Gorilla trekking in Uganda

How to see the mountain gorilla in Uganda

Gorilla trekking in Uganda
By Charlotte Beauvoisin

Uganda has the largest mountain gorilla population, with around 400 gorillas living in two national parks in the country’s south-west: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

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.

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A mountain gorilla and baby in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

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.

The Mubare, Habinyanja and Rushegura families can be tracked from Buhoma in the northern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. If you’ve seen videos of human encounters with gorillas in the grounds of a lodge, it was most likely in Buhoma. Buhoma is a popular place for visitors to stay as it has a good range of accommodation and fantastic views of the rainforest. Tracking here is generally easier than from Rushaga or Nkuringo to the south of the forest. Buhoma is also a good base for visits to local communities and exploring the forest on day hikes.

The Nshongi, Kahungje, Mishaya, Busingye and Bweza families live in Rushaga, southern Bwindi and the Oruzogo and Bitukura families live in the Ruhija sector of southern Bwindi. There are fewer lodging options in Rushaga and Ruhija so the early morning drive (through splendid scenery) to the start of the tracking can be longer.

The Nkuringo and Bushaho families are found in Nkuringo to the south-west of Bwindi. Trekking in the steep terrain of Nkuringo can be more challenging; however, it is served by excellent lodges and, in addition to views of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, has views of the dramatic Virunga volcanoes.

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is home to more than 80 mountain gorillas but has just one habituated gorilla group, the Nyakagezi family, with 10 members.

When is the best time to see gorillas in Uganda?

Since Rwanda almost doubled the price of gorilla tracking permits, it has become more difficult to secure gorilla permits in next door Uganda.

If you plan to travel during peak season or if you are in a large group, you should book six months or even a year 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 stay and where you track. Last-minute bookings may be possible during low season or with smaller groups, but cannot be guaranteed.

Gorillas can be tracked throughout the year, however, rainfall is heavier in November and April/May. During those times, it can be very muddy underfoot. The upside is that permits are a little easier to obtain plus you may find fewer tourists on your trail, which many people prefer.

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Baby mountain gorilla, Uganda

How much is a gorilla permit in Uganda?

A gorilla permit in Uganda costs US$600 per person. The Uganda Wildlife Authority is increasing the price to US$700 from July 2020.

The availability of permits is limited by the number of habituated gorilla families and the number of visitors allowed per family. With 15 habituated gorilla families in Uganda and a maximum of eight visitors per group, there are a total of 120 permits available per day.

The gorilla tracking permits are highly regulated systems, enabling the authorities to control human-gorilla interaction and generate much-needed revenue. They must be paid for in full and in advance, and allow entry into the national park and one hour with the mountain gorillas.

Each permit is printed with a unique serial number and the traveller’s personal details. They are non-transferable and non-refundable (except for medical reasons, in which case a medical certificate is required). Gorilla tracking permits can be purchased up to two years in advance through the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) or via a registered tour company.

A solution that takes advantage of Rwanda's good infrastructure and Uganda's competitive pricing is for visitors to fly to Kigali and drive three hours across the border to track the gorillas of Mgahinga. This gives a boost to a forgotten corner of south-west Uganda. However, there is only one habituated gorilla family there, so permit numbers are limited.

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Watching a mountain gorilla, Uganda

How difficult is gorilla trekking in Uganda?

In all locations, the terrain is often steep, slippery and sometimes muddy. Bwindi is a dense jungle 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. 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). Trekking through the jungle can be tricky and you may have to hack a path with machetes.

The forests of Mgahinga are less dense than Bwindi, but the climb to see the gorillas can be steep. Mgahinga has arguably the best views of any of East Africa's gorilla trekking locations. Once inside the park gates, you can look across to Lake Mutanda and into the DRC.

How do you book a gorilla trek in Uganda?

A good tour operator offers in-depth local knowledge. 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.

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.

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Chimpanzee, Kibale Forest, Uganda

What to do beyond gorilla trekking in Uganda

Uganda is a haven for primate lovers. You can track golden monkeys in Mgahinga and chimpanzees in Kibale, Budongo and Kyambura Gorge.

Most visitors to Uganda combine gorilla trekking with a safari. Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls are the country’s two most popular national parks, offering fabulous boat ride safaris, on which you can see hippos, Nile crocodiles, buffalo, elephants and birds, with Queen Elizabeth home to over 600 bird species, more than any other national park in Africa.

For those who like a physical challenge, Uganda has much to offer. Visitors can hike the volcanoes of south-west Uganda, canoe the lakes of Lake Mutanda and Lake Bunyonyi, hike Mount Elgon in the east, climb the fabled Mountains of the Moon and enjoy a wide range of adrenaline activities on the River Nile at Jinja, the source of the Nile.

Gorilla trekking in Uganda

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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