There’s a moment when all of time stands still. Wild mountain gorillas are staring straight back at you. It’s a moment you can’t possibly imagine until you experience it, a moment of connection unlike anything else on our planet.
Gorilla trekking is one of the great travel experiences – eye to eye with our primate cousins, with a critically endangered species that has never been tamed.
You don’t just see gorillas in the mist. You spend an hour immersed in their world.
This Experience is So Rare
Mountain gorillas are critically endangered due to severe habitat degradation. Thanks to conservation efforts their numbers are increasing. Still, there are only around 1000 mountain gorillas in the world.
You will never see one in the zoo. A mountain gorilla has never been in a zoo. None have ever left Africa. Back in the 1970s European zoos killed off entire troops in order to steal the baby gorillas – it never worked.
So you can only see mountain gorillas in three places: Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Trekking Through the Rainforest
You trek through deep, virgin rainforest, with your guide cutting a trail with his machete. Armed rangers accompany you, as protection in case of encounters with forest elephants. The trekking is not easy. You can walk over three hours through humid, African rainforest. Trekking is part of the fun. In this forest without roads, you really experience a sense of entering their world.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Republic of Congo is off bounds. You can also go gorilla trekking in the Congo, with lowland gorillas. We love the itinerary and adventure of this ten-day explorers experience in Congo.
Up Close With the Gorillas
And then comes that beautiful moment, when time stands still. A wild mountain gorilla is staring at you, gesturing, communicating, revealing. You have been welcomed into their world. It’s not just one gorilla. It’s a whole troop. Imagine coming face to face with 20 mountain gorillas?
Our Product & Marketing Director Stephen Bailey has been fortunate enough to do gorilla trekking in both Uganda and Rwanda. Here he explains more about the experiences and what you can expect.
One Hour with a Habituated Troop
“One hour is a long time and you won’t feel rushed. I’d recommend taking photos in the first 15 – 20 minutes, then putting your camera away and savouring the experience.
Officially you can come within seven metres of the gorillas. However, the gorillas don’t follow these rules. In Uganda there were two gorillas in the trees above my head, throwing fruit at me. About ten gorillas seemed to surround me. I was in the middle of the troop, far closer than I thought possible.
The wildlife experience is similar in Uganda and Rwanda. It’s a maximum of eight people per trekking group, with one habituated gorilla troop per group. Trackers walk ahead of you, locate the troop, then radio back directions to your guides.
The trekking permit is famously expensive. It includes your guides, trackers and conservation fee. So the entire gorilla experience is operated by the countries’ national park authorities – you don’t need a guide on top of the permit.
And don’t think this is a touristy experience. Imagine a tangled, untamed rainforest. It’s hot and humid and muddy. Set off trekking and you won’t see any other people, but you may encounter other gorillas!
Uganda vs Rwanda – Trekking & Gorilla Experience
In general, the trekking is a little shorter in Rwanda. The landscape is similar. The gorillas look a little different – Rwanda’s have thicker, shabbier hair – but there are more differences within troops than between countries.
A more important consideration is the distance between your accommodation and the trailhead. All trekkers in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park depart from the same park headquarters and trailhead. Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park has four trailheads and four different permits. I met a couple who had to drive four hours around the park to start their trek, because they didn’t match the permit to their location.
One hour sounds short but it feels like a lifetime. There’s so much happening – it’s really magical and difficult to know which way to turn.
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This is Why I Prefer Rwanda for Gorilla Trekking
Rwanda is a developed country. It’s the cleanest place I’ve ever been. It was the first country to make single-use plastic bags illegal. The roads are better than most countries in Europe.
Rwanda is now established as a destination for high-end travellers. Their focus is on higher quality experiences for less visitors. In recent years they’ve established a fantastic range of lodges, all in good locations for gorilla trekking.
Uganda is a little rough and rugged. It’s a much bigger country and it takes a lot longer to get around. You need a lot of time. Whereas in Rwanda, gorilla trekking can be a two-night, three-day add-on to a safari in Tanzania or Kenya.
Rwanda is best when you’re short on time because you can fly to the capital city Kigali and be at your lodge within three hours, ready to go gorilla trekking the next morning. With one more day you can go gorilla trekking twice and see a different troop.
With a few more days you can travel south to Nyungwe Forest National Park and go chimpanzee trekking. One&Only have an amazing lodge in this Congo Basin rainforest.
Can You Imagine this Experience
These are wild animals and I experienced them in the middle of the day, when they were eating and resting. It’s timed this way to be least disruptive. But the gorillas know you are there.
In Uganda, one gorilla came out at me, waving her arms and making a lot of noise. I almost ran out of the forest and kept running all the way to Europe.
Fortunately, my guide pushed me forward so I didn’t back down. This initial show of power was a sign that I was entering their territory, their world. And that was the most humbling thing of all. I didn’t want to reach out and touch. I was just happy to be there, with these rare animals.
People call it a once in a lifetime experience. I’ve done it twice now and I want to do it again. That’s how powerful it is.
I don’t think you can imagine it until you do it. It wasn’t what I expected. It was so much more. Are you ready to try?