There is no experience quite like coming face-to-face with a giant male Silverback in the jungles of central Africa. Specially trained park rangers in Rwanda and Uganda lead a very limited number of guests’ everyday to see the gorillas in their natural habitat. If you have ever dreamed of traveling to Africa to get a firsthand look at these amazing animals here are 6 tips to get you started and help plan your trip.
There are only about 700 Mountain Gorillas remaining on the planet living primarily in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is politically unstable as of the time of this writing so we will focus on seeing the gorillas in either Uganda or Rwanda. All of the Gorillas live in a relatively small region of the Virunga Mountains which straddles the borders of all three countries. The mountain range itself is a chain of volcanoes with eight major volcanoes with summits above 3000m.
The Mountain Gorillas spend most of their time in the region known as the Hagenia Forest which is between 2800 and 2400m (9,200–11,200 ft) where they can find an abundance of Galium vines to eat. Occasionally they move lower to eat the fresh bamboo sprouts when they are in season or they head up further into the mountains to feast on the giant Senecio Trees. The good thing for trekkers coming to see the Gorillas is that the forests are relatively cool given the high elevation.
1. Uganda or Rwanda: What is the best place to see the Gorillas?
Both countries are excellent places to see the Gorillas. One thing to consider is that the permits in Rwanda at $1500 are much more expensive than the $600 you will pay in Uganda. On top of that, it’s usually easier to get the permits in Uganda as well. The truth is that Rwanda has done a much better job of promoting and advertising Gorilla tracking and hence has attracted more tourists to the region. Gorilla Tracking in both countries is good and neither will disappoint. Rwanda does have some advantages for travelers with a limited amount of time since you can fly into Kigali and visit the Gorillas in the same day. If you want to go to Uganda it’s a 4-hour drive just to the border so you will want at least a few days.
2. Gorilla Tracking vs. a Gorilla Experience?
Typically the Gorilla permits in Rwanda and Uganda are issued for one hour with the gorillas although it might take several additional hours with your park ranger to find and spot them. Uganda has a new permit called the “Gorilla Habituation Experience” which allows up to 4 hours with one of the Gorilla groups. This is a pretty good deal considering that in Rwanda you would pay more for just an hour. Maybe not everyone needs more than hour with the Gorillas but once you encounter them the time goes by pretty fast.
3. What is the best time of year to see the Gorillas?
It’s possible to see the Gorillas year-round but most travelers prefer the short dry season from December to February and the long dry season from June to September. Keep in mind that permits should be arranged well in advance especially in the peak season in Rwanda. If you come in the offseason in Uganda it’s usually possible to arrange a permit without much notice.
4. Is it dangerous to see the Gorillas in the wild?
Gorillas by nature are not aggressive unless threatened. All of the gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda are habituated to people before guests are allowed to see them in the wild. What normally happens is that several of the park rangers will virtually live with a group of gorillas for up to a year so that they become used to being with people. All of the gorillas that are visited in the wild are habituated to people in this sense and not as dangerous as a totally wild gorilla might be.
5. How long does it take to see the Gorillas?
The different groups of Gorillas roam about the mountains and have quite a large range. When you have issued a permit it will be to see a specific gorilla group and your ranger will guide you to this group. Depending on its location you could find it in the first hour or it may take as long as 3 or 4 hours to find the gorillas. The park rangers are in communication with several gorilla spotters and also are good at tracking the groups through the forest.
6. How to Prepare for Gorilla Tracking?
Even during the dry season, you will find that it frequently rains in the highlands of the Virunga Mountains so prepare accordingly. It’s best to wear clothes that are lightweight as it’s fairly warm but not hot. Also, since you are walking through the forest long sleeves and pants are best to avoid scratches and bug bites. Make sure to bring sunblock, rain gear, your camera and water for drinking. Be prepared to be out hiking for at least half the day.
Gorilla tracking is a great experience and well worth the permit fees. The high permit fees ensure that Gorillas will be an important part of the economies of Rwanda and Uganda and stay protected for years to come.
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