Imagine the thrill of coming face-to-face with one of your closest primate cousins high up in the tropical forest of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. After an arduous trek, you’ve been rewarded with observing a family of mountain gorillas out in the wild pursuing their daily lives.
These gorillas are only found in the mountainous forests of Central-East Africa, having never lived in captivity. This only adds to their considerable allure & the “bucket list” tracking experience.
So, I was beyond excited to visit the mountain gorillas on my 2013 trip to Rwanda & Uganda. Spending time with these magnificent human-like creatures “up close & personal” is truly a magical, unique & rare experience that I am delighted to share with you.
About Mountain Gorillas
Like me, you may have first learned about the rare mountain gorillas from watching the 1988 film “Gorillas in the Mist.” It details the fascinating life of American naturalist Dian Fossey who lived with & studied these “Gentle Giants” in Volcanoes National Park for 18 years until her tragic death in 1985.
Mountain gorillas can only be found in their natural habitats of high-altitude tropical forests in Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They were once listed as critically endangered. Thanks to extensive conservation efforts, they are now considered “only” endangered.
Their habitat is limited to just 300 square miles, divided between two locations. (see map) One is the Virunga Mountain Range, including Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Virunga National Park in DRC, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. The other habitat is located in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and contiguous Sarambwe Nature Reserve in DRC.
Currently, the total mountain gorilla population is estimated to be 1,063 individuals. This is the highest population of mountain gorillas ever (since conservation started). A 2016 census (done every 5-10 years) revealed there were around 600 gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes region and another 400 in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
Humans share about 98% of their DNA with the gorillas. As a result, mountain gorillas are susceptible to many of the same infectious diseases that affect people, including respiratory colds and COVID-19. Park rangers take great care not to expose mountain gorillas to any sick visitors.
Habituated Gorilla Groups
Over the years, various mountain gorilla groups have been “habituated” to humans (around a 2-year process). This allows small groups of people to spend time in close proximity to these gentle, social and intelligent creatures, always under the watchful eye of gorilla guides and park rangers. After all, they are still wild animals!
Current #s of Habituated Gorilla Groups in Rwanda & Uganda:
- Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) – 10 groups
- Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda) – 12 groups
- Mgahinga National Park (Uganda) – 1 group
Mountain gorillas are the world’s largest primate and can live up to 53 years. Each gorilla group of 5 to 40 individuals is led by a dominant silverback, a mature male.
Silverbacks gain their distinctive silver tinge at about age 13. On average, males weigh up to 180 kg (400 pounds) and are around 170 cm (5.6 inches) tall.
Typical Gorilla Tracking Experience
In gorilla tracking, a small group of 8 visitors (led by special ranger/guides) head off each morning into the forest to look for their assigned habituated gorilla group with its silverback male, adult females and children. Special trackers leave earlier to find the group, knowing where they were located the afternoon before, and radio continual updates to the guides.
Treks can take 1-3 hours (or more) through steep mountainous terrain & dense forests to find the group. Once you arrive, you’re allowed just 60 minutes to observe the gorillas. You can watch them looking for and/or eating food (like bamboo), playing, sleeping, or grooming each other. After taking a short snack break, you hike back out. It’s an exciting, rigorous and exhausting adventure – and so worth it!
A total of eight gorilla tracking permits per gorilla group are available each day. Visitors are organized into groups of eight, largely around trekking ability – assigning the fitter visitors to gorilla groups located further away.
My Trip to Rwanda & Uganda / Purpose of Blog Post
I worked with a local nonprofit who had a stove-building project in Uganda supporting communities next to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. So, in June 2013, I went with a friend Ivy to see their project, which was designed to promote the health of the local Batwa people, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and the mountain gorillas.
We created a 2-week “dream trip” to see the best of Uganda & Rwanda, wrapping it around our “work time” in Bwindi. We modeled it after a Wilderness Travel itinerary (see map). An African travel agency arranged our trip, including providing us with a wonderful driver guide Joseph and gorilla tracking permits for both Bwindi and Volcanoes National Parks.
So, yes, we had a gorilla tracking two-fer, with treks six days apart in two different countries and parks. Both were great experiences (and relatively similar)! In this blog post, I will share specifics & photos of my Volcanoes National Park trek in Rwanda – to give you a good idea of what to expect. Plus, I share resources at the end to help you plan your own Gorilla Trek.
About Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park – Parc National Des Volcans (PNV) – is a very popular destination for gorilla tracking. As mentioned, the Park has 10 habituated gorilla groups. In addition, there are around 8 other groups currently used for research.
Volcanoes National Park also offers relatively easy access for travelers – with just a 2-3 hour drive from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital (with its international airport.)
Musanze (formerly known as Ruhengeri) is the gateway town to Volcanoes National Park with its Kinigi Park Headquarters located around 20 minutes outside of town.
Gorilla Tracking Day – Saturday, June 29th
The big day had arrived! We left the hotel at 6:30am for a 15-minute drive to Volcanoes Park headquarters at Kinigi – for the required check in by 7am. I’ve been told if you’re late, you could lose your spot.
Ivy & I headed out to the large lawn, while our guide Joseph went inside to check us in (showing our passports & gorilla permits). Ivy & I were assigned to the Ugenda gorilla group.
While waiting, we watched local community cultural dancers and chatted excitedly with other trekkers. This included 3 men (also from our lodge) who had trekked yesterday and were back again today to track a different gorilla group. Vendors were selling nicely carved wooden walking sticks, but Ivy & I had brought our own trekking poles.
At 7:45am, we all collected in our respective trekking groups. We had only 7 in our Ugenda group (of a max size of 8). Our delightful guide was Fidel, who’s been doing this for 15 years! We learned the Ugenda family has 10 gorillas, including 2 silverback males, a baby and a 5-year-old juvenile.
Fidel gave us a short orientation on what to expect, and how to behave around the gorillas. One of the important do’s and don’ts includes keeping at least 7 meters (23 feet) away from the gorillas. However, gorillas don’t know or always mind this rule!
We’re Off to the Trailhead
My group departed Park HQ at 8am in a caravan of 3 cars. Fidel told us we would drive for around 45 minutes to the trailhead – and half of it would be very bumpy. Boy was he right! That was the roughest, rutted road (with big volcanic rocks) I’ve ever been on. But, hey, it’s all part of the adventure!
We arrived at a parking lot in the midst of a small community surrounded by agricultural fields. This was the start for four of the tracking groups. We used the nearby porta potties and made final adjustments to our gear and backpacks.
There are local porters you can hire to carry your backpack and/or camera bags, which Ivy & I did on both treks (photo, right). In 2013, it cost $10 plus tip. These days, it’s more like $15, but it’s still totally worth it and one I recommend. Not only do the porters carry your gear, they help provide an extra hand when crossing trickier parts of the forest, going up muddy hills or stepping over large fallen trees.
Most importantly, hiring a porter helps the locals benefit from ecotourism, which in turn shows them the value of protecting the gorillas. Some porters are actually former poachers who have come to realize there’s greater value in conservation.
The Gorilla Trek Begins
It was 9am when our Ugenda group began the trek with a view of the forest/mountains in the near distance. We passed by cute local children on our way out of the village. We saw people working in the fields where they were growing potatoes, clearing rocks and carrying bags of grass for the cows.
After 45 minutes of a gradual but continual climb up, we reached the edge of the park where the dense forest began. There, we met up with two park rangers, each armed with AK-47 rifles! (photo below) They would be our escorts within the Park, one walking in front of the group and one at the back. We learned it was not gorillas we needed protection from, but not-so-nice humans – like poachers!
We continued into the forest, which was not too dense at first. There was a nice dirt trail with lots of white sandbags to walk on in parts. Apparently, they are critical during the rainy season when the trails are major muddy.
Along the way, Fidel showed us some of the foods that gorillas like to eat – especially bamboo & the local celery plant. In fact, gorillas are herbivores (never meat!). The silverback, in particular, must eat an enormous amount to maintain his weight and strength. Finding new vegetarian dining options is another reason why the troop remains continually on the move.
As we huffed and puffed our way up the trail, our guide gently reminded us that they are called “mountain” gorillas for a reason! We had started our hike at 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) and would be going up to around 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) – an elevation gain of 400 meters (1,300 feet). Phew!
Meeting Up With Our Trackers
It was around 45 minutes of hiking on trails within the Park when we met up with our four trackers, who had left an hour or so before us. Learning they had found the gorillas, who were close by in the dense forest, caused the excitement in our group to be palpable! In a small clearing, we dumped our backpacks, hiking poles and other gear – being able to take only critical items that we could carry (like cameras) with us into the forest.
We had all read about the nasty “stinging nettles” plant and had come prepared with heavier clothing since these very “un-fun” nettles can sting through light weight pants and shirts. Turned out, our Ugenda group was hanging out today in a stinging nettle forest! So, yes, I did feel a few stings on my legs and arms through my clothing that day, but it wasn’t bad.
In a single file (at around 10:50am), we followed Fidel into the dense forest to spend our precious 60 minutes with the Ugenda gorilla family. Often, the foliage is so thick that your views of the gorillas are blocked. But your guides are always working to move the group into better vantage points – and clearing the brush as best they can.
First, we saw two gorillas eating & playing in the vines. One was the 5-year-old juvenile, and the other the always moving, adorable fuzzy baby (2.5-3 years old).
Then we were able to spot Ugenda’s dominant Silverback sitting up against a tree. He was definitely huge! The baby, which had been playing in the trees, came down from above to be by his dad.
A little later we caught a view of the silverback lying on his stomach, with the juvenile lounging on top of his father with his human-like feet raised up in the air! Gorillas, male and females alike, are very affectionate with their family members. Near the end of our 60 minutes, which went by blazingly fast, we found the other group’s silverback (“the vice president”) also sitting by a tree.
It was a joy quietly observing and snapping photos of these beautiful creatures with their pensive eyes, human-like qualities, and playful nature. And such an honor to be in their presence – in their natural home.
Bwindi Trek Photos: I do want to share two photos from our Uganda gorilla trek in Bwindi. We had an even closer encounter there, being 5-10 feet from one of the gorillas who was busy chomping on bamboo. Then, suddenly another gorilla crossed the path and walked between me & Ivy (probably 2-3 feet away). The guide had us slowly back up and all was well. And I got the shot (below)!
Hiking Back Down / Earning Our Certificate
Sadly, our “gorilla time” was up so we headed out of the dense forest back to our waiting gear. There, we took a short break, to eat the snacks we had brought with us and revel in the experience we had just shared.
We headed back down the mountain, with our guide, rangers and porters. Downhill, it only took one hour to return to the cars (vs 1.5 hours going up!). We drove back to town with a short stop at a Craft Center where we all received our Gorilla Trekking Certificate from Fidel – now proudly framed on my wall. And, of course, I had to buy one of the “Ugenda Group” t-shirts to memorialize this special day (below right)!
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge / Cultural Dance Show
We stayed at the lovely Mountain Gorilla View Lodge. It offers very comfortable bungalow accommodations on a beautiful property with gorgeous views of three volcanic mountain peaks of the Virunga range.
The Lodge also offers a cultural show every afternoon outside on the lawn during the season. It was most enjoyable to watch a Rwandan Intore dancing performance by a local youth troop. I loved their beautiful traditional dress and bright, smiling faces. No surprise, I had to take a photo with these adorable young people! Can you pick me out? 🙂
Basket Weaving – A Rwandan Specialty
We also paid a visit to a local cooperative of basket weavers. A group of women were out on the grass busily weaving some beautiful baskets. One of these colorful baskets adorns my living room wall. Besides home décor, the baskets also make great gifts, while supporting talented local women artisans.
Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village
Another highlight of my 2-day visit to the Musanze/Volcanoes Park region was a visit to the nearby Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. There, I learned about Rwandan history and culture. It included drumming and dancing with the local community’s men & women.
Since there were no other tourists at that time, they performed just for me – the “Mzungu” woman (as us white foreigners are “affectionately” known). It was very fun for me & they were happy to have an enthusiastic dance partner! The Rwandans are truly lovely people.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION / RESOURCES
What to Take Gorilla Trekking (Clothing / Gear)
The tour operator with whom you book your gorilla track will likely provide you with a detailed list of items to bring. But here are some considerations and common items:
As Volcanoes National Park’s gorilla habitat is found at a cooler 2,500 to 3,500 meters (8,000 to 12,000 feet) and the terrain can be quite rough, proper hiking attire is recommended. That includes sturdy waterproof walking / hiking boots, which are comfortable for going up and down steep hills.
Since you’ll be hiking at altitude, it may likely be chilly in the morning. You’ll want to dress in layers to remove as the day warms.
Even if you’re trekking during the “dry season,” remember that Volcanoes is a tropical forest and there’s still a possibility of a downpour. So, rain gear is needed no matter what month.
You’ll want clothing to protect you from stinging nettles and thorns, so pants and long-sleeved shirts with some degree of heft is good. In addition, some gloves to grip vegetation – inexpensive gardening gloves work well. Another trick is to tuck your pants into your pulled up socks to prevent any nasty insects (like stinging ants) from entry (see photo).
Here’s some additional items:
- Don’t forget your passport & gorilla trekking permit that day
- Hiking poles or a walking stick – bring with you or buy there
- A breathable lightweight rain poncho or parka with a rain hat
- Also be prepared for strong sun – sunscreen, floppy hats, bandanas, sunglasses
- Some people like knee-high gaitors over their footwear
- Your camera gear / camera phone
- Possibly a “jacket” with pockets for the gorilla viewing area – to stuff with needed camera items, since you need to leave backpacks behind
- Your favorite hiking snack food / energy bars for the trek
- Comfortable backpack (to carry water, packed lunch, extra clothes & gear)
You’re allowed to take as many photos as you wish of the gorillas, as long as you don’t use flash. That is strictly forbidden anywhere around the gorillas.
Gorilla photography can be very challenging – due to dense foliage constantly in the way, gorillas’ dark black fur and deep-set eyes, and a mix of deep shade and bright sunshine lighting. I now have a much greater appreciation for those great photos of mountain gorillas!
I & others recommend setting your camera aside for at least part of the 60-minute encounter. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that goes by all too fast, so try to be present. If you spend all your time behind the camera trying to get that National Geographic cover shot, you’ll have missed some of the great joys of the experience!
Here’s a very good article by Trai Anfield with more more photo specifics: Photographing Mountain Gorillas: All You Need to Know.
Gorilla Tracking Permits
If you’re planning to travel during peak season (June–August), it’s good to book as far in advance as possible, as there are only 8 permits permitted each day for each habituated gorilla family. There are a total of 104 daily permits in Rwanda (Volcanoes Park) and 80 in Uganda (primarily Bwindi).
The current cost of a gorilla permit is $700 in Uganda and $1500 in Rwanda. Yes, this incredibly special experience is not cheap! Permits can be obtained through a tour operator or safari company which purchases them from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) in Uganda and RDB in Rwanda.
In 2017, Rwanda increased their gorilla trekking permit fees from $750 to $1,500. However, consider it a direct donation to these magnificent creatures – as the majority of the fee goes to the country’s extensive (and successful!) gorilla conservation efforts. This is eco-tourism at its best!
Additional Excellent Articles & Resources
- How to See Silverback Gorillas in Uganda & Rwanda (Afar Magazine – July 2022) – Great article with good tips (like choosing Rwanda or Uganda) & a list of recommended tour operators.
- Volcanoes National Park website
- Top 10 Facts about Mountain Gorillas (WWF -UK)
- How Africa’s Mountain Gorillas Staged a Comeback – Smithsonian Magazine (April 2020)
Comments: Have you gone gorilla trekking? If so, where & how was your experience? If not, is this on your bucket list?