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 encounter and his awe for the gentle giants helped bring a new understanding of their true nature to TV screens around the world.

Today gorillas safaris to Rwanda and my adoptive home of 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.

I’ve lived in Uganda since 2009, originally arriving on a VSO placement that quickly turned from a two year stint to an indefinite stay. (Visit this corner of East Africa for yourself and you’ll quickly see why.) Over the last 14 years or so I’ve tracked the gorillas four times while working as a travel journalist, guidebook author and a volunteer with Conservation Through Public Health. I’ve seen first hand both the gentle beauty of the gorillas, and the various ways that the travel industry sometimes gets it not quite right.

In the following pages I’ll be sharing my own insights and perspectives on how you can make your gorilla safari a great one – both for you and your hosts.

Where to see mountain gorillas

The best places to go on a gorilla tracking safari

The world’s entire mountain gorilla population can be found in just four locations: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Volcanoes National Park, and Virunga National Park.

In December 2019 (the last official census) it was announced that the world’s population of mountain gorillas numbered 1,063—the highest in three decades. Records show that Uganda has a slightly higher number of mountain gorillas than both Rwanda and the DRC. Sadly, instability in the DRC means that tourism here is currently closed.

Gorilla safaris need to know

Everything you wish you'd known before you booked

Manage expectations

Part of the excitement of tracking gorillas is not knowing exactly where you will find them. The altitude, the dark forest, the rain and mud can make it hard work, but it’s well worth the effort. Remember that sightings are not guaranteed but there is at least a 95 percent chance that you will find your gorilla family.

My advice is to make this experience much more than ‘just’ seeing the gorillas. Your encounter with the gorillas is strictly limited to 60 minutes, which will fly by before you know it. But during the rest of your trip you’ll experience a part of the world that few others get to visit. You’ll see astonishing scenery, all sorts of other wildlife, and get to witness local people living their lives in this amazing setting. The gorillas are the crowning jewel, but don’t forget about the rest of the treasure trove on your race to see them.

Optimise your time

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. I always find them more interesting when they’re resting with the family clustered together, snoozing, grooming and playing. On approach, I’ll ask my guide if they are on the move; if they are, we’ll wait for them to settle down before making contact.

Rwanda silverbackmountaingorilla

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

What to expect on a gorilla safari

A gorilla tracking safari is an all-day activity with an early start; the day begins at around 7:00 am 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 hike.

After the briefing, you’ll walk or drive to the start point and will set off around 8:30 am, 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. I strongly encourage you to tap their wealth of knowledge 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.

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.

How to book a gorilla safari

Permits are required for gorilla tracking in both countries. Permit availability is limited and is determined by the number of habituated gorilla families in each country. Permits can sell out months in advance, especially during peak season.

Current permit fees for foreigners are $1,500 in Rwanda and $700 in Uganda.

It's possible to organise a DIY trip yourself by purchasing a permit directly from the Rwandan Development Board or in person at the Uganda Wildlife Authority in Kampala, and then book your own accommodation and transportation. But my advice is to book through a good tour operator. A quality 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 book onto a gorilla safari tour, make sure your tracking permit is included in the price!

Associations like the Association of Uganda Tour Operators and 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.

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 safari rules & guidelines

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 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 must be over the age of 15.
  • The maximum group size for tracking the gorillas is eight people (plus rangers and porters).
  • Hiking in thick forest at an altitude of over 2,000 metres (6,560 ft) can be tough. It is often wet. Visitors must be fit and in good health.
  • You should not go gorilla tracking 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 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!

Gorilla safari FAQs

Your questions, our expert answers


Are gorilla safaris worth the money?


If you do a search for this question you'll find hundreds of pages – mostly from companies selling gorilla safaris – saying yes it's definitely worth the money. My reply is more qualified: if you have to ask, the answer might actually be no!

For many, seeing the gorillas is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Personally I love it so much I’ve been four times!

But whether it is quite so life-changing for you depends on how passionate you are about wildlife encounters, hiking, (and early morning starts!) I actually think you’re most likely to be disappointed if your entire trip revolves around just seeing the gorillas – after your 60 minutes, the rest of the trip might feel anticlimactic. It should be regarded as a whole day’s activity in a pristine natural environment, not just the single 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 to pack too many activities into your itinerary. These are both fascinating countries with much more than ‘just’ gorilla tracking; slow down and round out your experience by getting to know the rest of the country.

Charlotte Beauvoisin
Answered by Charlotte Beauvoisin

We are six Baby Boomers planning to see the gorillas. One of us will be 82 and although in great shape, we won’t be able to hike for hours to see them. Will that work, and will there be porters to assist us?

Asked by Geena C

This isn’t medical advice but it sounds to me like you'd be fine. I always recommend hiring a porter regardless of age; it's a huge help to have someone carry your stuff and leave your hands free for taking photos.

If you think you need some extra support you can hire a group to carry you on a rather unglamorously-named "stretcher" (it's better than it sounds!) You generally pay $10-$15 per person for the porter, and you might consider adding a tip of a similar amount. The "stretchers" cost around $100. These services are community-run initiatives and are a big boost to a family's income. All this can be arranged on the morning of your safari, during your briefing.

Also consider the location of your lodge and the gorilla family that you're assigned to track. Don't be shy in stating your tracking preferences during the morning briefing. The rangers want everyone to have a good – and safe – time so they will do their best to make sure that people with similar fitness levels are grouped together and assigned to track a more accessible gorilla family.

The Habinyanja family in Buhoma (Uganda) is well-known for being quite close to a number of the lodges. I tracked this same family a few years ago and had a lovely hour in search of them, before spending an hour with them. It took a little less than an hour to get back to the lodge, so about a three-hour round trip. Your tour operator should be able to identify a gorilla family and lodge combination that suits your fitness and ability levels.

Good preparation is also important. Local people love wearing gumboots (they keep out the ants as well as the mud) but walking boots with ankle support are the best option I'd say. I'd suggest bringing walking pole(s) or a stick. Sticks can also be bought or borrowed from your lodge.

Charlotte Beauvoisin
Answered by Charlotte Beauvoisin

I am considering a gorilla safari in Rwanda in the first week of October. What is it like in terms of rain? I'm not super fit, is it likely to be very muddy and challenging? Thank you!

Asked by Carolyn

If you're tracking in Rwanda at the beginning of October, you may be lucky and not have too much rain. (It's November that is typically the wettest season during the year's late rains).

But to be honest, it can rain any day of the year, particularly in the afternoons. However, with good preparation you can still enjoy visiting the gorillas.

Firstly, make sure you have the right equipment: sturdy walking boots that cover and support your ankle, for example. Locals often prefer wearing gumboots but I prefer the non-slip grip of walking boots. Regardless of the time of year you track, we always recommend wearing layers e.g. thin longsleeve T-shirt, a light pullover fleece, plus a rain jacket. On the day you track, the rangers will assess your fitness level, and allocate you a group to suit you.

You don't need to be mega fit. You will be supported by the rangers and can also hire a porter. Invaluable! This means you don't have to worry about carrying your backpack. Nor do you need to worry about the mud, the weather or the distance since you'll have plenty of hands to literally lift you up, if needs be. You can also borrow, buy or hire a walking stick. Sometimes, someone will grab a piece of bamboo and make you one.

Make use of every bit of help that is offered. It's all part of the fun! I think you'll be fine. Enjoy!

Charlotte Beauvoisin
Answered by Charlotte Beauvoisin

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 safari. 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.

Charlotte Beauvoisin
Answered by Charlotte Beauvoisin

Why are gorilla tracking permits so expensive?


Seeing mountain gorillas in either country isn’t cheap. The combined cost of permits, accommodation, guides and a tour can bring overall trip costs upwards of $2,000 per person. So why are gorilla safaris so expensive?

The main reason is that mountain gorillas are endangered and vulnerable to uncontrolled human interaction. 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. Therefore the authorities (wisely, in my opinion) tightly restrict and control the number of interactions the gorillas have with people.

And it takes money to protect the gorillas’ natural habitat. 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 in my opinion it’s still pretty good value considering the importance of protecting this endangered primate.

Charlotte Beauvoisin
Answered by Charlotte Beauvoisin

Is there a gorilla tracking age limit?


The minimum age to go gorilla tracking in both countries 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 tracking permit.

Charlotte Beauvoisin
Answered by Charlotte Beauvoisin

Is gorilla tracking safe?


Despite their size and unfair reputation, gorillas are not remotely dangerous provided they’re treated with appropriate respect. All gorilla safaris 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 that you’re 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 wild 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-safari briefing.

Charlotte Beauvoisin
Answered by Charlotte Beauvoisin

What should I pack for a gorilla tracking safari?


Your day of gorilla tracking 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 VNP 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.

Charlotte Beauvoisin
Answered by Charlotte Beauvoisin

In this guide:

About the authors

Gorilla tracking safaris

Charlotte Beauvoisin

Charlotte is a travel journalist and guidebook author based on the edge of Kibale Forest, Uganda. She is an expert contributor on East Africa for the Bradt Uganda Guidebook and has written for Lonely Planet, The Daily Telegraph and Fodor's. She also volunteers with Conservation Through Public Health where she works with Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda's most prominent gorilla vet.

Gorilla tracking safaris

Ian Redmond OBE

Ian Redmond is a tropical field biologist and conservationist, renowned for his work with great apes and elephants. For more than 40 years he has been associated with the mountain gorilla, through research, filming, tourism and conservation work. Ian founded Ape Alliance in 1996 to encourage conservation organisations to work together.

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