Gorilla Trekking FAQs

Gorilla Trekking FAQs
By Charlotte Beauvoisin

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.

Don't forget

With the additional Covid-19 safety protocols, tracking the mountain gorillas has become a little bit more complicated. It’s usually a fairly physically demanding activity; wearing a mask makes it slightly more so.

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 FAQs

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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