There is nothing that compares to coming face to face with a creature that looks like you. Except maybe seeing one that acts like you.
Gorillas are so similar to us humans that visiting them is an experience that people will never forget. Of course chimpanzees are our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree but mountain gorillas are probably most like us in terms of obviously visible behaviour.
A trip to the mountains of the Western Rift Valley in either Uganda or Rwanda will leave you in awe of how similar to us Gorillas can be.
Trekking to see mountain gorillas is strictly controlled. This is specifically for their safety and general comfort. Visits to habituated groups are limited to an hour and to a small number of people per group.
Also guides follow strict rules for the health and well being of the gorillas. For example anybody displaying any sign of illness (cold/flu) are refused the morning of the trek. Gorillas are so closely related to us that they can catch our diseases.
Gorilla groups are organised around a family structure. The head of each family is a silverback. A giant mature male who has a harem of female gorillas and their offspring with him. Once males become mature they have to leave and form their own family grouping. While watching them you will be amazed at how tender a 200 kg silverback can be to his young. The young, like human young, like to play and it can be very amusing.
To reach the gorillas you need a permit. Permits must be purchased in advance and cost 600 USD in Uganda and $750 in Rwanda. These give you a date and a family group. If you want a particular group you do need to book well in advance as they sell out quickly in the high season. You can see gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, see below for details.
Mountain Gorilla Facts
- Exist in three countries – Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo
- There are about 840 left in two isolated populations
- Family groups are based around a dominant male who has a distinctive silver back
- Not very tall (1.8 m / 6 ft) but have long arms – arm spans can be 2.5 m (over 8 ft)
Best Time to Go
Mountain Gorillas are so limited in their range that the best time to go is the same in each of the three countries they live in despite one of those countries being massive.
The Virunga Mountain range is a mountainous rainforest. It gets quite a bit of rain and quite a lot of clouds that keep it wet. Travel in the wet season is rather difficult. In some areas the roads become nearly impassable due to the regular rains. Trekking on the steep hillsides in the wet is not just uncomfortable but extremely difficult as well.
June to September is generally considered to be the best period to visit. December and January as well aren’t bad.
In Uganda a discount can be had on the trekking permit price in the heavy rains of April, May and November. These times aren’t that bad but the humidity can be horrible while hiking up and down the mountains.
Where to See Mountain Gorillas
There are three countries in which you can see Mountain Gorillas; Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo).
All three meet in the Virunga Mountains. The national park of the same name in the Congo is in fact Africa’s oldest. Recently though it was the feature of the BAFTA nominated documentary Virunga detailing the difficulties of the park rangers in looking after the gorillas due to the civil war in the DRC.
Across the border (which Gorillas don’t bother with) is Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest in Uganda. This is a much safer place to see gorillas and the armed rangers are for protection against forest elephants rather than roving militia groups.
Slightly separated is the Mgahinga National Park which is contiguous with the Rwandan Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans). About half the total population lives in each area.
The cost of Rwandan Permits is currently $750 US significantly higher than in Uganda where they are $600 and $450 in the wet months.
I don’t recommend going to the DRC at the moment even if the permit prices are cheaper. The current state of war/peace is rather unsettled and will probably be different again when you read this.
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a great place for trekking on its own. The mountains are still covered in montagne forest and are a veritable wilderness. Forest elephants are sometimes encountered as well.
You can access the forest from the North and the South. Kisoro on the south side is on the main road but you need private transport from there to the gorilla headquarters. A 4×4 or motorbike is necessary.
Once at the guide headquarters in the morning you will be asigned your guide. The guide will then be in radio contact with the trackers who have been following the group from where they nested the previous night.
If you are lucky you will not trek far. If the gorillas are on the move you can trek all day before you get to see them. Either way your group will have a maximum of one hour in the gorillas presence.
Getting to and from the Parc National des Volcans is a bit easier only a couple of hours from Kigali. The nearby town of Ruhengeri is the closest real town but the national park headquarters is in Kinigi a bit further along ( about 10 km) but you will need to negotiate a local taxi or moto-taxi to get here.
Trekking Permits are a bit more expensive at $750 per person in Rwanda.
Like in Uganda you need to register early and you will then be assigned to your group. From there you have again a drive to the closest park entry point to where your gorillas have spent the night.
One cannot say much about the trek as it will always be a bit different. However it will probably not be easy. There are many things that change depending on where the gorillas decide to go to find bamboo to eat. Following them can involve steep climbs or descents and sometimes very thick bush.
However when you do get to the gorillas you will be rewarded with one of the best hours of your life.
On the other side of the mountain ridge that is the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the rest of the Bwindi forest. In the Parc National de Virunga there are also Mountain gorillas some of which were habituated to human contact.
The trip to visit the gorillas here was generally a combined trip from Goma to the Nyiragongo Volcano and the National Park. The Volcano crater is one of three permanent lava lakes on the planet (the others are in Mt Erebus in Antarctica and Erta Ale in Ethiopia). This trip was offered as a two day hike followed by a two day drive and hike to see the gorillas.
When I went to see the Nkoringo Family in Bwindi Forest in Uganda I considered doing this. I sent some emails to people in June 2012 to enquire and got positive responses regarding a trip in November of that year. However in August 2012 I received a further email explaining that the tour operator had returned to Rwanda and wasn’t going back to the Congo anytime soon. Having kept an eye on the situation I have not even enquired since. There are some people operating in the area again since the start of 2015 but I don’t recommend it.
If you want to see the Congo’s gorillas I reccomend the Netflix documentary Virunga
Chasing Other Great Apes
Mountain Gorillas aren’t our only cousins. Within the area there are also plenty of opportunities to see Chimpanzees as well.
Further afield Lowland Gorillas can be visited in the Congo and Orangutans in Indonesia. Seeing any of the great Apes is an experience that never let you doubt evolution again.
While we are prone to anthropomorphize our feelings on to all the animals we watch, it is impossible to visit great apes and not see the way they socialise and be touched by it. They really do seem to be just like us.
In Uganda it is relatively easy to find Chimpanzees. There are a few places where they have family groups that are habituated to humans watching them.
Murchisson Falls and Kibale National Parks have opportunities to track Chimps through the forests and see them in their natural enviorment. Photography isn’t always easy though as it can be dark within the jungle and Chimpanzees don’t always come down from their trees.
It isn’t the same as trekking to see Gorillas. For one it is a lot cheaper at $100 per trip. More importantly though the families are left on their own at night and so no one has any idea where they are the following day.
This means that while a trip is likely to succeed it isn’t a guarantee like visiting mountain Gorillas.
Goembe Stream, where Jane Goodall did her research, and Mahale Parks in Tanzania are other options for seeing chimps in the wild.
A bit more difficult and expensive to see are Lowland Gorillas. Basically due to a lack of tourism infrastructure in areas in which they live.
However there are a few companies that offer pretty intrepid trips to search them out in the Congo.
A bit easier is to visit Niger or Cameroon but there you are off the beaten track and on your own.
A few of the operators that head to the Virunga mountains to see gorillas are the following.