trekking Uganda.

Here’s everything you need to know about mountain gorillas trekking in Uganda and Rwanda.

Where do the mountain gorillas live?

Three national frontiers converge on the dormant volcanoes where the mountain gorillas live in central Africa: Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (or Zaire as was). This is the place where the deep, dark forests of the Congo Basin meet the wide, open grasslands of east Africa. The line of contact between the mountains and grassland is an abrupt volcanic mountain range known as the Virunga that continues north to merge into the Mountains of The Moon, or Ruwenzori Mountain range.

Gorilla trekking in the Virunga Conservation Area

Each of these countries protects its own portion of the Virunga Mountains which when combined forms the 435 Km² Virunga Conservation Area (VCA). The Rwandan section is called “Volcano National Park” (NP); in Uganda it’s divided in two and named “Mgahinga” and “Bwindi Impenetrable Forest”; and in DRC it’s “Parc National de Virunga”. The gorillas are unaware of the boundaries and view it all as a single habitat. Having said that, gorilla families are territorial and tend to remain in a given area and follow a gentle nomadic lifestyle, following the grazing.

At the time of writing Djomba, Rumangabo and Kahuzi-Biega (all in the DRC) are a little unsettled which tends to rule out gorilla trekking visits to DRC.

How are gorilla treks organised?

Treks to visit the mountain gorillas are well organised and responsibly guided in both Uganda and Rwanda. Visitor numbers are restricted to eight persons per gorilla family per day. Eight gorilla families in Rwanda and four in Uganda are habituated meaning there are about 8 x 12 = 96 permits available each day. Permits cost 600 US$ per person per day in Uganda (rising to $700 in July 2020) and $1,500 in Rwanda. That’s a significant sum but the inspiring fact is that this income stream works and mountain gorilla numbers have grown over the last few decades. I first took a group to visit the gorillas in 1984 and at that time there were fewer than 600 individuals in the world. Today there are approaching 1,100: not too shabby for 30 years, particularly when you consider the shocking human history in this area during the same period.

Treks start early (08:00 hrs) and the walk-in lasts between 30 mins and several hours before contact is made with the family. Bear in mind that the average altitude is 2,500m so physical effort is more onerous than it is in the UK. The guides are English speaking and have amazing relationships with their family of gorillas. There is no doubt that there is personal recognition and trust between the guide and the silverback (dominant male gorilla) which is a humbling phenomenon to observe.

Before you set off you are briefed about gorilla etiquette and the dos and don’ts of the trek. It’s all obvious stuff, but the first time you encounter a silverback, which can weigh in at over 200 Kg it’s a little daunting. The main rule is not to maintain direct eye contact, which is interpreted as a challenge. Time spent with a family is a pretty mellow affair and the family generally continues to browse and feed in the normal way. The youngsters are usually confident and may well approach you, in which case you need to move away. Another of the rules that you will be told about is that you must maintain a “barrier distance” of 7 m between you and a gorilla to prevent any human diseases (zoonoses) being passed to the gorilla family.
Is a DIY trek possible?

The short answer is ‘yes’. But … mountain gorillas live in a remote part of Africa where the tourist infrastructure is rather limited, so independent travel is really quite tricky, unless you have limitless time available. The problem then is that your permit, which you must buy in Kampala, is for a specific date, which is non-changeable. Better to join an organised gorilla safari.

The most popular Mountain Gorilla safari, max 6 persons, is this 15-day gorilla trek 

Up close whilst gorilla trekking in Uganda.

Up close whilst gorilla trekking in Uganda.

Everything you need to know about trekking with mountain gorillas

We have a representative in Kampala who visits the National Parks office personally to secure the gorilla permit; all travel logistics are in-house and dovetailed with the accommodation. We are in a position to guarantee a gorilla trek.

The gorilla permit issuing authority releases permits in an established manner: the result is that about 90% are taken up by local gorilla safari operators. If you want to obtain your own permit, here’s how:-

1. Inform the authority of the dates of your tour to Uganda and specify the date for gorilla trekking
2. They will reply and say whether your preferred date is available, and temporarily book it
3. They will send you their bank details so that you can transfer the money to Uganda
4. They will send you an acknowledgement email once funds have cleared. You must also pay their bank fees
5. You send a copy of your passport to register for your permit.
6. Your name will be registered and the gorilla permit issued.

Or ask us, and we will do all this for exactly the same price!

This 15 safari is our most popular gorilla safari

What to expect on a mountain gorilla trek
Well, it is a rainforest; and it is in a mountain range, but actually it’s not a boot-camp! The rangers will go ahead of you and machete a path (they’re not called machetes in Africa, they’re called “pangas”.) It can be steep; it can be wet and muddy, but take your time and so long as you’re reasonably fit, no problem. The altitude is 2,500 m give-or-take, so not too high, but it is humid. Bring a waterbottle with you and keep hydrated. You can also hire a personal porter to assist you on the steep stretches. This is a good idea because you provide employment to the local community and simultaneously makes the trek easier for you. The price is about $20, so excellent value for money.

What does “habituated” mean?
This is the most amazing bit of the mountain gorilla story. The process begins with a park ranger walking quietly into the rainforest. Long before you see a gorilla, they hear you and disappear; silently. If that process is repeated every day, for a year or more, eventually the gorillas learn that you’re not a threat, and you’re able to get to within 30 m of a family and actually see them. Over the next year that distance gradually reduces to a matter of just a few metres and eventually the young gorillas will come up and ‘explore’ you. The crucial relationship is the one forged between the Silverback and the ranger who makes all the visits during the first couple of years.

Traveller’s Tale
In 1984 I trekked in to see the mountain gorillas with a ranger to visit a family that weren’t yet ‘open to the public’. It was a long walk in (2 hours) and then the Silverback exploded out of the bush like a charging bull. Unbelievably fast. He stopped just short of the ranger, then, using finger and thumb, picked the rangers beret off. Sniffed it. And dropped it at our feet, before strolling back to his family. Absolutely terrifying. Absolutely awe-inspiring.

Simply put, ‘habituation’ is tolerance. The gorillas (and of course chimps, who go through the same procedure) will allow humans into their circle, for a short time. Happy days.

Mountain gorilla habitat.
Virunga National Park is a rainforest; and the clue is in the name! It drips; it’s misty and damp and it’s pretty rainy at times all through the year: annual rainfall is about 3m compared to about 75cm in most of the UK. The altitude ranges from 2,200m to over 4,300 m and to put that in context, Ben Nevis is just over 1,000m and the summit of Kilimanjaro is 5,895m. So yes it is high, but not killer-high and not high enough to experience altitude sickness.

The vegetation is dense and consists of huge clumps of bamboo, a wide variety of beautiful ferns and those dangly vines, favoured by Tarzan, called gallium vines. There are also a lot of plant species of the senecio family: better known as the daisy family which is the largest single plant family in the world. You’ll find examples from the Galapagos all the way to the African jungles. Gorillas love them, and being nomadic feeder, will move about the mountain side following the best grazing. This area is known as sub-alpine.

Everything you need to know about trekking with mountain gorillas

Gorilla trekking gear guide
We’ll send you a full packing list with your booking confirmation, but to give you an inkling, here’s a few items, from the bottom up:

Boots: there are loads on the market and a good pair will last you a decade or longer, so invest wisely. Just consider how inconvenient (or worse) a twisted or broken ankle would be.

Long trekking trousers: you’ll be surprised how many stinging nettles there are in the Virungas!

Gloves: many of the plants in the Virungas have wicked spines and thorns. Don’t spend on a pukka pair of waterproof gloves, because they may get damaged, but a good pair of leather gardening gloves, costing about a fiver, is ideal.

Shell jacket: it’s that rainforest thing again!

Long-sleeved shirt: reduce exposed skin as much as possible. It’s a jungle out there and some things will scratch, of graze; others may bite or sting, so cover up.

How much is a gorilla trekking permit?
A permit must match your passport and is for one person for a specified date and a specified gorilla family.

A gorilla permit in Uganda will cost US $700 from July 2020. It’s currently $600.

A gorilla permit in Rwanda costs US $1,500

What is the best season to visit the Mountain Gorillas?
The gorillas live just south of the Equator, but at a slightly raised altitude, so the seasons don’t really vary that much. It’s good all through the year. The busiest seasons are June to September and December to February. But the reason for this seasonality it Western hemisphere holidays, rather than local weather conditions.

Where should I stay?
There are two factors at play: the size of your wallet and more pertinently, which gorilla family you’re allocated. You really don’t want a 3 or 4 hour drive to get from your hotel to the correct park gate. There are loads of lodges, please ask us for a selection, with prices, once your permit is secured.

How do you compare Uganda and Rwanda as gorilla safari destinations?
As pointed out earlier, gorillas are nomadic and wander about the Virunga in search of the best food. They are unaware of national boundaries. The forest is identical. The terrain is identical. There is an obvious permit price difference. The accommodation in the two countries is comparable. I think the way to approach this subject is to think about what else you want to do: few travellers visit Uganda only to see the mountain gorillas: most combine gorilla trekking with a conventional safari, and on this basis, Uganda wins hands down: Murchison Falls is outstanding; Queen Elizabeth NP is very different, but equally outstanding. The best park in Rwanda is l’Akagera but it was decimated during the Hutu/Tutsi genocide. The wonderful organisation African Parks took over the management in 2018, but it has its work cut out! Birding in Uganda is also rather good.

Gorilla Species
There are no, zero, not a single mountain gorilla is any zoo worldwide. They simply can’t survive “detention”. I find that fact remarkable when you consider how many other wildlife species will put up with detention. The gorillas you do see in captivity are lowland gorillas. There are five species of gorilla:

I. The Western lowland gorilla (gorilla gorilla)
II. The Cross River gorilla (gorilla gorilla diehli)
III. The Eastern gorilla (gorilla beringei)
IV. The Eastern lowland gorilla (gorilla beringei graueri)
V. The Mountain gorilla (gorilla beringei beringei)

There is also some discussion amongst the boffins about whether there are five species, or are they in fact sub-species (i.e. will they interbreed?). Interesting question and I’m not at all sure how you go about asking a gorilla for his partner preferences.

Highlight of Gorilla trekking safari.

Highlight of gorilla trekking safari.

The first discovery of mountain gorillas
The western world didn’t know about gorillas until 1902. At that time Rwanda was a German colony, and one Captain von Berenge was mountaineering with his chum when they spotted a family. So shot two. The bones plus skin were send to Berlin where it was acknowledged as a new species, a mountain gorilla. News of gorillas attracted hunters, especially to the Congo, and the ‘new’ ape was added to the ‘Big Five’. Kinda makes you ashamed to be part of the human species.

Ironic that von Berenge is now immortal having generously given his name to the species.

To balance this, read Walter Baumgärtel’s book “Up among the Mountain Gorillas” about his personal encounters with the tranquil giant apes of southern Uganda.

Mountain gorilla trekking: What does a gorilla look like?
Males have twice the bulk of females and can tip the scales at 300 Kg and stand 6 feet tall. They are phenomenally strong. I have seen a Silverback (mature male) sitting down, reach out and grasp a bamboo shoot as thick as my arm, rotate his wrist and snap it clean in two. The name ‘silverback’ comes from the growth of grey hair, along his back, that a males develops when fully mature. A silverback’s arm-span can exceed 7 feet. They can live up to 50 years. They are ground-dwelling, but can climb trees. They share 98% of the same DNA as us.

 

Sustainability of gorilla trekking
One argument says, “Just by being there you’re part of the problem”. The other side balances this with, “The income generated from the sale of carefully monitored gorilla permits has paid for the conservation of the species, local employment and the growth of a pretty green safari activity.”

When gorilla meets gorilla
When mountain gorillas are threatened they do attack to protect their family. When different mountain gorilla families meet, there is a fight between silverbacks, usually to the death. The family group varies from 10 to 40 individuals. Mountain gorillas communicate through sounds like roars, grunts and shouts; 25 individual sounds have been documented by researchers.

Mountain Gorilla Predators
The supreme threat to the Mountain Gorillas is human encroachment for settlement. Furthermore, there are certain human diseases which are fatal to gorillas.

The difference between lowland and mountain gorillas
Lowland gorillas are smaller, have brownish-grey coats and a distinct brow ridge, whereas the mountain gorillas are larger with dark black coats. The Mountain gorilla is the most uncommon primate in the world with fewer than 1,100 individuals. There are more than 100,000 lowland gorillas just in the Republic of Congo alone.

Family dynamics
Gorilla families are led by a dominant male, occasionally supported by a second and third male, known as the silverback/s. The name comes from the fact that around the age of thirteen the hair along a male’s back turns grey, or silver. A silverback will have a harem of several females all of whom carry his young. Silverbacks are known to kill infants not fathered by themselves so that the mother comes into oestrous more quickly. The silverback’s chief role is to protect his family and produce the next generation. He also decides when, where and how fast they move camp, pacing the day’s travel to accommodate the young, sick or injured. Silverbacks are especially gentle towards their own infants.

Female gorillas reach sexual maturity at around eight years. Often the silverback in their group is their father so to avoid inbreeding mature females will leave the group they were born into. They will transfer to another established group or link up with a lone silverback who is establishing his harem.

Gorilla reproduction is slow. The interval between infants is four years (hence the incentive of silverbacks to commit infanticide on young that are not their own) and infant mortality is high. In her lifetime a mother will raise between two and six offspring, remaining fertile till the end of her life. Infants are generally born at night after a gestation period of 8½ months. For the first three months infants are completely dependent upon their mothers.

Witness a tender moment. Mountain Gorilla trekking safari Uganda.

Witness a tender moment. Mountain Gorilla trekking safari Uganda.

At three months, they begin to walk and climb on and around their mother. During the first six months baby gorillas develop about twice as fast as humans. Weaning takes place at 3½ months and as they grow, play takes on an increasing importance. Over the next few years, social play reflect the roles that each will assume as an adult.

Conflict with humans
“Habituation” is the process of introducing humans to a wild group of gorillas and takes at least two years. It’s a question of establishing trust and the same guide with return to a gorilla family day after day, each day trying to get closer and closer, until his presence is accepted. The next step is for unfamiliar humans to accompany the guide. This continues until the guide is tolerated to visit and bring complete strangers (you). However, the habituation process can create problems because it removes the natural apprehension that gorillas have about humans. If gorillas are comfortable around humans, it can lead to things such as crop raiding and the transmission of disease as gorillas, humans and livestock interact. Over the years Environmental Impact Assessments have come up with the solution: the creation of buffer zones between the national park and the surrounding villages. Furthermore, it’s important that local communities share the income stream created by gorilla tourism, and that gorilla crop pillaging is reduced as much as possible by protecting fields with solar-powered electric fences.

Creating a buffer zone is a diplomatic tightrope. Extensive consultation between conservationists and local communities is required before land can be bought and the buffer created. The buffer zone needs to be at least 300m wide and stretch the entire length of the park boundary. The inner two-thirds of a buffer zone is owned by the park authorities and the outer third is co-owned between the park and the village. Human activity is not allowed in the inner section but community activities, commensurate with gorilla conservation (such as grazing cattle) are permitted in the outer section.

Similar models are followed in Project Tiger in India, but with less success.

Juvenile gorilla chewing. Gorilla trekking Uganda.

Juvenile gorilla chewing. Gorilla trekking Uganda.

Gorilla Etiquette
Rule: Max 8 persons to visit a gorilla family per day for a maximum of one hour.
Reason: minimises gorilla family disturbance and the risk of influencing or changing their behaviour.

Rule: You must maintain a barrier distance between yourself and the gorillas of 5 to 7 metres. If you are approached by a gorilla (and juveniles are particularly prone to do this) back away and keep your belongings with you. Listen to the guides instructions.
Reason: prevents passing any disease to the gorillas.

Rule: Do not touch gorillas.
Reason: they are wild animals; and there is a risk of passing infection.

Rule: Take care not to drop any litter or food debris in the park
Reason: risk of poisoning or choking animals; and risk of introducing infection.

Rule: Keep your voice low while in the park, especially when you’re with the gorillas.
Reason: human voices spook all wildlife.

Rule: While with the gorillas, remain in a cohesive group.
Reason: if you spread out, the silverback may interpret it as a “surrounding manoeuvre” and react accordingly.

Rule: Do not eat or drink while with the gorillas.
Reason: raises the risk of dropping scraps and either interfering with the natural diet, or introducing infection/disease.

Rule: Keep low: sit or crouch while with the gorillas.
Reason: if you loom large you will appear as a threat and the silverback may react accordingly.

Rule: Maintain “submissive body language” which means keep your hands and arms down; don’t point; avoid staring and avoid maintaining eye contact.
Reason: if you appear as a threat the silverback will do his job and protect his family.

Rule: Don’t clear away or damage vegetation just to get that “perfect” shot. The guides will do the necessary.
Reason: this is a pristine environment so best to keep it that way.

Rule: If a silverback beats his chest, shakes the hell out of the vegetation or demonstrates in any other way, you must remain still and crouched. Do not run away.
Reason: under such circumstances, if you run, you will probably be chased and knocked over. Listen to the guide and follow his instructions.

Rule: If you are ill on the day of your visit, don’t go.
Reason: Gorillas can catch most human diseases, but lack the antibodies to cope with most of them.

Rule: Minimum visitor age is 15 yrs.
Reason: children younger than 15 can’t be relied upon to follow all these rules.

Ugandan Gorilla Families
Safari in Africa is a wonderful experience and many people become addicted. The highlight of any safari to Africa has to be an encounter with the mountain gorillas. No other wildlife experience has the edge and pure excitement of being almost within touching distance of such a powerful creature with nothing but fresh air between you.

Gorilla trekking safari Uganda.

Gorilla trekking safari Uganda.

 

Gorilla trekking in Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Parks.
There are two gorilla national parks in Uganda: Mgahinga and Bwindi. There are five gorilla families within these parks that are habituated.

Mgahinga Gorilla NP
The only habituated family in Mgahinga is:-
Nyakagezi
In November 2004, this family of eight gorillas, led by the silverback Nyakagezi, disappeared over the border into Rwanda not to be seen again until April 2005. It caused a panic in the gorilla safari world because it meant that at that time Uganda had no gorillas habituated (Bwindi was non-operational then). This family is currently back in Uganda.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest: the four families:-
Mubare
Silverback plus 3 others. This is the oldest family in Bwindi, habituated in 1993 and opened for gorilla safaris in 1994. Kashundwe (alpha female) gave birth to a male 23rd July 2010.

Habinyanja
Silverbacks x 2 (dominant one named Rwansigazi) plus 18 individuals. Main range is the Nyamishamba area. The name Habinyanja comes from the local language (Rukiga) and means ‘body of water’ (nyanja). The original group was first sighted near a swamp! The latest birth was a male born 28th July 2010.

Rushegura
Silverback named Mwirima plus four others.

Nkuringo
The name derives from the hill where this group was first observed. They were habituated between 1997 and 1999 but the first tourist visit wasn’t till 2004. The family consists of a silverback plus 19 others. In 2001 the whole group became infected with scabies which required all family members to be treated with Ivomectin. All family members recovered except one infant who died. A less obvious casualty was Posho, who was a juvenile at the time (born in 1997). Today he is one of the most peaceful in the group, with a very calm demeanour, who rarely makes a sound and befriends visitors, trackers, guides and the other gorillas in the Nkuringo group – rather like a Labrador behaves! Posho is prone to shyness which manifests itself by him picking up twigs and eating them in front of you! Posho is smaller than a black-back his age should be and his left arm (which was the one infected) is smaller than his right.