Before Sir David Attenborough’s landmark TV programme, Life On Earth, gorillas were seen largely in a negative light, based on King Kong and cheap B-movie monsters. At one point, a survey of the world’s most feared animals featured gorillas alongside sharks and spiders.

Seeing this popular TV personality interacting with friendly gorillas changed all that. The famous sequence of Sir David’s spontaneous encounter and his awe for the gentle giants helped bring a new understanding of their true nature to TV screens around the world.

Today the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda are both countries' biggest draw for international visitors. Perhaps there's something about these creatures' gentle vulnerability despite their colossal size that triggers a sense of empathy for our distant cousins. Do we see something in them that we wish we saw in ourselves? Whatever the appeal, visitors who come to spend a magical moment with the gorillas describe a life-changing experience.

Thinking about experiencing it for yourself? Dig into our essential guide to gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda.

Rwanda silverbackmountaingorilla

Up close and personal: Meeting a silverback on a gorilla trek in Rwanda

Rwanda and Uganda gorilla trekking

Essential guide to visiting the gentle giants

In December 2019 it was announced that the world’s population of mountain gorillas numbered 1,063—the highest in three decades.

This figure combines the census results for Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and Sarambwe Nature Reserve in the DRC. (This was the first census to include Sarambwe). The combined population total also includes gorillas from Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda that were counted in a separate census of the Virunga Massif. Records show that Uganda has more mountain gorillas than both Rwanda and the DRC.

Where to see mountain gorillas

The world’s entire mountain gorilla population can be found in just three locations: Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park.

The opportunities to track mountain gorillas in the DRC are extremely limited and are thus not covered in this guide.

Where to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda

Rwanda is an excellent option for those with limited time when it comes to seeing mountain gorillas. All Rwanda’s habituated gorillas reside in Volcanoes National Park (VNP), which is just a two-hour drive on good roads from Kigali International Airport. Although you still need to be fit to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda, the terrain is slightly easier going than in Uganda (unless you opt to track one of the remoter gorilla families).

VNP occupies 160 km² and is situated in north-western Rwanda where it borders the DRC’s Virunga National Park and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Together, these three parks form the Greater Virunga Conservation Area.

Volcanoes National Park is distinguished by five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains that sit along the park boundary: Karisimbi, Bisoke, Gahinga, Sabyinyo and Muhabura. The park is bordered by farmland, with the local community cultivating land right up to the park boundary.

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is quite different from gorilla trekking in the dense jungle of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Whereas trekking in Bwindi takes you straight into the dense, dark forest, in Rwanda the trek starts with a gentle ascent for thirty minutes through open farmland with breath-taking views (on clear days) of the Virunga volcanoes.

Here the forest is predominantly bamboo, which means less canopy to block the daylight. The bamboo canes sway several metres overhead, cracking and groaning under the weight of the gorillas shifting around in search of tender shoots. Elsewhere, the gorillas may be found out in the open, lazily munching vegetation.

Where to see mountain gorillas in Uganda

Uganda is home to over half of the mountain gorilla population. They live in two national parks in the country’s south-west: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is 331 km² and supports almost half the world’s population of mountain gorillas. It is one of Africa’s richest rainforests and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Bwindi is more than 25,000 years old and ranges in altitude from 1,160m to 2,607m above sea level.

The forest’s age and altitude give Bwindi abundant biodiversity. More than 320 tree species have been recorded here, which are home to 310 butterflies, 88 moth, 51 reptile and 120 mammal species, including a further nine primates, such as chimpanzees, olive baboons, black and white colobus monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabey and blue, red-tailed and L'Hoest monkeys. The forest is alive with birdsong (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has been named as one of Africa’s top 10 birding destinations by the African Birding Club).

In comparison to Bwindi, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a relatively tiny 33.7 km² and is Uganda's smallest national park. Mgahinga is just one part of a larger Virunga conservation area which covers 434 km² of volcanic mountains linking Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC.

Uganda gorilla peopleobserving

Mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda

How to see mountain gorillas

Gorilla trekking is an all-day activity with an early start; the day begins at around 7:00am with registration and a briefing at the relevant national park office. The park authorities will know the general location of each gorilla family and their distance from headquarters. Your hiking preferences and personal fitness will determine which gorilla family you are allocated to visit and the length of your trek.

After the briefing, you’ll walk or drive to the start point and will start trekking around 8:30am, depending on the location and the gorilla family you’re visiting.

You’ll usually hike for at least an hour before you reach your assigned gorilla family. In some cases, it may take three or more hours before you find your group. The scenery is stunningly beautiful, and the hike is all part of the experience. Be sure to keep your own pace and drink plenty of water as it’s easy to get dehydrated, especially at altitude.

As you come within range of your gorilla family, the rangers will ask you to leave your bags so you can approach the group more closely. Once you make contact, you’ll spend an hour with the gorillas. They may be munching on bamboo, hanging from trees, grooming each other, suckling their babies, playing, sleeping, farting or mating. Every experience is unique; take time to enjoy their presence.

If the gorillas are on the move, you’ll be able to move with them—keeping the required minimum distance of ten metres at all times. They may show some interest and approach your group. This is normal and nothing to be concerned about. If they approach you, the rangers will ask you to remain calm and step back slowly.

The ranger guides are very knowledgeable and will take good care of you in the forest. Be sure to ask them about the gorillas, the forest and other wildlife. They know each gorilla family intimately and can tell you the names and personalities of each individual. Porters are indispensable members of the team too: for a small fee (and a tip) a porter will carry your day pack and help get you up and down the slopes.

Pro tip

Remember you’re allowed just one hour of contact time. Every visit is different and you may spend the entire hour with the gorillas on the move. Many visitors find the gorillas more interesting when they’re resting with the family clustered together, snoozing, grooming and playing. When you approach, ask your guide if they are on the move; if they are, ask whether you can wait for them to stop before making contact.

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

There are two ways to organise a gorilla trek in Rwanda. You can either secure a permit yourself through the Rwandan Development Board and then try to book a guide, transport and accommodation independently. Or you can book the whole thing through a licensed tour operator who will arrange your gorilla tracking permit, accommodation and all the necessary logistics.

Plan to stay at least two nights in the vicinity of Volcanoes National Park. This will allow you to spend one-night acclimatising and another recuperating after your trek. It is possible to fly in and out on a one-day trek, but we don’t recommend it. There’s much more to the country than one hour with the gorillas!

Gorilla trekking in Uganda

Uganda’s gorilla families are scattered across various locations. It’s therefore very important that you book accommodation that is not too far away from the national park entrance, otherwise you may have to drive for an hour or more before your 7:00am registration and briefing.

This is one of the main advantages of using a tour operator: they know all the lodges and all the gorilla families and can make the best possible match for your interests, budget and hiking ability.

Managing expectations

Part of the excitement of visiting the gorillas is not knowing exactly where you will find them. The altitude, the dark forest, the rain and mud can make it tiring, but it’s well worth the effort.

You will find the gorillas in very different settings, depending on your location: in an open clearing, with clear views and plenty of sunlight or in a denser part of the forest under a thick canopy. Keep the lighting conditions in mind when planning your photos as flash photography is strictly prohibited.

Remember that sightings are not guaranteed but there is at least a 95 percent chance that you will find your gorilla family.

How to book a gorilla trek

Visiting the mountain gorillas is the number one international visitor attraction in Uganda and Rwanda with a wide range of local and international tour operators who can help organise your trip.

A good tour operator offers in-depth local knowledge with staff or representatives on-the-ground. They will have visited the lodges personally and be familiar with the proximity of each gorilla family. This knowledge can prove invaluable when planning your trip.

Tour operators should employ reliable ground staff, including good drivers who know the terrain well and can negotiate the steep dirt tracks (around Bwindi, for example).

If you plan to extend your trip after you have seen the gorillas, a tour operator can provide an itinerary and organise your other activities, accommodation and transfers. If you buy a gorilla trekking tour, make sure your tracking permit is included in the price.

Professional associations like AUTO (Association of Uganda Tour Operators) and RTTA (Rwanda Tours and Travel Association) are professional bodies who vet their members but there are many good lodges and tour operators who are not members of these organisations.

It is also possible to book independently if you do your homework and book well in advance. Leave plenty of time for travel. If you miss a bus or you break down, you’re on your own. Gorilla permits can’t be rescheduled in such circumstances and you could end up forfeiting any savings you make by travelling independently.

You should book your gorilla tour and permit at least six months before you plan to travel. There are a limited number of permits available per day so tours do get booked up quickly.

Each gorilla permit only allows you to see gorillas for one hour, so if you want to make multiple visits, you will need multiple permits.

Gorilla trekking FAQs

Is gorilla trekking worth it?

Gorilla trekking/tracking is said by many to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Whether it is quite so life-changing for you, may depend on how passionate you are about wildlife encounters (and early morning starts!) It is extremely rare to hear anyone say that it is a less than wonderful experience and should be regarded as a whole day’s activity in a pristine natural environment, not just the precious hour with the great apes.

To get maximum value from the experience, make sure you’re prepared. Be as fit as possible, wear the right gear, rest well and don’t try and pack too many activities into your itinerary. Uganda and Rwanda are fascinating countries with much more than ‘just’ gorilla trekking; round out your experience with a few more days getting to know your destination.

Is gorilla trekking safe?

Despite their size and unfair reputation, mountain gorillas are not dangerous. All gorilla trekking trips are accompanied by expert ranger guides who spend most of their time with the mountain gorillas. You’re only allowed to visit gorilla groups who have been habituated to the presence of humans, meaning they are used to having people near them and understand they are generally not a threat.

Gorillas are normally shy and reserved, spending the majority of their time feeding and looking after their young. However, they—like any other animal—can exhibit defensive behaviour if they feel uneasy, particularly around their young. Your guide will recognise the signs; they may include ‘mock charging’, aggressive beating of their chests and grunting. Always follow your guide’s lead, but if faced with an aggressive gorilla, crouch down, look away and try to act relaxed. Your guide will advise you further during the pre-trek briefing.

How difficult is gorilla trekking?

Gorilla trekking can be physically demanding. Expect muddy paths, dense rainforests and thick vegetation; you should come well prepared both physically and mentally. The mist and regular rainfall mean hikes can be slippery and sometimes muddy.

However, you can hire porters to carry your daypacks and camera equipment, and your ranger guides will try to make the trek as easy as possible. Altitude sickness isn’t normally a problem, particularly if you spend a day acclimatising before your gorilla trek. However, do make sure you drink plenty of water to avoid the altitude headache.

At a minimum, be prepared to be on your feet for five hours. If you are fit and are assigned to a remote gorilla family, you may be hiking the entire day.

The day starts early, and you may have been travelling the day before. Remember that you will be at altitude and will tire more easily.

If you suffer from any kind of breathing difficulty, consult your doctor before booking your trip and remember to bring your medication.

Age should not be a deterrent and it’s common for people in their 70s and above to enjoy gorilla trekking. The rangers and porters have many years' experience helping visitors move through the forest. In addition, enterprising locals offer sedan-type chairs (known colloquially as ‘stretchers’ in Uganda) for carrying elderly or disabled visitors into the mountains. This service comes at a high price, so consider this option for emergencies only.

With common sense and a reasonable level of fitness your day will be memorable for all the right reasons.

In Rwanda

Volcanoes National Park is accessed via gently sloping farmland. Inside the park is a variety of habitats: bamboo forest, open bush and darker, moss-covered trees with rocky paths. The higher you climb, the denser the forest.

In Uganda

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a dense rainforest of trees, shrubs and creepers. The terrain is mountainous, with access via steep dirt roads. Trees—some reaching 50m in height—create a dense canopy. Trekking through the jungle can be tricky and your ranger guides may have to hack a path with machetes. Rivers and waterfalls intersect the forest.

The forests of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park are less dense than Bwindi, but the climb to see the gorillas can be very steep in parts.

What to wear while gorilla trekking

Your day of gorilla trekking will be long, active and may be fairly arduous. You’ll be hiking in thick forest in a changeable climate. Evenings can be cold; mornings are cool, and the days are hot—especially when you’re clambering up a muddy mountainside. Having the right gear makes all the difference:

  • A small backpack to carry water, packed lunch and rain jacket.
  • Walking boots or hiking shoes. Boots are ideal for the extra ankle support on rocky and muddy terrain. Another option (that is particularly popular with locals) is plastic gumboots. Not only do they keep your feet dry, but they keep insects—particular ants—at bay.
  • Long socks will allow you to tuck in your hiking trousers and protect your ankles from scratches and biting insects. Higher-end lodges may loan gaiters to guests.
  • Lightweight waterproof jacket.
  • Hiking pants or waterproof trousers (handy when sliding down muddy slopes!) Do not wear jeans or shorts: hiking in wet jeans can be miserable and shorts will leave you exposed to hungry insects and scratches from thorns.
  • A long-sleeved shirt offers much needed protection from the sun and insects.
  • A fleece or light-wool sweater for cold mornings.
  • Cheap gardening gloves will protect your hands but aren’t essential.
  • Sunglasses, sunscreen and sunhat.
  • Camera (and associated paraphernalia). Although some people take binoculars, you aren’t very likely to use them. You will spend most of your time in the forest where trees will obscure most things.
  • Many visitors—regardless of age or fitness—find walking poles useful and many upmarket lodges provide wooden poles. In Rwanda your guide can cut you a custom-made pole from bamboo!
  • At least one litre of drinking water and your packed lunch.
  • A basic first aid kit may come in handy: antiseptic wipes, antihistamine cream, insect repellent, plasters, painkillers, and rehydration sachets.
Why is gorilla trekking so expensive?

Seeing mountain gorillas in either Rwanda or Uganda isn’t cheap. The combined cost of permits, accommodation, guides and a tour can bring overall trip costs upwards of $5,000 per person. So why is gorilla trekking so expensive?

The main reason is that mountain gorillas are endangered. This means that the authorities need to limit the number of interactions the gorillas have with people. This is also important as one of the biggest threats to the gorillas’ survival is disease. Gorillas share 98% of their DNA with humans, making them highly susceptible to infection from human diseases. Limiting the number of visitors can therefore help to control potential infections.

Also, the need to conserve the gorillas’ habitat requires funding. A significant percentage of gorilla permit fees goes into conserving the gorillas’ mountain forest habitat. Finally, some of the money you pay will go into research and monitoring of the gorillas, as well as paying your guides and encouraging sustainable tourism. The authorities point to the growth in gorilla numbers as evidence of their success.

On balance the price might not be low, but it’s still pretty good value considering the importance of protecting this endangered primate.

Is there a gorilla trekking age limit?

The minimum age to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda is 15. You will need to provide your passport when you book your permits and park authorities will use your passport to verify your birthday matches the date given on your gorilla trekking permit.

How close can you get to the mountain gorillas?

Regulations state that you must stay 10 metres from the gorillas at all times and only spend one hour with them. In practice, inquisitive gorillas may come closer to you on your trek. If they do, stay calm and quiet, follow your guide’s advice and never touch the gorillas. Keep your voice low and avoid eye contact.

The gorillas will normally be more relaxed the further back you are. Your guide may ask your group to move to a different location to calm the gorillas or to get a better view.

How big is a silverback gorilla?

The mountain gorilla is the world’s largest living primate. You can expect a fully-grown male gorilla to be between 5-6ft (1.5-1.8 metres) tall and weigh 300-440lbs (140-200kg). Female mountain gorillas are between 4-5ft(1.2-1.5 metres) tall, weighing 200-220lbs (90-100kg).

Mountain gorillas are exceptionally strong and surprisingly quick. A gorilla can reach speeds of 25mph and is between 8-15 times stronger than a human.

Gorilla trekking rules & safety

Tourists are only allowed to visit and interact with habituated mountain gorilla families. Habituation is a gradual process through which the gorillas get used to the presence of humans. This allows people to visit the gorillas without affecting their daily lives or natural behaviour.

Although the gorillas are habituated, the Rwanda Development Board and the Uganda Wildlife Authority enforce rules governing how tourists can interact with the animals. The following (revised in light of the pandemic) are for the safety and wellbeing of the gorillas and tourists and are considered non-negotiable:

  • Your group is allowed a maximum of one hour with the gorillas.
  • Visitors to the gorillas must be over the age of 15.
  • The maximum group size for tracking the gorillas is eight people in both Rwanda and Uganda (plus rangers and porters).
  • Trekking in thick forest at an altitude of over 2,000 metres (6,560 ft) can be tough. It is often wet. Gorilla trekkers must be fit and in good health.
  • You should not go gorilla trekking if you have Covid-19, diarrhoea, flu or a cold. Gorillas have no immunity to most human diseases and even mild human infections can be lethal to a gorilla. The Covid-19 pandemic has made us even more aware of the risk we pose to them. You are obliged to inform the authorities if you are sick and they will decide if you are well enough to visit the gorillas. Remember that the lives of the endangered gorillas are more important than your holiday.
  • If you need to sneeze or cough, cover your nose and mouth to reduce the chance of spreading infection.
  • Don't spit or leave litter in the forest. Gorillas can catch diseases from human rubbish.
  • Always leave a distance of ten metres between you and the gorillas. If the gorillas start moving towards you, the rangers may advise you to move away from them.
  • Gorillas can be quite curious. Do not touch the gorillas, even if they come close to you.
  • Do not make any sudden movements.
  • If a gorilla charges, do not run away. Avoid direct eye contact until the gorilla has moved away. Stay calm and slowly crouch down.
  • Stay in your group. Do not crowd or surround the gorillas.
  • If you need to go to the toilet in the forest, tell your guide and he will dig a hole for you. Cover the hole afterwards to prevent spreading disease to the gorillas.
  • Flash photography is strictly forbidden.

Follow these simple, common-sense rules and your visit will be a positive one—for the gorillas as well as yourself.

In this guide:

Gorilla Trekking In Rwanda & Uganda

Charlotte Beauvoisin

Charlotte is a travel blogger based on the edge of Kibale Forest, Uganda. She is a contributor to the Bradt Uganda Guidebook and has written for Lonely Planet, The Daily Telegraph and Fodor's. She first arrived in Uganda in 2009 as a Voluntary Service Overseas volunteer with the Uganda Conservation Foundation.

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