How to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda

Everything you need to plan a mountain gorilla trek

How to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda
By Charlotte Beauvoisin

Rwanda is an excellent option for those with limited time when it comes to seeing mountain gorillas. The mountain gorilla trekking region is just a two-hour drive on good roads from Kigali International Airport. Although you still need to be fit to track gorillas, the terrain in Rwanda is generally easier going than in Uganda.

You can see mountain gorillas in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park (VNP), which is home to ten habituated mountain gorilla groups all offering different characteristics and relationships.

VNP is set over 160 km² and is situated in northwestern Rwanda where it borders the DR Congo’s Virunga National Park and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Together, these three parks form the 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 biggest mountain gorilla group in Rwanda is the Susa family, with more than 30 members. They inhabit the lower base of Mount Karisimbi and are one of the more difficult groups to trek. If you’re after an easier hike, look for the Bwenge family near Mount Visoke, which is a relatively easy hike. Finally, if silverback encounters are your thing, look for the Kwitonda family on Mount Muhabara, where four silverbacks lead a family of 23.

It’s worth noting that Rwanda is a more expensive location to see mountain gorillas as authorities are making a concerted effort to focus on the high-end, luxury travel market. In 2017, the government doubled the gorilla tracking permit price to USD$1,500.

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Mountain gorilla in Volcanoes National Park

When is the best time to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda?

If you plan to travel during peak season or if you are in a large group, you should book six months or more in advance. Peak seasons are June to October and Christmas and the New Year. The earlier you book the more choice you have on where you track and where you stay. Last-minute bookings may be possible during low season or with smaller groups.

Gorillas can be tracked throughout the year in Rwanda, however, rainfall is heavier in November and April/May, when paths can become muddy and difficult to hike.

If you have little time it is, in theory, possible to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda in just one day – if you fly in very early in the morning. However, it is strongly recommended to spend at least two or three days in the region. The altitude and exertion of the climb can be unpleasant when rushed, and it is worth spending some time to explore Rwanda and its culture beyond just gorillas.

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Silverback in Volcanoes National Park

What does it feel like to see the mountain gorilla?

This guide explains exactly how you can plan a trip to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda, but what does the experience actually feel like? Here's what you can expect from your magical hour with the gorillas and here's a podcast with legendary conservationist Ian Redmond on saving the gorillas.

How difficult is gorilla trekking in Rwanda?

Mountain gorilla trekking is always strenuous, with muddy paths, dense rainforests and thick vegetation. Gorilla families in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park are said to be harder to see than those in Uganda as they live deeper into the forest and higher up in the mountains.

However, you can hire porters to carry your daypacks and 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.

It’s worth bringing gloves to protect your hands and good hiking boots that can provide grip on the slippery, muddy slopes.

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How do you book a gorilla trek in Rwanda?

Plan to stay at least two nights in the vicinity of Volcanoes National Park for your gorilla trek in Rwanda. This will allow you to spend one night acclimatising and another recuperating after your tiring trek. It is possible to fly in and out on a trek, but we don’t recommend it.

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is highly regulated and follows strict ecotourism guidelines. As only eighty permits are available per day, tours do get booked up quickly. You should book your gorilla tour and permit at least six months before you plan to travel.

There are two ways to book a permit. You can either book directly through the Rwandan Tourism Board and then try to secure a guide in Rwanda, or you can book through a licensed tour operator who will arrange your gorilla trek. It is normally quicker to book through an operator and no extra charge for the permit should be made.

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.

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

Gorilla trekking regulations

Tourists are only allowed to visit and interact with habituated mountain gorilla families in Rwanda. Habituation is a gradual process through which the gorillas get used to the presence of humans. This allows people to visit them 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:

  • The maximum group size for tracking the gorillas is eight people (plus rangers and porters).

  • Your group is allowed a maximum of one hour with the gorillas.

  • Visitors to the gorillas must be over the age of 15.

  • Tracking in thick forest at an altitude of over 2,000 metres (6,560 ft) can be tough. It is often wet. Gorilla trackers must be fit and in good health.

  • You should not go gorilla tracking if you have diarrhoea, flu or a cold. Gorillas have no immunity to most human diseases and even mild human infections can be lethal to a gorilla. 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 critically 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 seven 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.

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What to do beyond gorillas in Rwanda

Rwanda has a limited (but decent) range of wildlife and safari activities, including Akagera National Park (a Big Five destination) and Nyungwe Forest National Park (for chimp trekking).

Rwanda may be a small country but it has made serious investments in tourism over the last few years. It's an easy country to move around with good roads. There are four national parks. The fourth - and latest - is called Gishwati Mukura.

Akagera National Park may be small but has enough wildlife to warrant a visit. Over the last few years, white rhinos and lions have been reintroduced. The lions are already breeding successfully. Visitors may also spot leopards, elephants, numerous species of antelope and a healthy population of grey-crowned cranes. Rwanda is committed to conservation at the highest levels of government.

Nyungwe is in the far south-west of Rwanda and is arguably worth the trip for the canopy trail alone. This metal walkway stands 70m above the forest floor and the views are without equal. Look around and you are surrounded 360° by mature indigenous rainforest. There is no sign of human activity for as far as the eye can see. Nyungwe is also famous for its birdlife, waterfalls, chimp tracking and population of black and white Colobus monkeys.

To the north of Nyungwe lies Lake Kivu; Rwanda’s seaside and the popular town of Gisenyi, a small laid-back place with a popular public beach and a view of the Congo across the lake. Adjacent is the town of Goma.

Rwanda’s capital Kigali would look comfortable in Europe. The city's excellent roads, street lights and traffic regulations make it the envy of many other African nations. It's a well-organised city with a growing range of international hotels and top conference venues. It has interesting cafés and art galleries. A visit to the world-class Genocide Memorial Museum may be painful yet is highly recommended.

Your day of gorilla tracking will be long, active and at least 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.
  • 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 plan on wearing jeans or shorts. Hiking in wet jeans is a misery and shorts will leave you exposed to scratches and hungry insects.
  • 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 binoculars.
  • Walking poles if required. Upmarket lodges will provide 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, anti-histamine cream, insect repellent, plasters, painkillers, malaria prophylaxis and rehydration sachets.
How to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda

By Charlotte Beauvoisin

Charlotte is a freelance travel writer and blogger based in Kampala, Uganda. She fell in love with East Africa in 2009, during a two-year stint with Voluntary Service Overseas at the Uganda Conservation Foundation.

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