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 in-depth guide on visiting the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda.

Covid restrictions & updates

At time of update both Rwanda and Uganda were open for tourists and gorilla tours were running, subject to regulations. Note that the situation is continually evolving. Please confirm any important details with your tour operator or travel agent prior to booking.

How a gorilla trek works

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.

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.

How to see gorillas 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!

How to see gorillas 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.

In this guide:

How To See Gorillas 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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