The most famous wildlife experience in Africa, gorilla trekking is on top of many African safari traveler’s wish to see gorillas in their natural habitat. Mountain gorillas are in danger of extinction in the wild due to habitat loss and human poaching. There aren’t many places but you are able to track them in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in eastern DRC.
Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo conservation efforts have turned gorillas into treasure trove for wildlife enthusiasts. When a gorilla permit is purchased, part of the money helps in conservation of the critically endangered mountain gorillas and their natural habitats.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park & Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Travelers who want a diverse and adventurous gorilla safari experience as well as doing other adventure activities, Uganda is the place to go.
Gorilla trekking is relatively cheaper. Gorilla permits are always on discount from $600 to $450 each permit per person in the months of April, May and November regarded as wet season.
Uganda has a good number of gorillas. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has 400 gorillas and the number grows every year as new ones are borne. There about 15 groups of gorillas that has been habituated including one which is found in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Seeing gorillas on a guided trek is guaranteed once a gorilla permit is fully booked.
In addition to gorilla trekking, where visitors spend 1 hour with gorillas, new experience gorilla habituation allow visitors to spend more time up to 4 hours with semi-habituated gorillas. The experience is available in Ruhija sector, with Biking and Bushaho groups of gorillas still under habituation. More than just “darkness” (which is what Bwindi means in the local language of the Bakiga)
Bwindi has thick vegetation and steep forested mountains account for strenuous but adventurous treks. Gorillas are located in four different gorilla trekking trailheads. They include Buhoma with 3 groups of gorillas, Ruhija has 4, Rushaga has 5 and Nkuringo has 1 while Mgahinga Gorilla National Park has one habituated group of gorillas called Nyakagezi. Visitors usually chose one of the gorilla trekking centers at the time of booking a gorilla permit. These are accessible for gorilla trekking all year round as well as their neighboring centers like Buhoma and Nkuringo boast a range of accommodations from budget, mid-range to up-market lodges. There are also home stays, craft shops, locally owned camps and food markets that offer an opportunity to discover the BaTwa pygmies and Bakiga cultural encounters.
Trekking in more than 2 trail heads offers a different experience because each group of gorillas has unique features. Gorillas in Bwindi are much accustomed to humans and easy to watch and photograph despite the misconception that thick vegetation disrupts photos.
Getting to southwestern Uganda for gorilla trekking by road takes almost 12 hours day. However, for adventurous visitors with time, a lot of Ugandan rural culture is discovered along the way from Kampala.
Scheduled charter flights are available and take 2 hours from Kajjansi airfield in Kampala or Entebbe airport landing at Kisoro airstrip about 10 km to Bwindi forest or Mgahinga Park.
Bwindi impenetrable forest national park is recommended for anyone who wants an adventurous experience more than just gorilla trekking experience. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site due to high levels of biological diversity, there are 120 species of mammals along with chimpanzee and 10 species of primates. Out of 463 birds 23 are Albertine rift endemics, a variety of butterflies, reptiles and hiking trails lead visitors to spectacular waterfalls, orchids, rivers and Mubwindi swamp is in Ruhija.
Fundamentally, a typical gorilla safari in Uganda takes at least 3 days, considering one day of traveling and another for gorilla trekking. By adding a few days to your gorilla safari, Uganda’s diversity of wildlife and culture can be discovered.
After the gorilla trek in Bwindi forest, it’s easy to extend your safari to the nearby Queen Elizabeth national park for big mammal viewing and Kazinga channel boat cruise, Kibale Forest National Park for chimpanzee tracking, Mgahinga park for golden monkey tracking, Semuliki for birding and mountaineering the snow peaks of Mt. Rwenzori, 3rd tallest range in Africa.
Volcanoes National Park
Travelers looking for quick accessibility to gorilla trekking should go to Volcanoes National Park located in Musanze district Northern Province.
The park is accessible by 2 hours drive from the capital Kigali. It’s possible for time bound visitors to trek gorillas and make a return flight in the evening or cross the border to Uganda or DRC while on safari.
Not with many natural resources but smart, politically safe and clean, Rwanda has got well established eco tourism and gorilla trekking managed by Rwandan Development Board.
There are 10 habituated groups of gorillas which can be trekked by visitors in Volcanoes National Park. Each day, 8 visitors are able to trek one gorilla group for one hour. This implies a total of 80 people enter the forest daily starting from Kinigi gorilla trekking center and park headquarters.
The terrain is much dominated by bamboo with less thick undergrowth which presents clear gorilla photo opportunity. However, you have less adventurous experience since all gorillas are located in one range of habitats.
Booking for a specific group of gorillas is not possible; however, Rwandan development board guides have categorized gorillas into low, medium and difficult treks. Hence visitors can choose depending on their fitness and trekking capacity.
Gorilla trekking is the main tourist activity but one of the highlights is the opportunity for visitors to make their own gorillas in the mist. A hike up to Dian Fossey’s grave site never seem to end reminding us of her gorilla conservation efforts based at Karisoke research center.
From the old movie “Gorillas in the Mist” to the yearly gorilla naming ceremony, gorillas seem to have recovered a great deal making the atrocities committed in 1994 pale in comparison.
Much of that is learnt on a visit to Iby’Iwacu cultural village, locals exhibit their warrior intore dances while earning a living by offering accommodation, food, cultural encounters including storytelling, quality handicrafts. Through that, locals have improved their livelihoods and achieved economic development through sustainable agriculture. At the same contribute to conservation of gorillas and their natural habitats.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is a home to 200 mountain gorillas which recently recovered from civil wars and militia rebel conflicts and violence. Located in eastern DRC, the park is protected by Virunga park rangers and Congolese institute for nature and wildlife conservation.
Unlike in the past 2 decades, nowadays the park is very safe for gorilla trekking. Virunga receives few visitors with an opportunity to trek gorillas minus the crowds.
Travelers on a safari can access the park from via Rwanda and Uganda borders. Infrastructure has also improved, in the park with up-market lodges, camps as well as accommodation in the city of Goma.
The park has 6 habituated groups of gorillas. Each is visited by a maximum of 6 people per hour per day. In addition to enjoy privacy during gorilla treks, visitors also enjoy wildlife viewing and hike to the world’s most active volcano Mt. Nyiragongo.
Virunga Park is a home mammals such as forest elephants, buffalos, and lions, hippos, giant forest hogs, antelopes like endangered okapi, primates including chimpanzee as well as birds and reptiles.
Odzala Kokoua National Park
Odzala National Park is a home to western lowland gorillas which are less popular like their counter parts the mountain gorillas.
The park is very remote with limited accommodation, visitors are recommended to book a gorilla safari in advance with a tour operator.
Trekking the western lowland gorillas is the main activity done all year round. Ngaga camp is the main center to begin gorilla treks in search of two habituated families of western lowland gorillas found in Ndezehe forest.
Few visitors make it to the park for gorilla trekking hence one is likely to see gorillas himself with guides alone. The two habituated gorilla families have many individuals. Neptuno has 16 individuals while Jupiter has 25 individuals.
There are only 3 camps Lango, Mboko and Ngaga, the main point for gorilla trekking and research. Overnight visitors can enjoy a range a range of activities including nature walks, night game drives, kayaks and canoes, birding, wildlife viewing and cultural encounters.
International flights land in the capital Brazzaville. Private scheduled fly in safaris take only 2 hours from Brazzaville to Mboko airstrip located inside Oldzala National Park.
Travelling by road to the park is a great option for adventurous visitors with enough time. It takes 10 – 14 hours to drive using a coaster bus or 4WD vehicle from Brazzaville. Usually stopovers are made at Etoumbi town for refreshments before driving further to your camp for 4 hours.