Whether it came from the initial tails of Dian Fossey and her ‘Gorillas In The Mist’, or the movie that later based itself on her story; or perhaps, it was that famous and celebrated David Attenborough moment, where this British national treasure found himself being groomed and jostled by a family of mountain gorillas. Maybe it was King Kong that kindled the interest.
However it was sparked, the fact remains that – for many of us – the adventure of tracking and encountering wild gorillas on foot in their remote African forest habitat, is a dream experience. The phrase ‘bucket list’ somehow doesn’t do it justice. In fact, it was staring off into space and daydreaming about gorillas that inspired my own move to Africa, though I was six years on safari before I laid eyes on a one of these magnificent apes in the wild.
If, like Jana and I, you are fascinated with all things gorilla, then the information below should help clarify some of the complexities of the what, where, when and how.
· Gorilla trekking is certainly expensive! Permits, logistics and accommodations all add up to an intimidating price (we give an indication of what things costs in each location below). I can say that it is absolutely worth every penny. We have sent and taken numerous families, couples and groups to encounter gorillas. We never met anyone that wasn’t deeply moved by the experience. No one ever regretted spending the money.
· These are complex primates, for that reason we always recommend you do at least two gorilla treks during your expedition. Behaviours, family make up and locations make for a great variety between treks.
· Wild animal sightings are never guaranteed, Gorillas included. That said, I have never met anyone who joined on a trek that did not end with a successful encounter.
· We are talking about two distinct gorilla species here, Mountain Gorillas (in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC), and Western Lowland Gorillas (in Republic of Congo).
· Trekking in Afro-Montane Rain Forest can be very challenging, with hot, humid conditions adding to the steep terrain. One should be in the best possible personal fitness when embarking on a gorilla expedition, prepare yourself mentally and physically for the trip. Please talk to us about the physical requirements and your own concerns, we will advise what/where is best for you with this in mind.
Four fantastic destinations in which one can meet the world’s Greatest Apes.
1. Rwanda, Mountain Gorillas
Give Me the Facts:
· Where: Parc National Des Volcans, Northern Rwanda where the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC meet.
· When: Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda is a year-round activity and if you are not afraid of getting wet and muddy you will likely have success whenever you trek. In general, we would recommend the drier months June – September, Mid December – Mid March.
· Permit Costs 2020: $1500.00 per person for gorilla trekking. Once you contact the gorillas you have strictly one hour in their presence.
· Logistics: Very simple indeed, the lodges surrounding the Volcanoes National Park are 2.5 – 3-hour drive from the capital city, Kigali. The drive itself is fantastic, excellent roads, stunning scenery and a window on the amazing, industrious rural peoples of Rwanda.
4 Nights in Rwanda including 2 Gorilla Trek permits from $6900.00 per person (based on 2 pax sharing).
· Slick and simple logistics make Rwanda the easiest place to encounter Mountain Gorillas,
· Extremely well-run Mountain Gorilla Trekking, excellent rangers (well qualified with great English), 12 habituated gorilla families making 96 available permits each day. (8 visitors max per family).
· Gorilla Families are assigned at Park HQ at 7am on the morning of your trek. They have an excellent system to assign less-mobile folks with an easier group. There are no guarantees with this, you should be in the best shape possible for trekking, but if you are concerned about your fitness level then choose Rwanda.
· Rwanda aims itself at the ‘Mid-high to very high end’. The lodges and service therein are extremely good.
· Visiting Kigali and learning about Rwanda’s harrowing recent history and inspiring recovery from the Genocide of 1993 is both moving and fascinating.
· The cost is Rwanda’s main (perhaps only) downside. We absolutely recommend 2 gorilla treks per person, so you have dropped $3000.00 before you have begun to look at accommodations and logistics.
Combine it with: World class Savannah Wildlife with superb direct flights from Kigali to Tanzania (direct into Serengeti), Kenya and Zambia.
In A Nutshell: Choose Rwanda for a high-end Mountain Gorilla experience, swift logistics, luxury accommodations and an extraordinary wildlife encounter that is very well managed. (those concerned primarily with fitness level/difficulty of trekking should opt for Rwanda).
2. Uganda, Mountain Gorillas
Give Me the Facts:
· Where: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, South Western Uganda, has 15 habituated gorilla families and several different park offices and trail heads. Mt Gahinga National Park, bordering Rwanda’s Volcanoes NP and DRC’s Virunga NP, has just 1 habituated family called the Nakagezi Family.
· When: Year-round but one should really avoid the wet months of October – Mid December and March – May.
· Permit Costs 2020: $700.00 per person for standard gorilla trekking, 8 permits per gorilla family. Once you contact the gorillas you have strictly one hour in their presence. Gorilla Habituation Experience (see detail below), $1500.00 per person, 4 hours, max 4 people.
· Logistics: Are a little more clunky. Bwindi/Mt Gahinga are an 8 to10-hour drive from Entebbe or a 6-hour drive (plus a border crossing) from Kigali (Rwanda). There are daily flights from Entebbe to Kihihi or Kisoro Airstrips for those that don’t want to take the long drive.
· Phenomenal bird life in Uganda and our experiences with the birding specialist rangers in the National Park were tremendous. If this is an interest, then don’t hesitate.
4 nights including 2 gorilla trek permits from $ 4600.00 per person (based on 2 pax sharing).
· Reduce those costs! At $700.00 per permit two gorilla treks is still expensive but a more obtainable goal. Combine that with lodges sitting at the ‘Mid-End’, you are ticking the bucket list for a lot less money.
· The actual wildlife encounter, 1 hour with the mountain gorillas is still excellent in Uganda.
· Lots to combine within Uganda for a longer trip including treks through the Impenetrable Forest (north to south or vice versa), Queen Elizabeth NP, Rwenzuri Mountain Trekking, Mt Elgon Trekking, Kibale Chimp Trekking and Kidepo NP.
· The Gorilla Habituation Experience in Rushaga, Bwindi is a unique opportunity. Spend 4 hours with a semi-habituated family of gorillas, 4 tourists maximum join the researchers, rangers and scientists and become part of the habituation process. V. In Depth, V. Special.
· The clunky logistics mean need to add more time and spend more money transferring between Entebbe International Airport and the gorilla trekking destinations. When one is well prepared for this and one takes time for it then it all becomes part of the adventure.
· It’s still a considerable amount of money to do this, but certainly less than Rwanda.
· Though there are always exceptions, our own personal experience and our guest experiences have reflected a pattern that trekking in Uganda has been physically tougher with folks hiking steep terrain for 2-4 hours to contact the gorillas.
· Again, there are always exceptions but our experience/guest experience of Gorilla Trekking in Uganda has shown a slightly lower standard in the rangers (knowledge, brief, professionalism and English), and a slightly less well managed experience from Park HQ, to trek, to encounter to return. This is highly critical and should be taken that way, the experience is still excellent.
Combine it with: The extraordinary wildlife of the Mara Conservancies in Kenya with a superb connection Mara via Entebbe to Kihihi airstrip (or the other way around), in one day. Amazing trip.
In A Nutshell: Choose Uganda, if you are restricted on the budget, fit and active, less restricted with time and open to a bit of an adventure with the logistics. Choose Uganda if you want to explore more of this country, combining National Parks and experiences. Choose Uganda for the Gorilla Habituation experience.
3. Republic of Congo, Western Lowland Gorillas
Give Me the Facts:
· Where: The Congo Basin, Odzala-Kokoua National Park, North West of Republic of Congo (this is the safe Congo).
· When: Again, it is year-round, the drier seasons January – Mid March and June – September are highly recommended. The clarity in the light and the stormy skies are an attractive photographic asset to the wetter months.
· Permit Costs: $500.00 per person per trek. One hour in the company of the Western Lowland Gorillas, Maximum 4 clients on each trekking experience.
· Logistics: 4-night, 7-night, 10-night and 11-night discoveries begin in Brazzaville on Mondays and Thursdays. The expeditions require arrival in Brazzaville the day before (Sunday or Wednesday). Direct flights into and out of Brazzaville, available from Paris, Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Kigali.
7-night adventure, including 2 gorilla tracking permits from $9490.00 per person (based on 2 pax sharing).
· A truly authentic, stand alone, African exploration for those seasoned travellers in search of a Gorilla encounter and much more besides, well off the beaten track.
· An immersive Congo Basin discovery. Western Lowland Gorilla tracking, guided day and night rainforest and birding walks. Kayaking, savannah game drive, boating and wading through the regions streams rivers, swamps and ‘bais’.
· Astonishing wildlife diversity with rare African forest species such as Forest Elephant, Forest Buffalo, Sitatunga, Bongo and of course Western Lowland Gorilla.
· Though you require a good level of fitness and mobility, reaching lowland gorillas does not require traversing of mountainous terrain (there’s not a whole lot of ups and downs).
· 4 people maximum per gorilla tracking experience make for a more holistic Great Apes encounter.
· You are led by guides rather than rangers, into the forest experience.
· Although the permits are cheaper, the logistics surrounding the Congo discoveries make up for the difference, this is certainly a very costly trip.
· Western Lowland Gorillas are incredible creatures. One tends to observe them at a time of feeding (as opposed to a time of resting, as with Mountain Gorillas), this makes them more active during the encounter, often up in the fruiting trees. This makes them more challenging from a photographer’s point of view.
· Some tricky logistics in getting to and from Brazzaville can make this marginally more clunky in arrival and departure (though it is totally worth it).
· You need to be able tolerate some discomforts in heat, humidity and insect life.
Combine it with: These Congo discoveries offer plenty as a stand-alone expedition. That said one can extend to include the Central African Republic on an 11-night immersion or even combine with East Africa with flight between Kenya and Rwanda connecting well.
In A Nutshell: Choose Republic of Congo if you are a seasoned traveller with a thirst for authentic African adventure, well off the beaten track. If avoiding the crowd and experiencing this bucket list encounter the way other people don’t is important to you, then this is just the ticket.
4. DRC, Mountain Gorillas
Give Me the Facts:
· Where: Virunga National Park, Central-Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
· When: In general, we would recommend the drier months June – September, Mid December – Mid March.
· Permit Costs 2020: $420.00 per person for gorilla trekking, High Season. $220.00 per person for gorilla trekking, Low Season (15th March-15th May & 15th October – 15th December). Once you contact the gorillas you have strictly one hour in their presence.
· Logistics: Simpler than one would expect. Arrive on international flight in Kigali, Rwanda. Then a 2.5-hour road transfer will bring you to the Border with DRC at Goma, here you will enter DRC, meet your Virunga, ICCN Ranger, Guide and vehicle and they will transfer you another hour into camp.
5-night package including 2 Mountain Gorilla Treks & Climb/overnight on Nyiragongo Volcano, from $2530.00 (High) / $2135.00 (Low) per person. (based on 2 pax sharing).
· The price is a massive advantage here. For Mountain Gorilla encounters that, in personal experience, are as good as any we have had in Rwanda and Uganda, one pays half the price for a 4-night adventure.
· Hiking up Nyiragongo Volcano, perching on the rim and watching the witches’ cauldron of a lava lake clarify beneath you (and the sleeping up there), is one of the coolest things we have ever done ever!
· As private guides, Jana and I are not charged permits and have very low guide room fees with the team at Virunga. This makes it very accessible to have one or both of us accompany your adventure and guide you through it.
· 6-8 Mountain Gorilla Families to visit, the smaller families (with fewer than 12 individuals) only have 4 visitors per trek. Fewer visitors to Virunga mean it lends itself to a ‘spare of the moment’ expedition – booking 3 months or fewer in advance rather than 12 months in advance minimum, often required for Rwanda & Uganda in high season.
· Virunga NP reopened to tourists in January 2019, having been closed since May 2018 following the kidnap and subsequent release of two British tourists. Since January 2019, tourists have been safe, experiences have been incredible, and feedback has been outstanding.
· The colossal positive impact of tourism here is one of the things we love most. With the NP running the lodges, all your tourism $$ go to benefit the national park, the vulnerable Species therein and the community that surrounds the park.
· Safety and security are the key issues with travel to DRC. There is no avoiding this problem and we need to have a frank and open discussion about it before you make your decision.
· DRC is a deeply troubled country, still recovering from a horrendous civil war that ended in 2003. Although we have seen a period of relative peace and stability in recent years, civil unrest and rebel activity continues to flare up and plague parts of this enormous country, including the region surrounding the Virunga NP.
· DRC is still officially considered a high-risk country and a visit to the region in which we find Virunga is in the ‘advise against all but essential travel’ category for USA, UK and most other ‘western’ Government Travel Offices. One has to go against this advice to go there.
· Finding an appropriate travel insurance for a visit to Virunga can be tricky, we will help you with this.
· One has to keep an eye on the situation in the region, leading up to your trip. The National Park is extremely well managed, as are all the experiences and logistics in your expedition. If they have intelligence that the safety of visitors is compromised, then they will not hesitate to close tourism in portions of or throughout all of the park. They then commit to refunding any clients affected in full for their trip. We have first-hand experience of this from May 2018, the money was certainly refunded in full without delay.
Combine it with: It works great as a stand-alone expedition with Nyiragongo Volcano and Tchegera Island. With arrival and departure from Kigali, Rwanda and the excellent connections one finds there, you can easily combine this with superb savannah safari in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia or Zimbabwe.
In A Nutshell: Do your research, talk to Nic and Jana and have a good, long think about the security issues here. Choose DRC and Virunga, if you are in search of a true African Adventure and if the very word ‘Congo’ has always held a fascination for you. Choose Virunga if you want a Mountain Gorilla encounter as intense and special as any on the planet, with fewer people around you and an obtainable price tag. Choose DRC and Virunga, if you are in search of a true African Adventure and if the very word ‘Congo’ has always held a fascination for you. Choose Virunga if you want a Mountain Gorilla encounter as intense and special as any on the planet, with fewer people around you and an obtainable price tag.