Going on a gorilla safari to see them up close and personal in their natural habitat, is an unforgettably unique and profound experience.
Approximately 1,000 mountain gorillas are remaining in the wild today. These gorillas are an endangered species under constant threat from poaching, climate change, oil exploration, and infrastructure development.
Getting to the where the gorillas reside in the East African mountains is no easy feat, but totally worth the effort. Furthermore, compared to the costs of other safari experiences, Gorillas trekking is among the most expensive. If the costs may seem to high, try to look at the experience as contribution to gorilla conservation efforts. Tourism to these regions give local governments incentives to preserve and protect these lands and animals.
Where to See Mountain Gorillas
Mountain gorillas can be found in a small area around where the countries of Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo meet. All three of these countries have National Parks where gorillas can be visited. Each country has variations of travel time requirements, costs, scenery, and other nearby activities.
What remains the same at all locations is gorilla encounters are limited to one hour and some level of hiking is required. Also, the gorilla permit costs are rapidly rising as Uganda recently eliminated off-season permit pricing and Rwanda doubled the permit cost to $1,500 per person. As demand for this experience increases, who knows how high the permit costs will go.
Gorilla trekking is possible in two separate National Parks, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Costs of the required gorilla permit is $600 per person, which is much cheaper than in Rwanda. However, driving travel time to these Uganda locations is much longer since these parks are located further from airports along with many unpaved roads. On the plus side, Uganda has many other safari options in the area such as chimpanzee trekking and Queen Elizabeth National Park.
In Rwanda, gorillas can be visited in the Volcanoes National Park. By far, gorilla trekking in Rwanda is the most expensive, at $1,500 per person for a gorilla permit. However, travel time once on the ground is only about three hours from Kigali, Rwanda to Volcanoes National Park.
Virunga National Park hosts Gorilla Treks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is the oldest National Park in Africa. Gorillas permits were $350 per person until two tourists were kidnapped and a park ranger was killed in May 2018. As a result, visitors are not permitted until at least 2019. It is a shame this region has such challenges getting the security situation under control. Virunga National Park is supposed to be one of the most beautiful locations on earth with interesting destinations such as the Mount Nyiragongo volcano.
Earlier this year it appeared the security situation seemed safer with many tours to the park increasing. In May of this year, I actually was in the middle of coordinating with a safari operator to visit Virunga National Park but then the attack occurred. As a result, I booked a gorilla trek to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda instead. Hopefully one day this area will be safe and many tourists can visit this beautiful region again.
How to Get There
Several airlines fly into Kigali, Rwanda and Entebbe, Uganda. However, there are no direct flights to these countries from the US while only Belgium and Netherlands have direct flights from Europe.
If coming from the US, I recommend looking into flight itineraries with only one layover. There are plenty of options for using flyer miles for flights on Ethiopian, Qatar, Etihad, and Emirates. For my trip from Kigali to New York, I used 80,000 united miles to book a business class ticket on Ethiopian Airlines. Great deal considering the travel time was over 20 hours that included a layover in Ethiopia.
Once you land in either, Rwanda and Uganda, you’ll likely have to stay over night and then depart by automobile to the National Parks early the next morning. Travel time from Kigali to Volcanoes National Park is about 3 hours. Travel time from Entebbe to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is about 9 hours. The roads are primitive near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park causing it to take a long time to travel.
If you are interested in visiting both Rwanda and Uganda in one trip, its possible to fly into Kigali and book a tour to take you to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Driving from Kigali to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park takes about seven hours, but the scenery is gorgeous, which helps time pass. This itinerary is popular since it avoids the $1,500 gorilla permit in Rwanda and allows you to tour both countries.
There is an East Africa Tourist visa which includes both countries along with Kenya for $100USD. This is the option I chose since I wanted to see Kigali, since I heard so many good things about the city, but did not want to spend so much on the Rwanda gorillas permit.
I recommend booking a private tour since in East Africa, the safari prices tend to be more reasonable compared to Southern Africa. There are several ways to search for tour operators, but my favorite is SafariBookings.com.
For my trip I went with Saso Uganda Safari since they offered tours from Kigali to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park. Our guide Michael was enthusiastically great and provided much commentary on East African wildlife, culture, people, and geology.
Where to Stay
If within budget, splurge on a luxury lodging accommodation outside of the national park. The mountains can get cold up there at night so hot water and a delicious meal will be much appreciated. Plus, you’re more likely to get a cabin with stunning views of the surrounding mountains in the more expensive accommodations. For this trip I stayed at the Gorilla Mist Camp which had great service, food, and views.
For my gorilla trek in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, we woke up before sunrise to enjoyed a hot breakfast prepared by the lodge. Bags were packed and loaded into the safari jeep since we planned on heading to Queen Elizabeth National Park right after gorilla trekking.
After about a 10 minute drive to the ranger station, we were broken up into about a half dozen groups. I was surprised there were so many tourists there, but the park staff did a good job with logistics by being organized.
We were briefed on several safety items like don’t stare down a 500lb silverback gorilla. Our guide said it can take between 3 to 6 hours of hiking before a family of gorillas is located. Lunch is carried into the park in case it takes a long time to encounter the gorillas.
Each group of tourists are assigned a guide and several armed park rangers. Before the hike begins, each group is assigned a specific gorilla family and begins to hike to their last known location. About 5 minutes into the hike, all the other groups of tourists are no longer visible since we all went in to different directions.
The area is mountainous, heavily forested, and windy, so I assume those who have trouble tracking down gorillas over a long period of time could become exhausted. Luckily for us, our assigned gorilla family was spotted in about 45 minutes.
What I didn’t realize until the trek was that gorillas do not not follow the hiking trails. Once we spotted the gorillas, we had to bushwhack our way through the forest to get to them. Be sure to bring gloves since some of the vegetation can irritate the skin.
Once we spotted the gorillas, we slowly approached a group of about 12 gorillas, including 3 babies. Most of the gorillas were up one of the trees while the two mother gorillas with babies were sitting underneath. Teamwork was in action since the gorillas in the tree were dropping food below to the mother gorillas.
This tree must have had insanely strong branches considering how many gorillas were up there. The group had one large silver back and he was at the top of the tree on a branch that seemed only 2cm thick. I thought for sure the branch would snap but turns out the gorilla knew what he was doing.
After watching the gorillas hang out in the tree for about 30 minutes, the silverback decided it was time to move on to another location. We all watched in awe as the massive creature made its back down the tree. About six feet from the forest floor, the silverback jumped off the tree and landed on its feet with a loud thud.
I was so taken aback by the presence of the silverback that I forgot to take pictures as he walked by me. All I got was a picture of his hindquarters as he walked away.
Once the silverback started walking away, the rest of the group immediately followed.
For the next half hour or so, we followed the gorillas throughout the forest as they climbed new trees or setup new areas to sit and relax. A few times the gorillas walked past us since humans are pretty slow walking through the brush. One gorilla even touched my leg gently as it walk by, sort of to gesture “excuse me, coming through”.
After about an hour, it was time to head back to the ranger station. I wish we could have stayed longer but tourists are only allowed to spend a maximum of one hour with the gorillas. Nevertheless, the time spent with the gorillas was well worth the effort to get to their home in Uganda. Surely, it was a moment I’ll never forget as one of the best travel experiences of my life.
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