Encountering a massive Silverback gorilla and family in their natural habitat was an amazing and humbling moment. With less than 900 mountain gorillas left in the world, the privilege of that experience is not lost on us. Planning our gorilla trek in Rwanda took a bit of legwork but below are tips and information we found most useful.
Where can you go gorilla trekking?
The endangered mountain gorillas can only be found in three countries- Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We had already booked a flight into Rwanda and out of Uganda so our choice was really between those two countries. After extensive research, we decided to see the gorillas in Rwanda. Distance factored heavily in our decision. Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is easily accessible from Kigali with a 2-2.5 hour drive. In contrast, a long drive (9-10 hours) is needed to reach Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda from Kampala. Some tours do have a fly option with charter flights though.
In addition to the distance issue, we read the trekking is easier in Rwanda and visitors are more likely to get direct views of the gorillas since Bwindi is more densely forested.
When is the best time to see the gorillas?
Gorilla trekking can be done year round but tends to be more popular during the dry season. Dry season is from December-February and June-September but the temperature itself does not vary much year round. During our visit, the temperature was a pleasant 60s while Kigali was in the 80s.
Permit requirements and costs
Both Rwanda and Uganda require visitors to obtain a permit in order to trek gorillas. Currently, for Rwanda, a permit costs $1,500 US for non-nationals (fee was doubled from $750 on May 7, 2017). In Uganda, the permit cost is $600 but discounts may be available during the slower wet season.
The number of gorilla permits given per day are limited. Only 8 people are allowed to see each gorilla group. During the busy season, permits need to be purchased months in advance due to high demand.
If you visit the gorillas as part of a tour, the tour company will obtain permits for you. If you visit the gorillas independently, you can book permits on your own by email at http://www.rwandatourism.com/.
Tours and transportation from park headquarters to the trek starting point
Most tourists rely on a tour company to make all necessary arrangements (permit, accommodation nearby and transportation to the park). The main reason for doing this versus making independent arrangements is because a vehicle (no taxis) is required to take you from the check in point at Parc National des Volcans to the trek starting point.
Many tour companies are available to arrange mountain gorilla safaris in Rwanda. Using a local tour company is a great low cost option. We contacted three local tour companies that ran short tours. Ultimately, we chose Amahoro Tours because they were able to customize our trip so we could spend an extra day in the area visiting a special school we had read about.
Online forums, specifically on fodors.com and tripadvisor.com are great sources of information. They include trip reports and are good places to ask questions.
Although not popular, it is possible to do the gorilla trek in Rwanda without hiring a tour. One option is to hire a vehicle for the day from the closest town (Ruhengeri). Another option is to take public transportation to the area and then hitch a ride from the park check in area to the trek starting point in someone else’s vehicle. Keep in mind there is no guarantee there will be extra room for you.
Degree of difficulty and choosing a gorilla group
There is no standard experience. Each gorilla trekking experience will vary depending on the day of the trek and the gorilla family you are assigned. Some groups require a shorter, easier trek and some groups require a longer, more difficult trek. Some groups will stay closer to the boundaries of the park and some will go further up the mountain. Groups are constantly moving so the distance of a particular gorilla group differs daily.
Your gorilla trekking permit does not specify which group you will visit. On the day of the trek, guides, drivers and park staff negotiate among themselves which visitors are assigned to which group. At that point, the guides already have a general idea where each group is that day. You might be asked if you prefer an easy, medium or difficult trek. If you’re not asked but have a preference, make sure to let them know. Otherwise, you will likely be assigned a group based on your perceived age and fitness level.
The actual hike to the gorillas can range anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 or more hours. Although usually the most difficult, many people seek to visit the Susa group. Not only is this the largest gorilla group you can visit, it is also a group Dian Fossey studied for years.
Another sought after group is that guided by Francois Bigirimana- the most famous and knowledgeable guide around. With over 30 years experience, including working with Fossey, Francois is in a league of his own. We debated whether to choose the Susa group or Francois’ and decided to go with Francois. Best. Decision. Ever. He is a character and a wealth of knowledge. Having lived with a group of gorillas for an extended period of time, Francois is even able to communicate with them through grunts, shrieks and chest thumps. He knows the gorillas and they know him.
The Rwanda Tourism website (http://www.rwandatourism.com/things-to-do/gorilla-tracking) has a description of each gorilla family.
Hiring a porter
Once you are driven to the trek starting point, you will find a group of porters waiting. Their job is to carry your backpack and also give you a hand during challenging spots on the hike. We both had tiny bags we could easily carry ourselves but each hired one anyway. The cost to hire a porter is $10 (we also gave an extra $10 as a tip). Hiring a porter for such a nominal fee compared to the actual permit at least provides locals with much needed employment. Some are even reformed poachers.
Rules for Tracking Gorillas
There are certains guidelines trekkers should follow to ensure their safety and the safety of the gorillas:
• Do not trek if you have a cold or flu.
• Keep a distance of 7 meters away (the gorillas can still approach you)
• No eating or drinking near the gorillas
• Keep your voice low and movements slow
• Avoid eye contact
The gorilla trekking experience- general schedule of the day
7am Check in at park headquarters. You sign up, drink some coffee and wait around for a bit. Drivers and rangers negotiate group assignments. Once decided, you will meet guides for a briefing.
8am Your driver will take you to the start of the trek. Each group has a different starting point. Guides will hitch a ride in one of the cars.
Begin trek with guides, porters and armed military officers.
First 30 minutes will be an easy walk through flat farmlands. Once the forest boundary is reached, the actual trek begins.
Remember, trek length varies (usually between 1-5 hours).
Once you reach the vicinity of the gorillas, porters will stay behind with all bags. Only cameras and whatever you have in your pockets are allowed.
Visitors are allowed 1 hour to observe the gorillas and may take photos at this time. You will observe playing, fighting, eating, swinging on trees among the gorilla family.
Before you know it, time is up and you find yourself hiking back through the forest, past the farmland and driving back to the park headquarters.
You will receive a certificate of completion at park headquarters. We returned at 1:10 p.m. but this will be later if your trek is longer.
Be prepared- essentials for your gorilla trek
• Rwanda is a yellow fever and malaria zone. Make sure you receive your vaccination and appropriate meds beforehand.
• Don’t forget cash for tips. It is customary to tip guides, porters and trackers.
• Bring hiking or rubber boots with good traction as the trails are muddy.
• A light long sleeve shirt and long pants are essential to avoid stinging nettles and branches. Tuck pants in socks to avoid ants.
• A rain jacket and dry bag for your camera are a good idea. We lucked out on the day of our trek but it poured the day before and after.
• Don’t forget gardening gloves. This sounds funny but they were handy for grabbing branches for support and pushing those stinging nettles off.