IN-DEPTH GUIDE TO GORILLA TREKKING IN UGANDA
Gorilla trekking shot to the top of my travel bucket list in 2012. I was volunteering at the Vervet Monkey Foundation in South Africa (check out THIS short-film to learn more) when I overheard another volunteer talk about how incredible it was. Needless to say, once I got wind of this once-in-a-lifetime wildlife adventure I just knew I had to experience it for myself.
It would ultimately take me quite a few years and a lot of money-saving to finally make it happen. But I can tell you now that it was absolutely worth the commitment. (For some money-saving inspiration check out my post: How I Afford To Travel + My Top 10 Tips To Save For It.)
After doing a ton of research I decided to go gorilla trekking in Uganda — which is one of only three countries where you can still find endangered mountain gorillas in the wild (the other two are Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, aka DRC).
Below you’ll find all the important information from my experience with these mountain kings, including where to do it, how much it costs, what it’s like, and how it all ties into conservation. With wildlife photography by me and additional photography by Peter Hogel of Eden Adventures.
But first, here’s a short video I put together to give you a little taste:
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!
I chose 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 2018).
– It’s widely regarded as a safer and more developed destination for travelers than 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.)
With that said, 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 happened to be the right choice for my needs and wants as a traveler at the time. (For more reasons to visit Uganda check out my post: 8 Must-Do Wild Experiences in Uganda.)
Mountain gorillas are currently listed as critically endangered on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species, and it’s estimated that less than 1000 of them remain in the wild. (The last official census, conducted in 2011, confirmed just 880 individuals.)
Today, they exist in just two isolated populations: the Virunga Population and the Bwindi Population.
The Virunga Population is made up of approximately 480+ mountain gorillas. It 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.
In Uganda, the price of a single-day gorilla trekking permit is $600 (reduced to $450 in November as a tradeoff for the muddy conditions tourists are likely to experience this time of the year). These prices reflect the cost of gorilla trekking permits for both its Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
Comparatively, Rwanda charges $1500 per day (recently doubled from $750), and DRC offers the most affordable gorilla trekking permit at ‘just’ $400 per day.
Note that all the above-mentioned permit prices give you just 1-hour (give or take) with the mountain gorillas.
It’s only fair to mention that getting to and from gorilla trekking destinations in DRC and Uganda can be more costly than in Rwanda. Therefore, some might argue that the overall cost of gorilla trekking works out to be relatively equal in all three countries.
Either way, if you’re hearing these prices for the first time there’s a good chance you’re experiencing a bit of sticker shock (totally understandable). Just know that there’s some good reasoning behind the high-cost of gorilla trekking permits.
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 write this: conservation is not cheap. In fact, it requires a lot of money to properly protect endangered species and their habitats. And one way to help raise that money is through ecotourism.
When it comes to mountain gorillas, the fees that tourists pay for gorilla trekking permits help fund the conservation efforts that go into protecting this critically endangered species. And by keeping the prices of these permits high, it helps to create an additional level of conservation.
Let me explain. . .
Let’s say that the cost of gorilla trekking permits was reduced to $50. Now, all of a sudden, the experience has become a lot more attractive to a lot more people.
There’s a good chance it wouldn’t be long before buses full of tourists started rollin’ up to the fragile forests where mountain gorillas live. And while this might bring in more ecotourism revenue (and conservation funding) on the frontend, the long-term impact of this kind of mass tourism could be detrimental.
The heavier tourism traffic would put more pressure on the local ecosystem; more natural resources would be used up; more waste would be created and left behind; more foreign germs would be brought in (which could be especially bad for mountain gorillas because they are extremely susceptible to human diseases).
If what’s happened to places like the Great Barrier Reef (mass tourism has decimated the coral) and Machu Picchu (mass tourism is causing major degradation) are any indication of what high volume tourism could mean for these great apes and their homes, 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 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 tourists because its gorilla families are easier to get to – making the treks in this part of the park less intensive.
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 that can be found in each of Bwindi’s 4 sectors.
The following information was kindly 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). So if there is a specific gorilla family you’d like to try and see be sure to book well in advance. (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 accessed easily by road or air, depending on your planned itinerary, resources and time.
The most affordable (and most arduous) way to get from Entebbe International Airport (EBB) to Bwindi is to use public transportation. The quickest (and most expensive) way to make the journey is by plane. And if you have people to split the cost with, the happy medium (time and money wise) is to go 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) stick with 4×4 options, as the mountainous terrain can be a bit aggressive.
Getting to Bwindi via public bus is also very doable.
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, or anyone packin’ a lot of valuables (i.e. camera equipment, laptop, etc.), it’s definitely a great option for 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 are Kihihi and Kisoro, and daily flights (although limited) are available to both.
The Kihihi airstrip serves Bwindi’s northern sector (Buhoma), while Kisoro serves the park’s southern sectors (Nkuringo and Rushuga).
Either airstrip can be used to reach the eastern Ruhija sector, although Kisoro is marginally closer.
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 get to.
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 – August and December – February.
Here 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.
If you make a booking electronically you’ll be required to pay via bank transfer. If you go this route be sure you immediately send UWA a copy of the transaction receipt (by fax or email) to ensure your permit is booked.
You know, someone like our friend David – yes he’s your friend now too – and his tour company 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 just one in mind, ask if they can reserve a gorilla trekking permit on your behalf. Most of the mid-range to 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 these same 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 options 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 about $100-$150 a night. Bwindi’s more luxury options start around $350 a night but can go as high as $800+.
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.
If you’re picky about lodging, start your accommodation search early (even before you have your permit booked) as the more 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. It also offers some of the best views of Bwindi.
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 am (for most trekkers the meet-up location will be at the park’s Buhoma headquarters).
After watching a short informational video (covering 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 individual members.
Around 8:30 am groups begin making their way into the forest to search for their respective gorilla family. Most trekking groups can expect to find their gorillas within an hour to an hour and a half (thanks to the trackers who go out early to locate them and report their location).
Trekkers then have just 1 hour to 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 (and therefore 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 around a 6 out of 10 (10 being an ass-kicker).
On 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. From what I heard this was pretty average for most groups on my trekking days.
However, back at the lodge, I did meet a 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 6 to a level 10.)
For the most part, seeing mountain gorillas is almost a guarantee (like a 98% chance-kinda guarantee). On both my trekking days every group saw their gorilla family. Well, eventually.
It’s important to remember that these are wild animals, who are free to roam around the park when they feel like it. Because of that, there’s always that super slight chance you won’t find them. If this is the case you may be entitled to a 50% refund (just be sure to double check the refund stipulations with whoever 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, where the gorillas were first sighted by trackers.
The highlight of my morning with the Mubare family was seeing a mother gorilla breastfeeding her baby – who remained in plain sight for the duration of our brief, but beautiful stay.
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.
Lucky for our group these gorillas were in a rambunctious mood when we found them – climbing trees, wrestling with another other . . . one of the juvenile gorillas even playfully chased after a trekker in our group!
In addition to the gorillas, I also loved that we got the opportunity to meet some of the locals on our way through the forest. Our group even got to try some real homemade jungle juice.
If you had a chance to watch the video I shared at the beginning of this post then you may have caught some 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 can 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.
There’s really no way to fully express what it’s like to see these great apes in the wild, but what I can say is this: when I spotted my first mountain gorilla I cried, almost uncontrollably.
To feel the power of their presence gave me more than goosebumps. And to witness how similar we are was nothing short of humbling.
To be so close to such awe-inspiring giants, who 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 destinations and the wildlife that call them home and it being detrimental to them. But when it’s done right (hell, even close to right) tourism can be a pretty powerful way of protecting our planet’s last wild places.
After experiencing gorilla trekking firsthand I can sincerely say that it’s ecotourism in the right direction. 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.