Trekking to see mountain gorillas in the wild is Uganda’s and one of Africa’s biggest attractions. The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to almost half of the world’s endangered mountain gorilla population, making this the best place to go gorilla trekking. The park borders on Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you can also go gorilla trekking, but it’s not recommended to go to the DRC.
Here’s what you can expect while gorilla trekking in Uganda:
We were woken up at 5:30am. From where we camped at Lake Bunyonyi, the drive to start the gorilla trek was 3 hours. I wish someone had told us this because a 6 hour roundtrip journey on top of a potential 6+ hour hike is kind of important information, especially considering you need to bring your own food and water.
You will be divided into small groups of a maximum of 8 people. The guides don’t know exactly how long the trek to the gorillas will be because the gorillas are always on the move. Your hike could be anywhere from 2-8 hours, so you have to be prepared with enough food and water. Our hike ended up being six hours roundtrip, not including the one hour spent with the gorillas (so 13 hours in total with the 6 hour drive). Everyone in my group was physically fit, so we purposely chose a longer hike (the guides can sometimes somewhat gauge how long the hike will be). The longer hike was nice and we got more out of it because the scenery was beautiful (and it weeded out the weak).
Once you reach the gorilla family, you get to spend one hour watching, filming and taking pictures of them. That hour will go by very quickly. You can get up to a few metres away from the gorillas. You must be very quiet and not use the flash on your camera. The first gorilla we saw was a HUGE silverback and he was really aggressive at first, which was a pretty intimidating first impression, but once he asserted his dominance, he chilled out. The gorillas were really into their bodily functions. They kept farting and one gorilla started peeing from a tree, so we almost got peed on. The gorillas like to hang out in the tall trees, which was unexpected since they’re so big and heavy. We saw a few baby gorillas. They’re so adorable and fun to watch. We saw a 3 week old baby gorilla accidentally do a somersault and we saw some of the adult gorillas beat their chests. Sometimes, you have to remember to put the camera down to just watch them. After the hour with the gorillas, we headed back.
Gorilla trekking is not cheap. The national park is heavily protected, so you’ll need a permit to enter. You can either book a 3 day organized tour, who will organize the whole thing for you (3 days/2 nights is the minimum possible), or you can get a permit from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) at $600USD per person (in Rwanda, it’s $750USD). But either way, you’ll need to be on a guided tour the day of the gorilla trekking. The permit should be booked well in advance as a limited amount of people can go per day. How much your accommodation and extras will cost will completely depend on your standards. I was on a camping tour to keep costs as low as possible, but even with camping, it was still very expensive.
It is a rainforest, so it is rainy and muddy and you will get filthy. They do warn that yours clothes may not return to their original condition after the hike.
What to wear and bring:
- Rain pants
- Rain jacket
- Hiking boots (I only had running shoes, which are fine too, as long as you accept the fact that they will get destroyed (both of my feet were fully submerged in mud and puddles a few times).
- Gardening gloves- during the bushwhacking and steeper parts, you’ll need to hold onto plants and branches at times. Some plants have thorns and the stinging nettles will cause irritation (this is where the rain jacket comes in handy too, whether it’s raining or not, because the fabric is perfect for protection and not catching on thorns and branches).
- Long socks- you’ll need to tuck your pants into your socks to avoid the fire ants Don’t worry, everyone will look ridiculous. Once you get bit by a sneaky fire ant, you’ll understand. Their bites are unpleasant and can draw blood, but you’ll be fine.
- Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen
- Mosquito repellent
- Waterproof bag for your electronics
- Food and water
It helps to be physically fit for the trek. There are steep parts where you need to hold onto branches to climb up and down hills.
You can hire a local porter if you don’t feel like carrying anything, not that you’ll likely have much to carry, but it does support the local economy.
At around 2500m, the forest is at a higher altitude, so you may feel it. This also makes it a cooler, more pleasant temperature for hiking (I was there in mid-March).
If you are sick at all, even with a common cold, you will not be allowed on the trek and you will be refunded. Because gorillas are so closely related to humans, we can pass on our illnesses, which needs to be avoided since they are endangered.
You will be escorted by armed guards on your trek. They claim that it’s for protection against wild animals, but it’s really for protection against attacks by rebels from the DRC (there was an incident a while ago). You’ll be fine.
Being able to get so close to the gorillas in the wild was a very unique experience. You can’t just go walking around the Serengeti on a safari to view the wild animals outside of a vehicle, a few metres away. The gorilla trekking was a definite highlight of my Africa trip that I highly recommend.