Close encounters with mountain gorillas in the wild are the most profound wildlife experiences that you can have in Africa. It's surreal to be close enough to feel them seeing you, even able to see the whorls of their fingerprints which are identical to our own! Uganda and Rwanda are the best places to see mountain gorillas in the wild with the best guides, accommodations and infrastructure to get guests safely into and out of gorilla habitat. I trekked in both countries and can compare and contrast the differences so you don't have to.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda takes place in Volcanoes National Park, located in the far NW of the country. Kinigi is the gateway to Volcanoes National Park and this is where all gorilla trekking originates from and where park headquarters is located. Treks take place on the lower slopes of the volcanoes in the region. Treks may exceed 11k feet but are typically in the 7-10k foot level so take this into consideration when preparing for your trek.
Prior to your arrival at park headquarters in Kinigi, 3 trackers per gorilla family group head out to look for the resident gorilla families and radio their locations back. This allows the guides to coordinate which trekking group will be going where. There are 88 trekking permits available per day and guests will be put into groups of 8 trekkers led by 2 parks service guides. There is a bit of profiling that goes on at the car park when you arrive to get divided into trekking groups. Fit vs unfit; younger vs older – guide may be able to give a little bit of input but really there is just luck involved in the difficulty/ease of viewing. Gorillas tend to be down low during the rainy season March-May when the new bamboo shoots form. It's a favorite food containing lots of nutrients and water. Later in the year, the gorillas head to higher ground even up to 11,000 feet in August and September – this can mean longer hikes. Easy hikes are no guarantee – if gorillas head into challenging terrain you may have to as well. Steep hills, mud, stinging nettle, thorns, biting ants are all regularly encountered.
On arrival at Kinigi, we were allocated to a trekking group. We were given a briefing by our guides about what to expect and some information and history about the gorilla family group that we'd trekking to. The family we visited was comprised of over 24 individuals, including 3 HUGE silverbacks and several babies and juveniles. This particular group had a unique name to all other gorilla groups in Rwanda as this group was one of the only known groups to have been ruled by a female for 5 months after the male silverback leader died and before a new leader could not be found. For those that would like a porter to assist with your hike, this is when you'll get a chance to put a request in with your guide.
Our gorilla family group was only about a 1 mile of hiking with little more than 500 feet of elevation up to 9,000 feet. Traction was very muddy, slippery and lots of stinging nettles. We were at the gorillas in less than 90 minutes of hiking and then were able to spend an hour with them It was then less than an hour of hiking to get out of the forest and back to the vehicles. Descending some of the slopes was very muddy and slippery and it was helpful to have porters lending a hand. We had a snack break in the field (light snacks). This was rated as an easy/medium day by our guides and we were done and back to the vehicle before lunchtime with the rest of the day to relax and review all of the videos and pictures we took. We had a reasonably fit group with some Americans and Brits.
You don't really need any special gear other than general hiking attire and rain gear (it can rain any time of year). Many of the lodges in the area provide gaitors and walking sticks (though we brought our own) and a surprise bonus was the boot and gaitor cleaning that most lodges provide!
Permit prices in Rwanda were recently hiked up to $1,500 per person per day. The new revenue will be used to expand the gorilla habitat of the park which includes the resettlement of large populations of locals living in the lower forests of Volcanoes National Park. Expanding available habitat is critical to sustaining and growing the remaining populations of mountain gorillas. Accommodations range from merely comfortable to architecturally and luxuriously stunning (like the other-worldly Bisate Lodge).
Discounted permits are available Dec-Mar if combining Volcanoes with Akagera or Nyungwe National Parks.
Gorilla Trekking in Uganda takes place in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the SW of the country. There are 4 areas within Bwindi for trekking: Buhoma (NW), Rushaga (SE), Ruhija (NE), Nkuringo (SW – ask about gorilla habituation here where you can spend up to 4 hours with the gorillas!). There are a total of 104 permits available each day throughout all of these regions. Each region has it's own headquarters. Similar to Rwanda, 3 and sometimes 4 trackers head out to each of the locally habituated gorilla families to determine their position and where groups will trek for the day. Since Bwindi is at a lower elevation, treks will not exceed 8k feet but can still be strenuous. There isn't much seasonality in that it can be a good time to go any time of year. It just rains a bit more from March to May but this can be a great time with fewer crowds.
We trekked out of Buhoma and were put into a small group of 6 trekkers led by two guides. We were given a briefing and found out that the family we'd be trekking to consisted of 10 gorillas including the largest silverback male in the Buhoma area and also the newest (littlest) baby.
How tough was it?
We headed to the trailhead where we arranged for porters to assist some of our guests. Every group typically treks with 2-4 security officers as mandated by the Ugandan government. Our hike took us up a steep trail where we occasionally needed to use a tree or get a hand to make big steps up. It took us close to 3 hours to get to the gorillas. This was about 2 hours of uphill with about 1,500-2,000 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead, followed by another hour of descending the backside of the mountain with about 800 feet of elevation loss. The terrain was steep and the hiking was strenuous. We were able to spend about an hour with the gorillas but because they moved around a little bit, our guide gave us a bit of bonus time. When our hour was up, we hiked for another hour to the lunch spot through brief but VERY heavy rain. After lunch, we needed to hike to the pickup point which was about an hour and a half of descending several thousand feet.
Our guides rated this as a 6/10 for difficulty. Two members of our group commented that this was "one of the hardest things that [they] had ever physically done in their life." We had one member who rode in the "Queens chair" a litter supported by porters (she had broken her arm earlier in the trip and did not want to risk hiking with it). This required a team of 12-15 porters to switch out and carry her along the narrow forest paths. The forest was much darker than Rwanda but there was less vegetation to walk through. There were some thorny plants but not much nettle. There were biting ants to be aware of and avoid and most guests chose to tuck pants into socks to avoid these little menaces!
What you should bring
Some lodges provide or sell gaitors and walking sticks/trekking poles were also available to borrow or buy from some lodges. You don't need to bring your own unless you are particularly attached (we brought our own gaitors and some leather gloves which are light enough to pack easily). A good camera is a must. You'll be up close most of the time but having some zoom helps too. Much like in Rwanda, accommodations range from comfortable to luxurious.
Permits in Uganda are currently $600 per person per day and in July 2020, permits will increase to $700 per person per day.
More important than any other piece of advice for trekking in either country is this: the more fit you are and the better shape that you are in, the more you are going to enjoy this experience. At a minimum, you should be able to hike uphill for several hours, in the rain, on an uneven trail that might require big steps. If you get lucky and have an easier trek you'll be pleasantly surprised. But if you wind up with a very hard trek, you'll be ready for it and won't be physically struggling just to get to the gorillas.