Coming face to face with these giants is a very powerful experience. This is the moment of truth since after a long, sweaty mix-up; your guide puts you quietly into the clearing. Some of them are taking their mid-morning break. The hillocks of black fur pass from the glossy greenery on every side of the swollen belly. And above the drip of the Foliage come sporadic snores and the soft sound of the wind. it seems there is little going on, but you have never felt so alive. You inch forward and then reach for your camera to have some photos taken.
Meeting these primates seemed dangerous but today, we know better, we have nothing to fear from the gorillas and highly endangered species. Visiting the gorillas in their natural habitats, the mountain forests of Equatorial Africa have become one of the planet’s ultimate wildlife experiences.
In science, the mountain gorilla is a high altitude race of the eastern gorilla, the larger of Africa’s two gorilla species, and differentiated by its denser fur, that protects it from the colder highlands climate. It lives in troops of 10-30 individuals, which also includes a silverback male that leads. This individual sometimes tops 200kg; the gorillas are very relaxed animals.
Presently, the mountain gorilla is confined to the Virunga which is a cluster of forested volcanoes that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC. It’s much rarer than its lowland cousins in the west and great thanks to the great primatologist Dian Fossey of the Gorillas in the mist and her works in the conservation of mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
You can either trek in Rwanda or Uganda, with security concerns ruling out that DRC yet it’s also very adventurous. The first requirement is a permit, in Uganda, it’s $600, in Rwanda, it’s $1500 and in DRC it’s 400, this gets you one hour with the gorillas, plus the time it takes to hike there and back.
The gorilla trek is always conducted under the supervision of park rangers. They will guide you to one of the many habituated troops whose movements are monitored around the clock. Some may feel this makes the experience a little stage-managed. In reality, it is the only way to see wild gorillas. You cannot simply wander off by yourself: the terrain is too dangerous; the apes too elusive, and the rangers too focused on battling poachers to allow tourists to blunder off-piste. Indeed, it is only through the efforts of the dedicated park staff that the beleaguered apes survive at all.
These treks are on daily basis and the rangers keep the headquarters informed by radio of the gorillas’ whereabouts, so the sightings are so virtually guaranteed. After an obligatory briefing, you will be given a group of up to 8 people, plus the guides and porters. Each group is allocated to a particular gorilla troop. The trek, including one hour with the gorillas, may take anything from three to nine hours, depending on the location of your troop. If you miss the briefing or show up with a cold that poses a serious health risk to the apes – you will be turned away, permit or no permit.
About the gorilla encounter, the dense undergrowth, the high altitude, and the steep slippery trail will soon have you scratched, muddy, and exhausted. There are also the tantalizing clues, steaming droppings, munched bamboo that will ramp up the excitement. The fact is nothing prepares you for the intensity of the encounter. Many people leave in tears well convinced that they have felt a connection. While such ideas may be fanciful, there is no denying that sitting among the apes, meeting those searching, intelligent eyes in a face that seems to reflect your own, is a powerful experience.
The guides will explain the rules and you should keep quiet and still preserve a distance of seven meters even though there is nothing to stop the apes from approaching you. There is nothing much that happens; the gorilla is dozing or feeding, with some occasional rough and tumble among boisterous youngsters. The silverback is great to behold but nothing to worry about. If feeling tetchy, he may beat his chest or make a brief “mock” charge. This sets the pulse racing but you need only keep still, avoid eye contact and let his bluster burn out. Your guides will be in control.
Gorilla trekking is an intimate experience more like entering a family sitting room than racing around on a tour. Once you are done with getting your snaps, you can enjoy the privilege of seeing an extraordinary animal close up. One hour is not enough, but it is an hour that you will remember for the rest of your life.
Where to go for gorilla trekking; Rwanda or Uganda has a similar number of habituated gorilla groups, but there are vital differences. Rwanda’s gorillas live in Volcanoes National Park which is about a 2-hour drive northwest from the capital Kigali. There are many good lodges in the place. A trek can be done over a stay of just two nights, though the other night will allow you to relax and explore further. All treks start from park HQ in the village of Kinigi.
Uganda’s gorillas are just over the border in Bwindi forest National Park, a full day’s drive from Entebbe or Kampala. Always allow three nights and trek starts from four different points, several hours’ drive apart. This will determine which lodge you stay in. Rwanda offers the easier trekking: your chances of a shorter hike are higher and you will have more flexibility on the day, with rangers allocating groups to troops according to fitness levels. In Uganda, the hikes are often longer and steeper, although some prefer this “wilder” challenge. The costs of gorilla permits in Uganda are cheaper than in Rwanda. The revenue from the permits helps fund both gorilla and community support; porters and refreshments cost extras.
Gorilla trekking is a year-round activity and during the long rains of late March to early May conditions are at their wettest and hiking at its toughest. November is also the short rainy season. The peak season is July and August.