Updated May 2020.
Someone’s just told you all about gorilla trekking, right? That’s why you’re here? I’m glad, because I recently did it, and I’m about to tell you all about it (yes, it was amazing).
There are few places in the world where you can truly walk amongst animals in their natural habitat. Most of the time you’re staring through a cage or out a safari truck window.
However, in the heart of East Africa you’ll find the last natural habitats of the majestic mountain gorilla, and for a price, you can walk amongst them.
Gorilla trekking is possible in 3 places – Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo or Uganda.
Congo’s reputation is that it’s a little unstable and visa issues are common. However, the Congo is slowly emerging as a tourism destination with more adventurous travellers – my friend Lauren at Never Ending Footsteps went recently and loved it.
Of course Rwanda and Uganda are still far more tourist friendly, and naturally these two countries are the most popular.
In the end, we chose Uganda. I also had the pleasure of sharing this adventure with my parents, who were setting foot on Africa’s sacred sands for the first time. We hadn’t travelled together in more than ten years.
Below is a recap of the whole experience. If you’re planning on taking on this adventure, this is a full breakdown of everything you can expect.
Gorilla Trekking Uganda, Day 1:
Day 1 of the tour and we’re up before the sun. The guesthouse staff are also awake and invite us to indulge in a well-rounded breakfast of fruit, yoghurt, cereal and eggs. A welcome surprise. Our guide arrives a little late, maybe 7 am, but without too much fuss we’re on our way. I strategically dress in the closest thing to pyjamas that I have, ready for 8 hour drive ahead.
Where are we going? Uganda’s mountain gorillas are located in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a deep, dense forest out in Bwindi province, a long drive from the capital city of Kampala.
With lack of anything better thing to do, I take a nap and 2-3 hours later we arrive at our first mandatory stop – the equator. A straight line runs across the road, and while standing upon it you supposedly have one foot in the northern hemisphere and my other in the south.
We oblige and snap our pics, which feels like more of a gimmicky photo opportunity than anything else. Still, something to show the grandchildren someday.
Another hour in and Mum and Dad start to question why the car panels were shaking so hard. In Africa I just grind my teeth through such things, and assumed all the shaking was just a bumpy road and few loose screws.
As it turns out, our wheels are unbalanced and needed to be un-unbalanced, which apparently is really important (who knew). As a result, we charge the next couple of hours to finding a chop shop and getting this thing sorted.
Dad is bit of a metalhead and starts poking around, fascinated by the old school equipment they’re pumping. Mum’s throwing a tantrum at our shitty “custom built top of the line 4 wheel drive”. For me, this car stuff flies over my head so I go wandering around this tiny Ugandan town. It’s called Masaka. People stare at me like I’m Jackie Chan, with all the young guys fist bumping me and doing karate chops. In a few minutes I manage to find a Vodacom store and purchase a simcard, while the girl at the counter looks at me like I’m an alien. I introduce myself and she relaxes, finally realising I’m human.
Two hours later we’re back on the road. To me the car is still shaking just as much as before, but Mum and Dad seem satisfied. Must be the extra years of experience.
The drive is smooth sailing until we reach the mountain roads. They wind around in circles and the thick, brown dust is intense. Nonetheless, some of the views from these heights are spectacular.
Finally we arrive at a gate. A security guard opens up and we drive slowly through a village road, lined with rundown wooden houses and local villagers sitting out in the moonlight. We all look through the windscreen anxiously, wondering where we’ll be sleeping after a long day on the road.
When we finally show up, I’m actually blown away by the place. My room is half tent half house, complete with towels, linen, flush toilet and hot water shower. Being out here in mother nature’s territory I thought I’d be working a sleeping bag in a mud hut.
High five, Uganda.
Gorilla Trekking Uganda, Day 2:
The next day is gorilla trekking day.
It’s a 6am wakeup call and a short 10 minute drive to the check in spot. When we arrive, we’re briefed warmly and efficiently by a couple of gun toting rangers. The lowdown: prepare for lots of walking, don’t let gorillas get closer than 7 metres, cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze and take lots of water. That’s it for the motivational speech and within moments we’re back in the van and off to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Once we hit the bush I repeatedly thank fate that I paid the extra $10 for a walking stick and got me some decent Timberlands. It is no regular bushwalk like we have back in New Zealand; it is virgin forest with no signs, no paths, lots of thorns, rocks, bugs and slippery stuff; not what I was expecting at all.
Up the front, our guide wields his machete with a vengeance, relentlessly slashing away every stick and branch as if the trees are trying to kill him. Maybe they were.
Two hours pass and we’re well into the thick of the forest. Then, I hear a bunch of radio chatter and the guide stops us in our tracks.
I can feel the group’s adrenaline spike as if we had entered Jurassic Park. I look around and see nothing. The bushes a few foosteps away from me rustle softly, and the guide parts the branches with his machete and peeks through. I assume it’s just another ranger chilling with a cigarette, but as the guide waves us over I glance around the bushes and realise how wrong I am. It’s a freakin’ gorilla, sitting no more than a car’s length away. Naturally you would take a photo, but I don’t. I’m frozen and mesmerised. I watch him sitting there, fiddling with the branches like a knitting Grandma on a Sunday afternoon. For some reason I feel the need to whisper, as if he’s going to turn around and wrangle me if he figures out I’m here. I stand there staring at him, and unlike most animals, he doesn’t even flinch. It’s incredible.
Then, they start to move. The guide takes us in a different direction to flank them, trying to keep up. They appear slow and lethargic but they can move surprisingly quick. Then suddenly, he raises his hand and stops us as we come to a clearing.
A few seconds later a couple of kid gorillas tumble through the bushes in front of me, literally centimetres from my feet. I nearly pee my pants.
We spend the next hour following them through the forest. It’s a little hard to keep up, as their enormous bodies just tumble through the brush while us inferior humans need to poke our way through with our little machete. Luckily they stop every now and then, chilling in the sunshine and eating trees. It’s the perfect chance to snap a couple photos.
A few moments later we finally see the Silverback. The guy is a monster, it’s like seeing Kong Kong in real life. A good 4 or 5 of them are together now and we try to follow them while they move as a family.
While I try to concentrate on not falling into all the thorns surrounding us, I hear a massive roar and look around in a panic, startled. I catch a glimpse of King Kong facing us, around 20 metres away, arms in the air and bellowing into the sky. He towers above the other gorillas and slams his fists violently against his chest, roaring ferociously. I freak and without a second thought I drop my camera and flee, ready to run for my life until I notice the guard still standing beside me lax as ever. He laughs.
“They’re just playing.”
I knew that!
It’s not long before our scheduled hour is up. We follow them up a small slope for a couple more minutes, desperately trying to snap a few more photos. I try to get the perfect shot that has eluded me, but sadly it doesn’t happen.
It’s a good 45 minutes back up to the main road. The Bwindi Forest is like a massive crater, so the hike back is uphill and infinitely harder. It doesn’t matter – we’re all still buzzing from the magic experience. I could’ve stayed down there all day with them, but it makes sense to get out and leave them be. After all, it’s their home, not ours.
A few more near vertical climbs and we’re finally out on the main road. We stand around and catch our breath, maybe still in awe of how damn cool it all was.
Even today, I’m still amazed at how crazy it was to be so close to them. What the photos don’t really show is how beastly they really are. They have biceps the size of soccer balls and a D cup breast of pure muscle. Say the wrong thing to one of them and he can pick you apart like a chicken wing.
It’s also incredible how they’re at complete ease with a bunch of strangers with rifles poking around their habitat. Fearless creatures, but peaceful too. To walk alongside them is an out of body experience so surreal that you may not even believe is happening while you’re doing it. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s one long drive and a few thousand dollars you’ll never forget.
How to book a Uganda Gorilla Trek?
The easiest way to do it is via an arranged tour. If you are inexperienced traveller, and especially if it is your first time in Africa, I would recommend using an established provider. My suggestion is G Adventures. They are reasonably priced and have a great reputation.
If you are more experienced on the road and are happy to get to Kampala yourself, you can travel there first and shop around the local tour market. It will probably cost you ~$1,200 including accommodation and transport. I wouldn’t say Kampala is a dangerous or difficult city to visit independently, but it will definitely be overwhelming if it’s your first time in Africa or first time travelling alone.
There is also the option to do it without a tour company – you will need to get to Bwindi yourself, buy the gorilla permit from the Tourism office and find a local guide once you get there (you can’t go into the forest unaccompanied). I would only recommend this for very experienced travellers.
The gorilla trekking permit in Uganda is $700 as of July 2020.
Permits are strictly limited, so I suggest arranging your trip at least 3-6 months in advance.
What about Rwanda?
The Rwanda permit costs all travellers $1,500 per person as of July 2020. Here are other things to consider:
- In Rwanda the gorilla zone is only a couple hours from the Kigali airport. In Uganda it’s around 10 hours. So in Uganda, you’ll have an extra 6 hours on the road each way.
- Half the world’s mountain gorilla population lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, significantly higher numbers than Rwanda. Our guide told us there are instances of people trekking for 10-12 hours and not managing to find or catch up to the gorillas. They are roaming creatures and can be anywhere in the forest at any time. However, he conceded that the trackers are experienced and this occurring is rare.
- The bush is also different in both places. Rwanda has a bamboo heavy forest, which makes it less bushy and easier to see the gorillas and snap your photos. Uganda on the other hand is very thick, dense green forest in parts, and some parts are not very photo friendly.
Whichever you choose, I can guarantee you it will be unforgettable!
Some clips from the trek:
What do you need to pack when Gorilla Trekking?
The number one thing you should have! Medical care and emergency services are not of a high standard in rural Uganda, and quality care is limited in the capital. Do not travel without travel insurance. For a travel insurance provider that covers Africa at an affordable cost, I recommend World Nomads. You can read more about finding good travel insurance in my Traveller’s Guide To Buying Travel Insurance.
A Good Camera
There are so many good photo opportunities. If your smartphone has a solid camera that’s great, but if not make sure you have something to take quality snaps with.
Comfort is key, and also know you’ll be walking through a lot of unfriendly terrain down in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (it wasn’t named that for nothing). Make sure they’re well worn in by the time your Gorilla Trek happens (or buy a second hand pair).
A Good Daypack
Make sure you have a smaller daypack that you’ll be comfortable hiking with for several hours. Many backpackers only travel with their main backpack, which leaves them in a fix during activities like this.
Tap water is not potable in Uganda. I would recommend travelling with a filter bottle, and also drinking bottled water wherever possible. For Africa, the bottle I would recommend is a GRAYL filter bottle. This both filters and kills contaminants with UV treatment – very cool and very effective. I would also recommend reading my Guide To Never Getting Traveller’s Diarrhea – mandatory reading for anyone visiting Africa!