How to plan a gorilla-spotting trip

Brought back from the brink of extinction following a catastrophic decline in numbers since the species was classified in 1902, mountain gorillas are one of the world’s rare conservation success stories. Numbering less than 900 in the wild, however, these gentle giants remain critically endangered, which makes the life-changing experience of seeing them in their natural habitat even more precious. Following my experience spending one magical hour with a gorilla family in Rwanda, I’ve put together a little guide to help you decide whether a gorilla encounter is for you, and how to plan one.

I was mesmerised by the first gorilla I saw in the wild, a female just hanging out, having a snack © Sarah Reid

Is gorilla tourism even ethical?

Wild animal encounters are, unfortunately, not always good for the animals or for conservation. Legendary naturalist Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda for almost two decades before she was killed in 1985, was strongly against gorilla tourism. Her key arguments – that humans can transfer contagious diseases that gorillas have no immunity against, and that tourism disrupts their natural behaviour – were fair; Fossey reported several cases in which gorillas died because of diseases spread by tourists.

These days, however, controlled tourism has proven to be the most successful model in ensuring the gorillas’ survival, with strict measures in place to ensure minimal disturbance to gorillas and less risk of transferring infections. Group sizes are limited to eight (plus ranger and trackers) in Rwanda and Uganda, and four in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Each group is allowed to spend a maximum of one hour with one gorilla group each day, and must stay at least seven metres from the primates. In the DRC, trekkers must wear facemasks, and trekkers in all countries are asked not to eat or drink, talk loudly, spit or use the bush toilet anywhere near gorilla habitats. If you have flu-like symptoms, you shouldn’t trek at all.

Gorilla tourism is also a financial lifeline for all three countries, stimulating the local economy and providing an economic incentive for locals to get involved in efforts to safeguard the future of mountain gorillas.

These things considered, it can be argued that – if the rules are followed – tourism is of far more benefit to gorillas than harm. But it’s your choice.

It was difficult to resist giving this cheeky young gorilla a big hug © Sarah Reid

Which country to choose

The world’s last remaining mountain gorillas live in the Virunga range of extinct volcanic mountains on the borders of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, and in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. It’s possible to plan your visit from any of these three countries. Here are some pros and cons of each:

A traditional performance is put on for trekkers at the ranger station in Rwanda each morning © Sarah Reid
Rwanda

Pros:

  • Rwanda’s habituated gorilla families live at a higher elevation than those in Uganda, so they’re generally shaggier (read: cuter).
  • All treks leave from the same place – the Volcanoes National Park headquarters in Kiniji – which makes it easy to plan where to stay.
  • Most passport holders can get a visa on arrival.
  • Rwanda is a much cleaner country than Uganda and the DRC – plastic bags are banned – which makes it a more beautiful place to travel in.
  • Numbering from eight to almost 40 member each, Rwanda’s gorilla groups tend to be larger than that of Uganda and the DRC.
  • The national park headquarters is only two hours’ drive from Kigali, making it relatively simple to plan a short trip.
  • Permits can be booked directly through the Development Board, which is convenient for independent travellers.

Cons:

  • At US$750, Rwanda’s trekking permit fees are the highest. Low-season discount permits aren’t always easy to come by.
  • As Rwanda is arguably the most popular country to see gorillas, trekking permits usually need to be booked months in advance.
Uganda

Pros:

  • At US$600, the trekking permit fee is lower than that of Rwanda. Low-season discount permits are often available.
  • Most passport holders can get a visa on arrival (consider the East Africa visa if you’re planning to visit Rwanda or Kenya, too).

Cons:

  • Gorilla families are quite spread out in the Bwindi Forest and Mgahinga National Parks, so you’ll need to research where the gorilla families are concentrated at the time of your visit and try to secure a permit for a particular region, and be sure to book accommodation near the right briefing point if you’re travelling independently.
  • The gorilla habitat is a full day drive from Kampala, so it’s better to include gorilla-spotting as part of a longer trip.
  • Permits must be booked through a safari operator, which may limit some travellers.
DRC

Pros:

  • The US$400 trekking permit fee is the cheapest of all three countries.
  • Group sizes are limited to four (as opposed to eight in Rwanda and Uganda) so the experience can feel more personal.
  • The trekking landscape is similar to that of Rwanda: shaggy gorillas and lush, misty mountains.
  • Love volcanoes? While you’re here, you could tie in a trek to the crater of Nyiragongo, a stratovolcano that boasts the world’s largest lava lake.
  • Permits can be booked directly through the Virunga National Park website, which is convenient for independent travellers.

Cons:

  • The DRC is hard travelling and trekking operations are basic; most treks leave from the Bukima tented camp just outside the Virunga National Park boundary.
  • The security situation can be a bit sketchy – at the time of writing militia groups and the army were fighting in the Virunga area, where poachers threaten the gorilla populations and poverty is leading to habitat destruction. Check official travel advisories before you go.
  • It’s no longer possible to arrange a visa on arrival; passport holders of most nationalities will need to arrange a visa in their home country first.
  • Virunga is most easily accessed via land from Rwanda or Uganda, so you’ll need to factor in multiple visas.
This enormous silverback kept a close eye on our group during our visit © Sarah Reid

Choosing an operator

Lacking a high level of tourism infrastructure, East and Central Africa isn’t highly conducive to independent travel. Having never really considered going on a group tour in my travelling life (aside from press trips), I decided to (independently) book my first ever group tour for this trip. I choose Intrepid’s Gorillas, Chimps and Game Parks tour, which included one sacred hour with the Kuryama mountain gorilla family during an overland trip through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. I chose this tour both for the itinerary and Intrepid’s great sustainable travel credentials. Overall I was impressed: the itinerary was fantastic, and the company’s commitment to sustainability was demonstrated via initiatives like providing every member of the group with a canvas bag to use instead of plastic, and ensuring guests left no trace at each of the campsites we visited. I was a little uncomfortable, however, with the visit we made to an Intrepid-supported orphanage along the way, as child protection experts claim drop-in visits like this can be more harmful to children than beneficial (see thinkchildsafe.org for more info). Intrepid has since removed orphanage visits from its itineraries, which is great to hear.

But back to the operators. I can only speak for the operator I used, so I suggest checking out the operators listed on the Rwanda Tourism and Uganda Tourism websites. Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum can also be a really helpful source of up-to-the-minute travel advice.

Our group walked up through farmland for an hour or so to reach the edge of the national park © Sarah Reid

The big day

From other traveller’s accounts, the big day is similar in all three countries. Here’s my blow-by-blow account of my trek day in Rwanda:

Each morning, park rangers radio down to the ranger station with the locations of the habituated gorilla families. At 7am, permit holders arrive at the Volcanoes National Park ranger station for a briefing before being split into groups (typically formed to accommodate people travelling together and also fitness levels) and allocated a guide. The Susa group (which Fossey studied), for example, generally roams at a higher elevation, which can mean up to 10 hours of hiking. You can certainly request to visit a certain group, but ultimately this will be at the National Parks’ discretion.

My trekking group was matched with the Kuryama group. To reach them, we piled into two four-wheel drives (you’ll need to provide your own transport to the starting point of the hike) and bumped along a picturesque mountain road for about 45 minutes before beginning our hike. You’ll typically find a group of porters waiting at the starting point; even if you don’t need any help with your day pack, the porters depend on this work for a living, so it’s worth considering hiring one anyway (a US$10 tip is standard). Guides and trackers earn a salary, but it’s not much, so consider tipping them, too.

The misty mountain landscape en route to the gorilla habitat in Rwanda was just stunning © Sarah Reid

But back to the hike. The first 30 minutes took us up through farmland before meeting a group of rangers at the park boundary marked by a stone wall. An hour and a half hike through muddy – but stunning, proper Gorillas in the Mist-style – jungle followed, before our guide suddenly told us to stop, put our backpacks down, and get our cameras ready. I’d barely clipped on the lens when I heard a branch snap, and turned around to see a female gorilla sitting on the ground, calmly shoving a fistful of leaves into her mouth. The rangers made grunting noises to make the group aware of our presence, and we just snapped away.

For the most part, the gorillas didn’t seem to be at all bothered that we were there, though I had a palpable fear of the two silverbacks who looked like they could rip my arms off in about two seconds if they wanted to. At times I felt like the rangers could have been stricter with our group regarding the 7m rule, but it was largely the gorillas who flaunted this. The trackers made a tsking noise to warn curious younger gorillas that showed the slightest intention of wanting to touch us, though I wasn’t able to move away fast enough when a juvenile gave my (clothed) knee a playful shove as he barrelled past.

Our trekking group was captivated by two wrestling juveniles wrestling © Sarah Reid

The hour went by in a blur. Between stare-offs with the giant silverbacks, to marvelling at two wrestling toddlers, to cooing at a teeny baby clinging to his mother’s back as she climbed a tree, the experience was everything I imagined and more. My only regret is not taking more photos – I got so caught up in the moment that I didn’t shoot half as many frames as I thought I did.

After the trek, you’ll be ‘awarded’ a certificate that lists which family you visited before heading back to your accommodation to swap tales with other trekkers.

Beyond gorilla-spotting

It’s such a long way to go for most travellers just for one day of gorilla action that many choose to spend longer in the area before or after their gorilla encounter. Unless you are an excellent driver or can afford a private tour, a group tour is a great way to include visits to some other regional highlights, from Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda to the Masai Mara in Kenya.

While I was lucky to visit some amazing game parks in Kenya and Uganda en route, I wished I could have spent more time in Rwanda. Lush, green and clean, it’s a visually beautiful country. Locals I met were overwhelmingly friendly, and I loved the vibrant coloured fabrics worn by locals in the mountains (people always ask where I got the vibrant blue and red scarf I bought from the local market in Ruhengeri). Aside from the gorillas and a night camping in an emerald tea plantation, the only other stop we made in Rwanda was at the Kigala Genocide Museum – an unmissable stop for travellers of all ages, despite its graphic content.

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I saw loads of hippos in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda © Sarah Reid

Budgeting for your trip

On top of the hefty trekking permit price, the costs associated with getting to (and travelling around in) Africa typically make this an expensive holiday. The tour I did (now called Gorillas and Game Parks) with Intrepid starts at US$3000 for 16 days. It sounds like a lot, but that includes the gorilla permit, accommodation (mostly camping), and almost all meals. My only additional costs were the East Africa Visa (US$100), beer, and a few woven baskets and scarves I bought from local markets along the way. I also added on an afternoon of rafting down the Nile with Adrift in Jinja, Uganda (US$140) which is well worth doing – just ensure you pick the right group. Ours did all the Grade V rapids, which was pretty gnarly – few of us came out of the excursion unscathed.

It’s worth considering pre-trip costs too, however. A yellow fever vaccination, for example, is crucial. It’s also worth bringing plenty of medication – just about everyone on our trip got sick at one point.

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Couldn’t resist a selfie with one of our trackers at the edge of the national park © Timmy Page

What to wear

As you never know exactly how long you’ll have to hike to reach the gorilla group (or what kind of terrain you’ll be hiking in), it’s important to be prepared. I wore light, low-rise hiking boots, with a cheap pair of gaitors over the top to prevent poison ivy, thorns and mud from getting to me through my light hiking pants. I hiked in a t-shirt, but it’s quite cool when you’re stationary, so I pulled on a long-sleeved shirt when we stopped to observe the gorillas. People in other groups had to wear long sleeves the whole time as the areas of the jungle they were hiking in were more dense and spiky.

Expect to get very muddy, and potentially rained on (I carried a rain jacket in my daypack, but fortunately didn’t need to use it). If you have walking stick, bring it – these are particularly helpful for navigating mud puddles. Use the bush toilet well before you reach the area where the gorillas hang out and if you do so, ensure you bury your business. Most trekkers bring a packed lunch to be consumed well before (or after) you reach the gorillas.

You can usually get close enough to the gorillas that you shouldn’t need a big boy zoom lens, but any serious photographer will want one. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t use flash. While face masks aren’t mandatory in Rwanda or Uganda, it’s worth considering wearing one.