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Everything You Need to Know Before Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

Playful baby gorilla with hands of bigger gorilla

Are you planning a mountain gorilla trekking trip to Uganda soon?  Well, whether you are going through a local tour company or doing a self-drive trip – here is everything you need to know and consider before travelling to Uganda.

What is gorilla trekking?

In simple terms, this trekking is walking in the footsteps of the mountain gorillas without disturbing or encroaching on their habitat.  To set them at their ease is the goal, so you might have to do what gorillas do when in their part of Rome. Dian Fossey, the great naturalist and conservationist, even went as far as mimicking their behavior and eating habits. Of course, you will not have to do this but you must, like Fossey, respect their forested home.

This sort of trekking is done by tourists who hike mountains and cut through the undergrowth with ranger guides in order to make contact with these gentle giants, the mountain gorillas. Gorilla trekking is thus a means of tracking.

Oh yes, it’s such a singular experience that going mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda is a must for everyone lucky enough to visit Uganda.

To embark on this  gorilla trekking experience, first acquire a gorilla permit.

The gorilla permit guarantees you a tracking spot when you arrive at the park. You need to make permit reservations in advance; meaning that tracking the mountain gorillas without reservations is impossible.

Another thing to note when planning your gorilla trekking trip is that the permits are on high demand, so you should book as early as possible: especially if you plan on tracking gorillas in the peak season (June – September).

Did you know that mountain gorilla trekking is the most popular tourism activity in Uganda?

Yes, it sure is. That’s why gorilla trekking permits sell out fast!

If you wait a few weeks or a few months before your intended trekking period, you’ll most likely find the permits sold out for that period. So don’t book your plane ticket to Uganda until you have confirmed your gorilla trekking date and tracking point.

 

What options do I have for gorilla trekking in Uganda?

There are two national parks in Uganda (both in South Western Uganda) where you can track mountain gorillas: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has 4 locations for tracking  mountain gorillas and these are Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga, and Nkuringo while in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park you only have the option of tracking the Nyakigezi group.

The location of tracking will be determined by Uganda Wildlife Authorities at the time of booking. The group or family to track will be chosen by the rangers on the morning of tracking based on your trekking abilities.

Best Time of Year for Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

Gorilla trekking in Uganda is a year-round activity, but travelers with flexible travel dates should look to the drier months of late May, June, July, and August and December to February when the roads are easier to navigate and the gorilla treks are easier underfoot. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find the mountain gorillas in the rest of the year. Those looking for enhanced value, should consider going gorilla trekking around March (start off the first rain season in Uganda), when prices for tracking permits and lodges begin to fall. Note that the gorilla treks themselves are more challenging during the rains but more exciting as the adventure is a notch higher. Also, beware that the peak tourist time is from June to September, so be aware that the gorilla viewing permits for these months are harder to secure and usually sell out quickly. Remember, no permit = no gorilla trekking, do if you want to track gorillas, you need to book early.

 

Best time of the day to see mountain gorillas in Uganda

Rain isn’t usually a factor when it comes to gorilla trekking, so there’s no need to monitor the daily local weather for rain. Most gorilla trekking excursions will run whether it’s raining or not.

 

How close can you get to habituated mountain gorilla families when gorilla trekking in Uganda?

The closet you can get to these gorillas is 7 meters, but this at times becomes impossible when the curious baby gorillas walk towards you. In such situations listen to the guidance and instructions of your ranger guide.

 

How hard is gorilla trekking in Uganda?

How hard is gorilla trekking

 

You shall be trekking 2000 to 3000 meters above sea level, so you shall be literally rising above low expectations to heights of adventure. In doing so, you shall be with a ranger guide who knows a lot about habituated mountain gorillas. These guides are well trained, so you shall be in very safe hands. Still, you should be physically fit since the climb is long and arduous. We encourage you hire a porter to carry your heavy luggage during your gorilla trekking experience, so as to lighten your load and allow you to take pictures or film experiences. It is also more challenging trekking these steep slopes during the wet season because the trails becomes slippery. It is thus advisable for those with mobility issues to trek during dry seasons which run through June to August and December to February.

The only way of getting to Bwindi Impenetrable Park is on the winding hill roads of south western Uganda.

 Note: The last sections of roads before you get to the park entrances are murram and not fully built, so prepare for muddy trips if you travel during the rain seasons.

 

Cell Phone and WiFi access while gorilla trekking

A times there is no cell reception at the lodges or in the park, which makes it a bit impossible to communicate with others by phone.

Most lodges near the park offer free WiFi to their guests, but at times its not reliable and internet speeds can be very low. You can use social media or check your email but live videos, streaming or Skype calls may not be possible.

 

Will I be reimbursed when I miss my gorilla trekking trip?

When someone misses their scheduled gorilla tracking experience, UWA will not reimburse their tracking fees.

 

How long does the actual gorilla trekking take?

Tracking the mountain gorillas can take anywhere from 1-8 hours but anything over 5 hours is not typical. But since these are wild animals there is no way to really estimate how long you will walk before you find a gorilla family group. Please, note that this tour can be strenuous: paths in the forests are steep in some places so expect to cover lots of ground.

Lunch meals will be taken in the field, so expect to carry packed lunch prepared by your lodge in order to maximize time in the field. And allow a more flexible schedule, except if you return early from your gorilla trekking trip.

 

How much is a gorilla permit in Uganda?

Gorilla Permit Uganda
A copy of a gorilla permit issued to booked clients. These will have to be presented at the Park Head Quarters on the morning of trekking. Without one, you will not be allowed to trek.

Each gorilla permit is $600.00 for foreign non-residents, $500 for East Africa residents, and UGX 250,000 for Ugandan citizens. Beginning 1st July 2020, gorilla permits for foreign nationals will be raised to $700 from $600. So you need to provide a copy of your passport when booking the permits.

 

Why is gorilla trekking expensive?

The high permit costs are really a derived cost from what is necessary to preserve our dear but endangered mountain gorillas. A lot of the money goes into making sure that you have a unique gorilla trekking experience. Some of this revenue pays for the expansion of anti-poacher patrols to ensure that the mountain gorillas are well protected. These patrols and rangers require waterproof boots, rain gear, bivouac tents, warm clothing, gloves, handheld transceivers, and fuel for patrol vehicles. After a day of ranging and patrolling, cutting traps or confiscating poacher’s weapons, the staff need hot meals and warm beddings. In Dian Fossey’s day, 4000 poachers’ traps had been destroyed in the first year that the Digit Fund was set up to preserve the mountain gorilla. The combined costs of food and salaries for the many rangers and patrolmen is considerable. New vehicles and equipment for the park staff and educational programs are always needed to increase awareness among the locals on the importance of protecting the gorillas and their forest habitat.

 

Is gorilla trekking worth the cost?

The experience of gorilla trekking is so special that it cannot really be put into words. Well, it can. Dian Fossey described the experience brilliantly in her book, Gorillas in the Mist:

“I shall never forget my first encounter with gorillas. Sound preceded sight. Odor preceded sound in the form of an overwhelming, musky-barnyard, human like scent. The air was suddenly rent by a high-pitched series of screams followed by the rhythmic rondo of sharp pok-pok chestbeats from a great silverbacked male obscured behind what seemed an impenetrable wall of vegetation.”

They froze until the sounds faded and crept forward through the vegetation and saw “an equally curious phalanx of black, leather-countenanced, furry-headed primates peering back” at them.

“Immediately I was struck by the physical magnificence of the huge jet-black bodies blended against the green palette wash of the thick forest foliage.”

Indeed, the value of the experience far outweighs the cost of the same.

 

What is the gorilla habituation experience?

According to Dain Fossey, to get close to a gorilla one must allow the gorilla to become accustomed to their presence. And we are here to ensure your trekking experience is maximized by such habituation.

During the gorilla habituation experience, visitors hike with researchers to watch mountain gorillas arise from their overnight nests early in the morning. You stay with the group for up to six hours, observing, and photographing the  mountain gorillas as they forage for fruit, hunt, breastfeed, rest, patrol, and beat their chests until it is time to build new nests around 7 p.m. The habituation permit fee is $1500 for foreign non residents and $1000 for foreign residents. The program is limited to just four visitors per day per gorilla group and you have to book ahead.

It takes about three to two years for a gorilla group to become fully habituated to humans.

 

Where can I purchase permits for a gorilla tracking experiences in Uganda?

You can buy both permits for Mgahinga and Bwindi by physically walking to the Uganda Wildlife Authority headquarters in Kampala at Plot 7 Kira Road, Kamwokya. You can also buy the permits online by contacting the Uganda Wildlife Authority office via email. You can also use your lodge or a tour operator like us Nile Basin Safaris to purchase these gorilla permits and organise your entire gorilla safari experience.

 

How many days do you need for a gorilla trekking trip?

Generally, most travelers need at least three days for a worthwhile gorilla trekking safari.

Day 1

You will fly into Entebbe International Airport in Uganda or Kigali international airport in Rwanda.

Depending on where you are coming from, day one will be for traveling to the lodge near the tracking point. If you are coming from out of the country, this journey will take about 7-8 hours from Kampala, Uganda by road to reach Bwindi Forest. If from travelling from Kigali, Rwanda, this journey will take about 3.5 hours to get to Bwindi.

Travel time by road

  • Kampala / Entebbe  – Bwindi: 7 – 8 hrs
  • Kigali – Bwindi: 3.5 hrs

If you are short on time, you can use a charter flight from Entebbe International Airport to Kisoro airstrip if you are tracking in the Southern Sector of Bwindi or Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Use the Kihihi airstrip if you intend to track in the Buhoma tracking sector. From the airstrip to Bwindi is about 2 hours on picturesque winding roads. You can also charter a private helicopter from Entebbe or Kigali to the Rushaga tracking sector which has a helicopter landing pad. You shall then get checked into your lodge that shall accommodate what you call class and taste. Get acquainted with the warmth of your lodge as you prepare for your gorilla trekking experience the next day.

Day 2

Rise early, ready your hiking gear, have breakfast,  and then transfer to the headquarters of your tracking point . You will meet the rangers who will brief you on the entire gorilla tracking activity.  Tracking usually starts at 8:30 am. We recommend you hire porters here to help you carry some of  your heavy gear through the day.

Day 3

You leave the lodge and head to the airport or your next stop in Uganda

 

We know three days are not enough to get to experience mountain gorillas and the rest of  Uganda, but with a well-designed 9 Days Tour you’d get to see for yourself what we call the Pearl of Africa!

 

Can I track the mountain gorillas by myself?

No, because of the delicate nature of these gentle giants. And so, a game ranger who knows their moods and behavioral reactions to strangers must be in attendance.

 

What to wear for gorilla trekking?

Tourists gorilla trekking

  • Neutral color clothes
  • Comfortable hiking shoes (water proof)
  • Long pants and long sleeved tops (if possible they should be quick-dry material)
  • Light rain jacket and a hat
  • Hiking gaiters to keep the safari ants from climbing up your pants
  • A warm jacket or clothes for the cold evenings. Evenings in these parts are very cold.

At times fog gets trapped between the valleys of Bwindi impenetrable forest, so bring warm layers. If you’re on a gorilla trekking tour, you can always leave your jacket in the safari vehicle in case it turns out to be a warm day in the park.

 

What do gorillas look like?

Silverback Gorilla

Mountain gorillas are massive weighing over 440 pounds while standing as tall as 6 feet and have dense black fur. The silverback or leader of a group of Mountain Gorillas has a silver saddle across its back.

 

Why is the mountain gorilla endangered?

Mountain gorillas are the most endangered species of gorillas due to poachers who hunt for their parts as trophies. Some locals used these parts for ‘sumu’ or witchcraft in Dian Fossey’s day. Again, their habitat is destroyed when surrounding communities use it as farm land and its trees for fuel.

 

How many mountain gorillas are left in the world?

As of the December 2018 census results, the global mountain gorilla population stands at 1063 individuals distributed across Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo. The same report puts the population of mountain gorillas in Uganda at 459 gorillas in 50 groups and 13 solitary individuals in two national parks; Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

 

Health

You are required to carry with you a yellow fever inoculation certificate before traveling to Uganda.

Since malaria is endemic to Uganda, you are also advised to take anti-malarial prophylactic beginning two weeks before your arrival to Uganda for gorilla trekking and continuing for six weeks after your departure.  Better yet, the best protection is to prevent being bitten at all by using mosquito repellant, wearing long sleeved shirts, and sleeping under a mosquito net.

The Bwindi and Mgahinga tracking areas have limited cases of mosquitoes due to their low mountain temperatures.

Be in good physical shape before your scheduled gorilla trekking activity. At times the treks can be very challenging.

 

What to pack on gorilla trekking expedition

  • Comfortable hiking boots with good grip for all the hiking you will do within the jungle.
  • Refillable water bottle. It is important to stay hydrated when trekking.
  • Gloves
  • Comfortable sandals to wear once you return back to your lodge after the trek
  • Light rain jacket or poncho
  • A comfortable day pack. Having a day park for carrying all the things you need during the trek is a good idea.
  • A proper camera. This is not the kind of trip to leave your camera behind for. You will be scampering around to take photos of juvenile gorillas practicing their chest beating skills or silverbacks stripping back off bamboo shoots. It’s an Africa excursion you don’t want to forget. You can never regret bringing a good camera to record all this beauty.
  • Chargers and adapters: Depending on where you are travelling from, you many need an adapter to be able to use power sockets in Uganda. These outlets put out 220- 240 volt, are square shaped and three-pinned, just like those used in the UK.
  • Insect repellent cream
  • Sunscreen
  • Cash for tipping your porters, trackers, and guides.

 

Etiquette when tracking gorillas

  • Be quite or keep your voice down around the gorillas
  • Don’t point or wave arms around the mountain gorillas – this can be interpreted as a threat by the gorillas, especially the silverback
  • Don’t use a flash when taking photos. Flashes can frighten the gorillas
  • Always maintain a 7m buffer between yourself and the gorillas. If they approach you, back away slowly to maintain the recommended buffer
  • If you get sick before setting out for the trek, don’t go trekking since gorillas can catch human diseases.

Other interesting questions about gorilla trekking

 

Is gorilla trekking ethical?

Dian Fossey said that the “promotion of tourism, if properly directed, might well prove profitable on a nationwide basis” in ways that support the costs of what Fossey called “active conservation” which includes “frequent patrols in wildlife areas to destroy poacher equipment and weapons; firm and prompt law enforcement, census counts in regions of breeding and ranging concentration and strong safeguards for the limited habitat the animals occupy.” Gorilla trekking also generates revenue and employment opportunities for the communities around the gorilla habitat, this income gives the locals perceived interest in the well being of the mountain gorillas. Without this gorilla tourism and the revenue that comes from it, the local communities around the parks would care less about gorillas and their survival.

Without a doubt, mountain gorilla trekking is something you can write home about and not exaggerate a thing about what you say when you say that it is life-enhancing in ways that make you feel more alive. There is indeed a distinct magic that conjures a memorable sojourn out of the hat of singular experience. Not once or twice, but many times over as the experience repeats itself in memory and in the beats of your heart’s content.

Are you ready to go for that once in a lifetime mountain gorilla trekking safari in Uganda or Rwanda, then get in touch with us today to start booking!

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