For most visitors to Africa, gorilla trekking features as a major safari highlight. To take part in this thrilling primate adventure, you have to be fully-prepared and depending on what your travel interests are in Africa, mountain gorillas are only trekked in 3 countries worldwide and that is; Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Uganda, you can pay a visit to Bwindi National Park or Mgahinga National Park which is situated in southwestern Uganda. Bwindi itself covers an area of about 331 square kilometers featuring mainly the montane and lowland forests, straddling at altitude of about 1160 and 2607 meters. This park also inhabits over 120 mammal species, 350 bird species, 27 frogs, 220 butterflies, 1000 flowering plant species plus more than 163 tree species as well as 104 ferns. The other parks include Volcanoes National Park in northwestern Rwanda and the Virunga National Park in eastern DR Congo that make up part of the Great Virunga Conservation Area.
When to go for gorilla trekking
Given the kind of habitat where these creatures thrive in Africa, you have to be keen on which season you intend to pay a visit to any park of your choice to track gorillas. However, majority of visitors prefer traveling during the dry season which is also the peak season for most of these parks. This season starts from June to September and from December to February and it is characterized by low amount of rainfall and the ground remains relatively drier making it simpler for one to hike through the dense rain forest while in search of group. The wet season is equally better on its way for you to track gorillas. It begins from March to May and from October to November. This period comes with heavy amount of rainfall and plenty of forage for gorillas to feed thus less movement. Note mountain gorillas live at altitude of about 2200 to 4500 and treks take you through hike via thick forest and steep slopes that all require you to be physically fit.
What to pack for a gorilla trek
The whole gorilla trek kick starts with you getting up early enough then you organize all that is required of you. This means that you have to get your permit, passport ready and not to forget other items especially waterproof hiking boots, bottled water, energy giving snacks, gardening gloves, first aid kit, long sleeved shirt/t-shirt, rain jacket/poncho and others. You also need a walking stick and you can find it at the park headquarters or at your safari lodge. Hire a porter to help you carry the heavy luggage to allow you concentrate on your trek only.
After organizing yourself, pick up early in the morning at your lodge ready to head off to the park headquarters for briefing by one of the park officials who takes you through the set rules and regulations to be followed while you are in the forest looking for a group of gorillas that is assigned to you. At the headquarters, make sure that you have a permit with you plus passport for you to be cleared. In Bwindi National Park treks kick start in any of the 4 main trailheads-Buhoma, Ruhija, Nkuringo and Rushaga sectors while in Mgahinga National Park, you gather at its headquarters. Equally, briefing is done at Volcanoes National Park headquarters for those of you who wish to explore mountain gorillas while on Rwanda safari. Uganda is composed of about 17 habituated families which include among others Mubare Group, Rushegura, Habinyanja, Bitukura, Oruzogo, Kyaguliro, Nshongi, Kahungye, Bikingi, Busingye, Bweza, Bushaho, Nkuringo, Christmas, Katwe and Nyakagezi in Mgahinga National Park. In Rwanda, there are 10 groups that have been habituated and set for tourism. They include the Susa A and Susa B/Karisimbi group, Kwitonda, Sabyinyo, Ugenda, Bwenge, Hirwa, Umubano, Group 13/Agashya and Amahoro. In the DR Congo Virunga National Park, you track one of the 8 groups that have been habituated and they include Rugendo, Munyaga, Mapuwa, Kabirizi, Lulengo, Bageni, Humba, Nyakamwe a mention but a few. There are also some habituated families for those of you who wish to trek the eastern lowland gorillas in Kahuzi Biega national park.
To get to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, you land in at Entebbe International Airport and you either set off by road or by air. By road, you will have about 10 hours’ drive or take a direct flight from Entebbe airport or Kajjansi airstrip then land into Kisoro/Kihihi airstrip where you can connect to any park of your choice for gorilla trekking. You need a 4 wheel drive safari vehicle for smooth road trip to these parks. In Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park is 2 to 3 hours’ drive from Kigali and this is regarded as the most accessible gorilla protected area.
Where to stay
In Uganda, the available safari lodges for you choose for your overnight stay while on gorilla safari include Chameleon Hill lodge, Buhoma lodge, Mahogany springs lodge, Silverback lodge, Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, Trackers safari lodge, Buhoma Forest Resort, Gorilla Safari Lodge, Bwindi Jungle Lodge and others. In Rwanda, you can spend a night while on gorilla safari in Volcanoes National Park in any of safari lodges like Bisate lodge, Sabyinyo silverback lodge, Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge, Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, Kinigi guesthouse and many more. In the DR Congo Virunga National Park the available safari lodges include Tchegera Island Tented Camp, Mikeno Lodge, Bukima Tented Camp, Kibumba Tented Camp and Nyiragongo summit cabins.
Gorilla permits in Uganda cost $600 per person, $1500 in Rwanda and $400 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). You can obtain a permit in any of the countries through a ground tour operator and make sure that the tour company you opt to deal with is registered and recognized or contact the respective park reservation. In Uganda, contact reservation department at Uganda Wildlife Authority and in Rwanda-the Rwanda Development Board.
Rules and regulations for gorilla trekking
Before you set off for actual trek, you will be briefed on dos and don’ts that you have to observe at all times while in the forest searching for a group of these beautiful creatures. They include-only 8 people are allowed to track 1 habituated gorilla family per day; you are required to keep your voice low; you are always reminded to leave the forest or park the way they found it. No disposing off any kind of rubbish; maintain a distance of 7 meters away from gorillas; No flashlight camera is allowed while taking photos of these amazing creatures. If your camera has a flashlight please, turn it off before shooting photos; you have only an hour with them-to take photos, explore their behavior and body gestures and many others that will be briefed to you.