Have you ever had an experience where you walk away thinking, “that was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life?” For me, gorilla trekking in Uganda was that experience. I’ve been on some pretty incredible adventures but I am not sure if anything will top seeing mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
I had seen photos of a friend who went gorilla trekking in Rwanda, and the animals looked absolutely incredible. The intentional gaze of their eyes, the structuring of their features… everything looked so humanlike. So when I decided to go on a six-month trip around the world, the gorillas were at the top of my bucket list.
To help you plan your own gorilla trekking adventure in Uganda I’ve put together this guide of my experience so you can be prepared for your own trek!
Where To Do Your Gorilla Trek
These mountain gorillas can only be found in the wild in the mountains of central Africa, which takes place in the following three countries for the associated price points:
- Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda: $1,500 USD
- Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda: $600 USD
- Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo: $400
The above prices are accurate as of December 2019, but when I was researching in November 2017 it was off-season in Uganda, and permits were $400 and the DRC permits were only $200. Taking into consideration a combination of price point, safety, and convenience, Uganda was my gorilla trekking destination of choice.
Planning & Permits
I decided to do my gorilla experience at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, possibly the greatest name for a gorilla trekking site ever. The forest is about a two-hour rocky drive from Uganda’s nearest hub of Kabale.
I had booked my permit online through the Uganda Wildlife Authority as I was doing the trek independently, but many tour companies will arrange the whole package for you including the permit, accommodation, transportation for an added fee but with added ease, of course.
Tour Companies In Uganda
The Uganda Wildlife Authority has a list of official and verified tour operators on their website and they can provide you with information about different tours and they only give licenses to reputable companies. Four of these companies are listed below. If you have any questions about tour operators all the information is available on their website.
Preparing For The Gorilla Trek
What To Wear
When you go gorilla trekking there is no set or marked path, meaning you will be walking through the unmarked forest. The forest will be wet and things may get damp, with the wet trees and ground.
During gorilla trekking, you will be walking up and down changing altitudes, due to this it is advisable to wear layers and bring an additional outfit to change into. So you can take a layer off when you get hot and add one when you get cold.
- Lightweight waterproof clothing
- Clothing in greens, khakis, and dark colours to blend in with the forest
- Layers long
- Long-sleeve top (wear one and bring a spare)
- Long bottoms
- Long hiking socks or Gaiters
- Hiking boots
What To Bring
When gorilla trekking you should bring with you a small day pack with the following items:
- A walking stick
- Gardening gloves (these are useful if you are grabbing trees)
- Insect repellent with high DEET
- DSLR Camera
- Basic first aid kit
- Packed lunch or high energy snacks
- Water bottle
Briefing On How To Behave Near The Gorillas
The guides will brief you prior to your trek to ensure you are safe and comfortable and will advise on how to behave on the very very slim chance that one should become aggressive. For example, if a gorilla is advancing towards you, you are to avoid eye contact and move slowly backward.
Of course, the gorillas are wild animals, so their behaviour can be unpredictable. Make sure to keep a safe distance at all times, let them control any interaction, and do not, by any means, touch them.
My Experience & What To Expect
Pulling up to Bwindi Backpacker’s Lodge, I knew I was in for an epic experience. The accommodation offering was far from luxury, but I wasn’t after a luxurious vacation; I was in it for the adventure. I couldn’t wait to trek through that dense jungle and find the gorillas.
The morning of my adventure, I met my guides and fellow trekkers for a briefing and to set off through the rolling hills of Bwindi’s agricultural lands as we descended into the jungle. The trek can take anywhere from two to eight hours, depending on where the gorillas are situated.
You see, the animals are in the wild, not penned up in a cage – so they could be anywhere. To ensure your tour group heads in the right direction, expert trackers set out in the early morning to locate the gorilla family and notify your guides of their location via walkie talkies.
We knew we were heading in the right direction, we just didn’t know when we would encounter the gorillas or what exactly to expect out of the experience.
My trek lasted about two and a half hours into the jungle, the vegetation getting thicker and thicker, our guide paving the way with a trusty machete. Bringing up the rear was another guide with an AK-47. The gorillas aren’t known to be aggressive, but in the off chance that something were to happen, a warning shot would be fired into the sky.
Finding The Gorillas
As we ventured deep into the jungle, a hush swept over our group. The gorillas were near – I could feel it. I kept trudging through the bush when I noticed leaves rustling in the trees above. A flash of black fur. Gorillas.
We stashed our bags and our walking sticks and ventured cautiously into the area where the trackers were waiting. Suddenly, the great primates began to show themselves.
Two were hanging in the trees above, branches swaying with their movement. A mid-sized female was making her way through the tall grass just metres away from where I was standing.
And then, the silverback, the head honcho of the group. The silverback is the alpha male of the gorilla family who leads the females, babies, and potentially another younger male.
I didn’t piece it together before, but seeing him in person I understood the meaning behind his name: the silverback’s exterior is grey in colour, turning this way as he matures to adulthood.
He was huge, measuring almost two metres tall (though he walked on his knuckles) and clocking in at 300 to 400 pounds. No doubt he could crush me with his hand if he tried. But I wasn’t scared.
There is something so humbling, so peaceful, so mesmerizing about being in close proximity to these creatures who could exert unbeatable force against us if they wanted to, yet they seem to exude a nature, not unlike our own. They are 98% genetically identical to humans, after all. The gorillas are some of our closest relatives in the wild, and being in their presence is an honour.
I watched as the gorillas tenderly picked leaves off the branches to eat, and then reached over to grab the trunk of a small tree and yanked it right out of the ground like it was no thang. The mothers tended to their young, plucking bugs out of their hair, as the babies jumped up for a piggyback and rolled around in the grass.
Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of their eyes and they seemed to stare straight into my soul; we aren’t that different, after all.
We stayed and watched the gorillas meander about the jungle for one hour before it was time to head back up. I could have stayed there forever, but instead will forever hold this experience in my heart, memory, and an Instagram feed.
Heading back up the hill, we heard local children singing from the schools across the hills. What a special day. One for the bucket list, that’s for sure.
Best Time Of Year To Go Gorilla Trekking
You can purchase permits to go gorilla trekking all year round, permits are available for every day of the year. The best time to go gorilla trekking, however, is in the dry season, between January and February and from June to September. During these months the weather is sunny and bright, with less chance of rain.
The dry season is also the high season for permits, so if you don’t want to pay so much for a permit you can visit in the rainy season which is also the low season in March, April, May, and October. If you go gorilla trekking during these months be prepared for long or short periods of rain and muddy wet ground.
Sustainable & Authentic Tourism
Gorilla trekking was one of the most real, raw wildlife experiences I have had because there is no cage in between us and the animals, there is no fenced-off park where we could expect to see them. They roam freely throughout the forest, and us humans do not impose on their lives in any way.
They are accustomed to humans, as trekkers pass through their homeland every day. To them, humans are simply another animal, a part of the environment. They’re not threatening or a nuisance.
In fact, by going gorilla trekking, we are actually helping to contribute to the preservation of the gorillas and their surrounding communities. If there were no tourism dollars sustaining and maintaining the area, the forest may be chopped down and turned into farmland, or poachers may be able to capture the beautiful animals.
The gorillas are a critically endangered species, but due to ongoing efforts, their numbers have been increasing over recent years. The latest census reported a minimum of 459 individual gorillas as of 2018, which is more on record than ever before.
Booking Your Trip
As mentioned, you can book directly through the Uganda Wildlife Authority, but tour groups are also a great option as backpacking through Africa can be a bit tricky, especially for solo female travellers (not impossible! Just trickier than in your typical backpacking hotspot).
Overland tours such as Absolute Africa provide fantastic experiences for travellers looking to experience this incredible part of the world.
I’m sure you can imagine that this amazing experience books up quickly and there are limited spots for trekkers each day (eight people to a group in Bwindi) so if you know your dates, book ASAP!
It’s an experience that I would recommend to anyone who is up for an incredible adventure.
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to go gorilla trekking in Uganda. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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