IN-DEPTH GUIDE TO GORILLA TREKKING IN UGANDA
Gorilla trekking shot to the top of my wild bucket list while volunteering at the Vervet Monkey Foundation in South Africa (to learn more about the volunteer experience check out THIS short-film I did). I had overheard another volunteer talking about how awe-inspiring gorilla trekking was and knew right away that I just had to experience this once-in-a-lifetime adventure for myself.
It would ultimately me quite a few years and a lot of saving up to finally make it happen (for some money-saving inspiration check out my post How I Afford To Travel + My Top 10 Tips To Save For It), and let me tell you, it was every bit worth the commitment.
In this post I’ll share everything you need to know about gorilla trekking — including where to do it, how much it costs, what it’s like, how it all links to conservation, plus all the details from my experience with these mountain kings — in hopes that it will inspire you to put this wild adventure on your bucket list, too.
But before we dive into my In-Depth Guide To Gorilla Trekking in Uganda, here’s a short video postcard I put together to help give you a little taste of the gorilla trekking experience:
Disclosure: The following blog post contains affiliate links, denoted by**. If you click on them and happen to make a purchase/reservation/etc. I’ll get to earn a small commission to help keep Mar Gone Wild running wild. Thanks in advance for the support!
Credits: Wildlife photography by me with additional photography by my good friend Peter Hogel of Eden Adventures.
There are only three countries in the world where you can find endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat — Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (aka DRC). After doing a ton of research, I ultimately decided on Uganda as my gorilla trekking destination for the following reasons:
– It’s home to the planet’s largest percentage of mountain gorillas.
– It’s gorilla trekking permits are more affordable than Rwanda’s (by more than half as of January 2019).
– It’s widely regarded as a safer and more developed destination for travelers than the DRC, making it a better choice for me as a solo female traveler (for advice on how to stay safe while traveling alone check out my post My 10 Best Tips For Solo Travelers). Update: As of June 2018, tourism to Virunga National Park in the DRC is shut down until further notice due to violence in the region.
– It offered a variety of other wildlife and tourism experiences that interested me (for some of my favorites, check out my post 8 Must-Do Wild Experiences in Uganda).
That said, however, travelers shouldn’t rule out Rwanda or DRC as gorilla trekking destinations as I’ve also heard great things about both. For me, Uganda just worked out to be the right choice for me as a traveler at the time.
Mountain gorillas, a subspecies of the eastern gorilla, are currently listed as endangered on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species with just over 1000 estimated to remain in the wild.
Today, they exist in just two isolated populations: the Virunga Population and the Bwindi Population.
In early 2018, researchers confirmed that approximately 600+ mountain gorillas now make up the Virunga Population. This population of mountain gorillas can be found in central Africa’s volcanic mountain range (also known as the Virunga Massif), which stretches across DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. Uganda’s portion of this population resides in the country’s southern Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
The Bwindi Population of mountain gorillas is made up of approximately 400+ individuals and can only be found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
HOW MUCH DOES GORILLA TREKKING COST?
For those who may not already know, GORILLA TREKKING IS EXPENSIVE.
As of January 2019, the price of a single-day gorilla trekking permit in Uganda is $600 for both the country’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (note that Uganda no longer offers discounted permits during its slower months).
Comparatively, Rwanda charges $1500 per day (recently doubled from $750) with the DRC offering the most affordable gorilla trekking permit at “just” $400 per day. (As mentioned above, tourism to the DRC’s Virunga National Park remains shut down until further notice.)
Note that all the above-mentioned permit prices give you just 1-hour (give or take) with the mountain gorillas. For those hoping to get more bang for their buck, Uganda now offers a Gorilla Habituation Experience which extends the time spent with the mountain gorillas to 4 hours versus just the one — the cost is $1500 (same as Rwanda’s regular single-day trekking permit). For more information about the Gorilla Habituation Experience check out Part 3 of this post.
Now it’s only fair to mention that getting to and from gorilla trekking destinations in both the DRC and Uganda isn’t as easy as it is in Rwanda, which can make the logistics a bit more costly. Either way, if you’re hearing these prices for the first time there’s probably a good chance you’re experiencing a bit of sticker shock — I know I did. Just know that there’s some good reasoning behind the high-cost of gorilla trekking.
WHY GORILLA TREKKING IS (AND SHOULD BE) EXPENSIVE
I won’t go into too much detail about the conservation-focused economics behind ecotourism, but I’ll at least say this, conservation is not cheap. In fact, it requires a lot of money to properly protect wildlife species and their habitats, and one way of raising that money is tourism.
In the case of mountain gorillas, tourism plays a pretty important role when it comes to the protection of this endangered subspecies. Things like having armed guards watch over them 24/7, conducting ongoing research, providing veterinary care when needed, community outreach, and all the other day-to-day operations required to maintain a protected park (i.e. gorilla habitat) cost money, lots of it, and charging tourists to see the mountain gorillas is one way to help offset such costs.
Now do I honestly believe that every dollar of the hundreds of millions generated each year from gorilla trekking permits actually goes towards conservation? Of course not, I’m a realist. But if I am to put my thoughts and feelings on government greed aside, I’ll be the first to admit that charging a premium for wildlife tourism — especially that which involves vulnerable species and habitats — is a good thing for conservation.
Let me explain. . .
Let’s say that the cost of a gorilla trekking permit was reduced to just $50 and, as a result, the experience become a lot more attractive (and feasible) to a lot more people. If governments wanted to maintain the same amount of revenue they’re currently generating at this new lower price point (and frankly, I’ve never heard of a government wanting to make less money) they would need to increase the number of permits issued each day by upwards of 10 to 20 times the number they currently allow. If this were to happen, it probably wouldn’t be long before we started seeing buses full of tourists rollin’ up to the fragile forest habitats that mountain gorillas call home.
While on the frontend this increase in tourist numbers would definitely generate more revenue from tourism as a whole (which might even mean more conservation funding), the long-term impact of this kind of mass tourism could be detrimental to the very places and wildlife that people are flocking to see.
With heavier tourism traffic comes greater pressure on the local ecosystem — more natural resources would be used up, more waste would be created and left behind, and more foreign germs would be brought in (which could be especially detrimental to mountain gorilla populations because they’re extremely susceptible to human diseases). And these would just be the tip of the iceberg.
If what’s happened to places like the Great Barrier Reef (mass tourism has decimated the coral), Machu Picchu (mass tourism is causing major degradation), and Ko Phi Phi Leh island (the environmental damage caused by mass tourism was so bad the government closed it indefinitely) are any indication of what high-volume tourism could mean for these great apes and their habitats, I think most would agree that the high-price of gorilla trekking permits is probably a good deterrent to have in place.
There are two places where you can go to see wild mountain gorillas in Uganda: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (in the country’s southwest) and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (near Rwanda’s northern border). (To help you get a lay of the land check out the map in the next section.)
To see Uganda’s mountain kings I decided to visit the larger of its two gorilla habitats, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
BWINDI IMPENETRABLE NATIONAL PARK
Bwindi is comprised of 128 square miles of montane and lowland forest habitat. For the purpose of gorilla trekking, it is divided into four different sectors: Buhoma in the north, Ruhija in the east, Rushaga in the south, and Nkuringo in the southwest.
Of these, Buhoma is often favored by many tourists — especially those with physical limitations — because its gorilla families are easier to get to, making the treks in this sector of the park less intensive than the others.
Each of the four sectors houses multiple gorilla families, though not all of them are habituated for gorilla trekking.
Below is a (straight up insider’s) breakdown of the gorilla families in each of Bwindi’s 4 sectors.
The following information was graciously provided by my friend and Uganda Wildlife Authority gorilla trekking guide, David Agenya, aka the Gorilla Whisperer. (He also owns and operates Gorilla Trekking Safaris, so as a thank you for providing us with this info, definitely check out his customized gorilla trekking tours.)
Only 13 of the gorilla families listed are habituated for gorilla trekking, and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) allocates just 8 gorilla trekking permits per family, per day (104 permits in total). With that said, if there is a specific gorilla family you’d like to try and see be sure to book well in advance as trekking permits to the more popular families are usually the first to sell out (More about the booking process in the next section.)
The other two gorilla families listed (denoted by ++) are in the process of being habituated and are part of a pilot program called the Gorilla Habituation Experience. This experience allows you to join researchers and guides as they work on habituating these gorilla families to the presence of humans. The experience also extends your time with the mountain gorillas to 4 hours, versus just the one hour you get with traditional trekking.
The cost of the Gorilla Habituation Experience is $1500 per person, and only 4 permits are available per gorilla family, per day (8 permits in total).
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in Uganda’s southwest region (along the DRC border) and can be easily be accessed by road or air depending on your planned itinerary, resources, and time.
The most affordable but most arduous way to get from Entebbe International Airport (EBB) to Bwindi is to use public transportation. The quickest but most expensive way to make the journey is, of course, by plane. If you have people to split the cost with, the happy medium (time and money-wise) is to get there by car.
To help any would-be Bwindi gorilla trekkers, here’s a brief breakdown of these transportation options:
It’s about a 9-hour drive from the EBB airport to Bwindi. And the average cost of a one-way private transfer is around $250 for a mid-size 4×4 vehicle.
Some drivers will insist that their small cars can get you to the park “for cheaper”, but I wouldn’t chance it (I saw more than one compact car stuck on the side of the road en route to Bwindi).
If you decide to rent a vehicle and drive yourself (which is totally doable, btw) stick with 4×4 options as the mountainous terrain can be a bit aggressive.
Getting to Bwindi via public bus is also very doable, if you have the time.
Several bus companies operate daily routes from Kampala (Uganda’s capital city) to neighboring towns right outside of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Reputable companies include Post Bus, Gateway Bus Services, Horizon Buses, and Bismarkan Bus Company.
While I wouldn’t advise this option for travelers with a lot of luggage (especially anyone packin’ a lot of valuables), it’s definitely a great option for laidback backpackers looking to stretch their budget.
The trick to reaching Bwindi by bus safely and efficiently is knowing which part of the park you’ll be visiting and selecting a route that gets you as close to it as possible, with as few transfers as possible. Once you’ve reached your final bus stop you can arrange for a cheap motorbike taxi (called a boda-boda) to get you to your accommodation.
There are two airstrips near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park — Kihihi and Kisoro — and daily flights (although limited) are available to both.
The Kihihi airstrip serves Bwindi’s northern Buhoma sector, while Kisoro serves the park’s southern Nkuringo and Rushuga sectors.
Either airstrip can be used to reach the eastern Ruhija sector, although Kisoro is the marginally closer choice.
Flights to these airstrips from Entebbe range from 1 hour to 1.5 hours and cost around $250 each way.
It’s important to note that both airstrips are located just outside of Bwindi, so you’ll still have to endure a little bit of driving. Transfers to the park can range anywhere from a 1.5 to 3.5-hours depending on where you land and where you need to go.
To browse flight options and pricing you can check AeroLink Uganda.
My advice? Avoid the long drives and costly flights by breaking up the journey to Bwindi with some other Must-Do Wild Experiences in Uganda, like a classic safari in Queen Elizebeth National Park or chimpanzee trekking in Kibale National Park.
HOW TO BOOK
As mentioned, there’s a limited number of gorilla trekking permits available per day, so be sure to reserve your permit(s) early. This is especially important for those planning to travel to Bwindi during peak trekking periods, June to August and December to February.
Below are the different ways you can go about booking your permit:
To do this, you can either visit their headquarters in Kampala (which is probably not an option unless you live locally or know someone who does) or contact UWA’s reservation office by email.
Simply start by inquiring about permit availability for your desired gorilla trekking date(s). If the exact date(s) you want aren’t available UWA will provide you with the closest available dates.
Note that if you make a booking electronically you’ll be required to pay via bank transfer. If you do go this route be sure you immediately send UWA a copy of the transaction receipt (by fax or email) to confirm that your permit is booked.
You know, someone like our friend David (yes he’s your friend now, too) with Gorilla Tracking Safaris.
Keep in mind that most tour operators and travel agents will charge you a booking fee to do this (anywhere from $25 to $60 per permit).
If you already have your lodge lined up, or even if you just have one in mind, ask if they can reserve a gorilla trekking permit on your behalf. Most mid-range and luxury lodges will take care this at no additional cost, while others will just do the legwork of outsourcing to the folks mentioned in Option 2.
*Note that above options also apply when booking trekking permits for Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.*
WHERE TO STAY
There are a variety of accommodations to choose from in the Bwindi area — from super budget to super luxury and everything in-between.
Travelers can expect to pay between $30-$80 a night for campsites and other basic lodging options, while mid-range accommodations go for around $100-$150 a night. Bwindi’s more luxury options start around $350 a night but can go as high as $800+ a night.
Gorilla treks start early in the morning, and when you’re done you’ll likely be beat, sweaty, and (if you do it right) muddy. So do yourself a favor and try to stay near the area of the park where your permit is issued.
On that note, if you’re picky about lodging then start your accommodation search early (even before you have your permit booked) as popular options fill up quickly.
Consider browsing BOOKING.COM** to get an idea of the lodging options available for your trekking dates. Booking usually offers lodging options that you can put “on hold” while you work out the rest of your itinerary. (Basically, they allow you to reserve places without paying anything upfront and give you a window to cancel the reservation without paying any fees.) This is a great way to lock-in your top lodging choice(s), risk-free, while you wait to confirm which part of the park your gorilla trek will be in.
For anyone interested, I stayed at Silverback Lodge during my gorilla trekking adventure. It’s located near the Buhoma sector and is just a 5-minute walk to the park entrance. It also offers some of the best views of Bwindi Impenetrable Park.
Here are some photos to show you what I’m talkin’ about . . .
WHAT TO EXPECT
Check-in for gorilla trekking in Bwindi is 7:30 a.m. and for most trekkers the meet-up location will be at the park’s Buhoma headquarters.
After watching a short informational video (it covers rules and other safety information) trekkers will be split up into groups with 8 people per group (not including guides, rangers, and porters). Each trekking group is then assigned to their own gorilla family and briefed on the family’s history and its individual members.
Around 8:30 a.m. trekking groups begin making their way into the forest to search for their designated gorilla family. Most groups can expect to find their gorillas within an hour to an hour and a half (this is thanks to the trackers who go out early to locate them and report back on their location).
Trekkers then have just 1 hour to hang with, observe, photograph, and film their gorilla family. This time stipulation keeps any stress caused by human presence to a minimum and also helps ensure that all trekking groups have a similar (i.e. fair) experience no matter their assigned sector or gorilla family.
The hike itself can easily be managed by anyone in good physical condition. For the average person, I’d say the difficulty level is probably about a 5 out of 10 (10 being an ass-kicker).
Both days I went gorilla trekking the entire experience lasted about 4.5 hours from start to finish. This included the morning safety briefing, trekking to the gorillas, 1-hour with the gorillas, and the hike back to the park’s headquarters. Based on what I heard from other groups, 4-5 hours seemed like the average amount of time for most treks.
However, back at the lodge, I did meet one group that was out trekking for more than 8 hours because their gorilla family kept moving. So just bear in mind that there’s always a chance your trek could go from a level 5 to a level 10 real quick.
For the most part, seeing mountain gorillas is almost a guarantee (like a 98% chance-kinda guarantee). On both days I went trekking every single group saw their designed gorilla family, eventually. 🙂
With that said, it’s important to remember that these are wild animals that are free to roam about as they wish. Given that, there’s always that super slight chance you might not be able to find them. If for some reason this is the case, you may be entitled to a 50% refund (just be sure to double check the refund stipulations with whomever you booked your permits through BEFORE your trek).
On my first day of gorilla trekking, my group was assigned to the Mubare gorilla family, Bwindi’s first ever habituated gorilla group (trekking permits for them began being issued in 1993). Their family name derives from Mubare Hill, located deep in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It’s where the gorillas were first sighted by trackers.
The definite highlight of my morning with the Mubare family was seeing a mother gorilla breastfeeding her baby. Luckily for us, she remained in clear sight for the duration of our time with this gorilla family.
On my second day of gorilla trekking my group was assigned to the Rushegura gorilla family, also located in the park’s Bahuma sector.
This gorilla family was formed in 2012 and its name was derived from “Ebishegura”– a dominant tree species in the forest area the family inhabits.
The gorillas in this family were in a pretty rambunctious mood when we found them. They were climbing trees, wrestling with one another, and one of the juvenile gorillas even playfully chased after one of the trekker in our group!
And as if the gorillas weren’t enough for me to die happy, we also got to meet some of the locals on our way through the forest. Our group even got to try some authentic homemade jungle juice. (If you had the chance to watch the video I shared at the beginning of this post then you may have got a glimpse of these moments. If not, definitely check it out.)
It is important to keep in mind that mountain gorillas (or any primates for that matter) are very susceptible to human viruses. So if you have a fever, diarrhea, persistent sore throat, or any other illness that could easily spread to others please DO NOT GO GORILLA TREKKING.
If you do find that you’re feeling ill prior to the big day be sure to inform UWA (and/or whoever did your booking for you) right away, and an alternate visit can be arranged. If you’re unable to reschedule your trek you should be able to get a full refund as long as you inform them prior to the start of your scheduled trek.
There’s really no way to fully express what it’s like to see these great apes in the wild, but what I can share is this — when I spotted my first mountain gorilla I cried, uncontrollably.
To feel the power of their presence gave me more than goosebumps, and witnessing how similar we are was nothing short of humbling.
To be so close to such awe-inspiring giants, and to have them look at you with this unexplainable acknowledgment, really is a life-changing experience.
The final thing I’ll share is this:
Today, there is such a fine line between tourism being good for wildlife and the places they call home and it being detrimental to them.
When it is done right, tourism can be a pretty powerful way of protecting what remains of our planet’s last wild places and wild things — a notion that’s never been more clear to me than when I was gorilla trekking in Bwindi.
And for me, that makes it one wild adventure that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
**This wild experience was made possible by the Uganda Tourism Board and Uganda Wildlife Authority.