Observing the beautiful and enigmatic mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is an extremely thrilling primate experience that every outdoor lover should consider enjoying. As you see the females cooing over their babies, young ones racing about playing, and the brash posturing of their silverback, you will start to understand the enduring fascination with these human-like creatures.
Though gorilla trekking Uganda is one of the most captivating activities, you must plan your trip well. When planning gorilla treks, understanding when to go, where to find the mountain gorillas, what to pack, and what to expect is crucial. In this article, we have everything you need to know about gorilla trekking Uganda.
Where Can You Find Gorilla Treks in Uganda?
Approximately 900 mountain gorillas reside in the shared-border forests that extend into Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, with about 400 of them residing in Uganda. Of all the gorilla families found in Uganda, 18 families have already been habituated – this means that while the gorillas live in the wild, they are already accustomed to visits and hence they are very unlikely to attack. 17 of the habituated families are tracked in Bwindi National Park and only 1 family resides in Mgahinga National Park.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Nearly half of the world’s mountain gorilla population resides in this magnificent verdant swathe across the Albertine Rift Valley ridges. In this national park, gorilla trekking usually starts from four main trekking regions:
- Rushaga region whose habituated families include Mucunguzi, Nshongi, Bweza, Rwigi, Kahunye, Busingye, Mishaya, Bikingi, and Kutu.
- Nkuringo area featuring groups such as Bushaho, Christmas, and Nkuringo.
- Buhoma region in the north whose habituated gorilla families include Rushegura, Mubare, Katwe, and Habinyanja.
- Ruhija sector on the eastern side which is home to the Kyaguliro, Bitukura, Oruzogo, and Mukiza gorilla families.
Mgahinga National Park
This national park is set to the southwestern side of Uganda, about 8 to 10 hours’ drive from Kampala or Entebbe. The park covers the northern slopes of 3 of the Virunga Volcanoes – Mt. Sabinyo (3,645 meters), Mt. Gahinga (3,474 meters), and Mt. Muhavura (4,127 meters).
In the park, tourists are allowed to join a 3-day gorilla tour at any time of the year. Within the Mgahinga National Park, the Nyakagezi mountain gorilla group is the only habituated gorilla family.
When to Go Gorilla Trekking Uganda
Uganda experiences 2 significant seasons – the wet and dry season. To have an easy time, it is a good idea that you go gorilla trekking during the dry season. The months that make up the dry season include June, July, September, December, January, and February.
During the dry season, the habitat is usually drier. This makes it much easier for you to hike through the steep slopes and dense vegetation to search for the mountain gorillas.
The months that make up the wet season include March, April, May, October, and November. During the rainy season, there is plenty of rainfall which makes the ground both slippery and muddy. One advantage of gorilla trekking during the wet season is that there is plenty of foliage for the mountain gorillas and hence it generally takes the visitors fewer hours to locate them – during the wet season, the mountain gorillas rarely move to further distances in search of food.
Get Your Permit Early Enough
Given the high demand for the gorilla trekking permits, you must secure your permit at least six months before setting off for the actual trek, especially if your goal is to take a gorilla safari during the peak months of June to September. In Uganda, gorilla permits are worth $600 per person for the foreign non-residents (this will go up to $700 starting July 2020), $500 for the foreign residents, and about UGX 250,000 for people who reside in East Africa.
You can secure your permit via the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) reservation office or a trustworthy ground tour operator. If your goal is to embark on a gorilla habituation experience, you will need to pay $1500 to secure a permit – this will get you a whole day in the jungle and 4 hours of magical encounter with mountain gorillas.
What to Bring
Different people will have different trekking experiences. The experience is largely dependent on the weather, where the gorillas are hanging out, and the depth of the forest hike. You must have all the important hiking gear so that you can have an easier time when exploring the jungle.
What to Wear
It is worth noting that you will be hiking through mud and you will probably be covered in dirt by the time you reach the end of the trek. For this reason, consider donning clothes that aren’t precious. Below, we will give you a better idea of what to wear:
- Comfortable hiking pants. If you do have some hiking rain pants, be sure to put these in your hiking backpack in case of rain.
- Long-sleeved shirt or t-shirt. A light long-sleeved hiking shirt should protect you from bugs and sun exposure.
- Waterproof jacket. You should keep this handy, especially if you will be trekking during the wet season. Having a rain jacket in your backpack can save you if it starts raining.
- Fleece or light jacket. Given that the Bwindi National Park is above 6,000 feet (2,000 meters), you may become chilled when stopping for lunch or waiting around. In such circumstances, having a fleece jacket may be a good idea.
- Comfortable hiking shoes. Ideally, the shoes you choose to wear should feature good traction at the bottom. Also, wear water-resistant shoes.
- Hiking hat. This is for sun protection when you are trekking outside the forest.
Food and Water
If you are hungry and dehydrated, you won’t be able to enjoy gorilla trekking in Uganda. To stay hydrated and avoid getting hungry, consider carrying the following:
- 2 Liters of water. Use your hydration pack to carry enough water to last you through the hike.
- Lunch and snacks. In addition to bringing a sandwich (or similar) for lunch, bring hiking snacks that you can eat along the way to keep your energy high. Depending on the gorilla search, it may be a while before you stop to eat your lunch.
- Comfortable backpack. You will need this to carry your gear. Since the backpack will be on your back for hours, ensure that it is comfortable enough.
- Trekking pole. If you have already invested in a trekking pole, do not leave it behind. If you are yet to buy a trekking pole, you can borrow a walking stick at the entrance.
- Cameras and rain protection. If you will be gorilla trekking during the wet season, be sure to bring a plastic bag or similar protection for your hiking camera in case of the rain.
- Sunscreen and bug spray. In addition to applying sunscreen correctly, be sure to have a bug spray with you. This should protect you from the numerous bugs usually present in the African jungle.
Porters are available for hire at the entrance of the National Parks. For an average fee of $15 per day, the porters can help you carry your bag as well as help you through the hills and other difficult patches of the jungle climb.
Beginning the Trek
How you begin the trek may vary. You can enter the forest direct from the National Park’s entrance or drive further and begin the hike from one of the local villages.
The amount of time it will take to meet a gorilla family may vary. It can be as little as half an hour or as long as 5 to 6 hours. On average, however, you should expect to spend 2 to 3 hours tracking the mountain gorillas.
The Ugandan forest is lush, damp, and humid. You shouldn’t expect defined trekking paths in the jungle. The routes are generally full of steep slopes and hills where you may be required to pull yourself up the steeper grades by grasping onto bushes, plant roots, and branches.
Hanging with the Gorillas
Once your group locates the gorilla family, the clock will start ticking – you will have approximately 1 hour to spend with the family.
Stay quiet and avoid making any sudden movements. While it is not a problem to look the mountain gorilla in the eye, you will need to hold your ground and lower your eyes if he/she starts charging – this will indicate that you do not want a confrontation.
In a perfect situation, you will find the mountain gorillas together in a clearing hanging around and eating. This will offer you an opportunity to sit on the ground and just observe. Videos and photos are fine, but avoid using flash.
In other situations, the gorillas will be up the trees, behind bushes, or just walking around in the dense bush. In such a situation, you will need to follow your guides and trackers as they move around to find the mountain gorillas. If the gorillas are behind a series of bushes, the trackers will often use their machetes to clear the brush so that you can have a closer and clearer look.
Rules to Keep in Mind
Before embarking on the actual gorilla treks, you will be briefed on the rules and regulations you need to observe. The rules will include:
- At all times, stay at least 7 meters away from the gorillas. Mountain gorillas share approximately 98% of their DNA with humans – this makes them very susceptible to infectious human diseases.
- If the gorilla charges, stand still and avoid direct eye contact.
- Avoid using a flash when taking pictures.
- Only those above 15 years are allowed to go on gorilla treks.
- If you are sick, do not go on a gorilla trekking safari.
- If you are coughing or sneezing, always cover your mouth.
- Observe the leave no trace principles. Leave the habitat just as you had found it.
Q: Is Gorilla Trekking in Uganda Safe?
A: For the past 20+ years, there have been no gorilla trekking security lapses in Uganda. This indicates that gorilla trekking in the East African country is safe.
After briefing on the gorilla trekking day, each group of trekkers is assigned 2-armed ranger guides. The armed guides will keep with the tourists through the entire trek to ensure that they are safe. One ranger leads the group while the other moves at the back.
In addition to the park rangers, the Ugandan government has already introduced tourism police in the mountain gorilla parks and other national parks in the country. The tourism police patrol the parks night and day to ensure that no criminals or rebels are hiding in the park.
At certain points, police do camp deep in the forest to make sure that the travelers are safe. If you come across the army men, you shouldn’t fear them, they are there to keep you safe.
Q: How Much Does It Cost to Go Gorilla Trekking in Uganda?
A: As noted earlier, the permit will cost you $600 if you are a foreigner. This cost is expected to go up to $700 by July 2020.
If you would like to spend less on your permit, you can consider going gorilla trekking in the low season (wet season). In the wet season (mostly May and April), you can spend as low as $350 on your permit.
Q: What is Gorilla Trekking?
A: Gorilla trekking is a hike to visit the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. A permit has to be obtained in advance and trained guides will take you in. During the hike, the vegetation can be dense and the paths can be muddy, but people who have average fitness can make the gorilla trek fairly easily.
A maximum of 60 minutes is allotted for the guests to observe the gorillas. Maintaining distance and avoiding any confrontation is mandatory during the gorilla trek.
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While gorilla trekking Uganda does involve bushwhacking through thick jungle and getting dirty, it is worth the effort. Spending an hour hanging out with the mountain gorillas is one of the best experiences you can have in Uganda.
If you have been thinking of going on gorilla treks, this article has all the information you need to prepare yourself. Be sure to book your permit early enough and pack all the necessary gear to have an awesome experience in the African jungle.
- Gorilla Trekking – Bwindiforestnationalpark.com