I recently had the incredible opportunity to go gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and the experience absolutely blew me away. The mountain gorillas are an extremely endangered species that can only be found in a few places in the entire world. Recent conservation efforts, mostly funded by tourists who go gorilla trekking, have aided in increasing the number of mountain gorillas, but the population is still extremely small. Gorillas are extremely intelligent animals that have so many similarities to humans. To see them in the wild is an unforgettable experience entirely that will impact the way you view wildlife. To go into their home, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and spend time with them is truly an experience like no other. My experience was extra special because I got touched by a gorilla! Call it a jungle blessing or a potential near death experience, either way, I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced it.
Why Should You Go Gorilla Trekking?
Gorilla trekking in Uganda is a truly incredible experience. Not only do you get to witness these majestic creatures up close in their natural habitat, but you also have the opportunity to help protect them for future generations. Gorillas are an endangered species and have been considered critically endangered since 2018. It is estimated that there are only around 1000 mountain gorillas remaining in the wild, making your visit even more special as most people will never see a mountain gorilla in their lifetime.
The experience of gorilla trekking alone is enough to make it worth anyone’s while. Trekking into the Ugandan forests alongside your knowledgeable guide is an unforgettable adventure, as you search for the elusive mountain gorillas in their jungle environment. The trek itself takes you through the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest as rangers track the gorillas up and down the sides of the mountains. There are few paths, so you have to make your own.
Once you locate the gorillas, you will be able to observe them at close range as they engage in their daily activities such as eating, playing and parenting – which can provide an incredibly humbling and rewarding experience.
Going gorilla trekking in Uganda isn’t just about having an amazing adventure; it’s about helping preserve one of the world’s most iconic and threatened species for future generations. Your visit helps fund conservation efforts such as anti-poaching patrols, habitat protection and monitoring programs that track the health of each family group of gorillas in order to ensure their wellbeing long-term. In addition, a portion of each ticket sold goes towards supporting community projects benefiting local people who live near and depend on the forests where gorillas live. It’s definitely true that the government takes a huge cut of the proceeds, but there is actual evidence of the mountain gorilla population increasing as a direct effect of the monetary contributions to conservations that come from the gorilla trekking permits.
How Close Can You Get To The Gorillas?
The short answer is that you can get about 10 meters away from the gorillas which is insanely close! The longer answer is that the distance varies. Sometimes you are looking at the gorillas on the side of a mountain from 50 meters away because it is difficult to get closer to them, and other times you end up being closer than 10 meters because of the way the landscape is situated and if the gorillas come towards you. The rangers are always with you and guiding you to ensure that you maintain a safe distance both your safety and the safety of the gorillas.
Before going gorilla trekking in Uganda, you will be required to sit through a safety briefing where the rangers will inform you of all safety protocols for seeing the gorillas. It is important to remember that you are going into their environment and their home, and that you can easily be seen as a threat if you do not follow the rangers orders. In general, you should never, ever look a gorilla in the eye as they see that as a challenge. Also, you should absolutely never pound your chest as they will attack you.
During your trek, you will also be trekking with an experienced park ranger, 1-2 armed guards, and eventually the scouts. All of these people are there with the purpose protecting the gorillas above all else, but also to make your experience enjoyable.
My Experience Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
The experience is so amazing that it is borderline indescribable, if I’m being honest, it’s taken me a while to write this article because of that.
You get to be within 10 meters of the gorillas and it feels as if you could almost touch them, and in my case, they touched me. It’s a mix of fear and awe to be so close to such an amazing endangered species, yet you know that they could easily kill you if you make the wrong move. The silverback is not to be messed with under any circumstances. In fact, a ranger in one of our friends trekking groups got dragged by the silverback for two meters by his leg the same day we were trekking.
The rules of gorilla trekking are strict. You can’t eat, you can’t make loud noises, you can’t make any sudden movements, and you can’t under any circumstance look the gorilla in their eyes– and they will try to meet your eyes. Making eye contact is the trigger for sizing up a person, and when that happens, the gorilla will want to assert dominance, and you will lose that competition.
They say if a gorilla charges you, you drop slowly to your knees and pretend to eat grass. The goal is to ignore them and not move so that they see you as non-threatening.
We started our trek at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park’s south park entrance, where the rangers told us that gorilla trekking has a 99% success rate as they send trackers ahead to find the gorillas and share the location with the rangers. The time it takes to located the gorillas is unknown, you could be hiking for an hour to find them or eight. You never know the kind of adventure you are in for, and you need to be prepared for every kind. My group was lucky as we only had to hike for three miles in total.
When we began our trek, our ranger, who was the head ranger in charge of all of the others in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was our guide. We were lucky to have him as he was incredibly knowledgeable, although our friends (spread out across 4 different trekking groups) all said that their guides were incredible as well. Because our guide had been doing this for so long, he told us that he would rather have us wait for the call from the trackers than to wander aimlessly around the jungle searching. We spent an hour with him learning about the gorillas and their habitat until he got the call. After getting the call, we started our trek to the gorillas.
While we were waiting, our ranger told us that the 1% of groups who don’t get to see the specific gorilla family they are tracking are rerouted to a new family so that there is a guaranteed success rate for seeing the gorillas. Reroutes happen when gorillas are fighting and dangerous to be near. Gorillas will occasionally fight to be the dominant silverback of the family. During the habituation process with the gorillas, the rangers and the gorillas communicate with a certain type of grunt which means that everything is safe and okay. If the gorillas give a different kind of grunt, it means to stay away for safety.
While traveling in Uganda, we met a couple in Uganda who had experienced firsthand how dangerous the gorillas could be. They were lucky to be only a little beat up. On their gorilla trek, when they finally found the gorillas, two males were fighting for dominance and were heated. In the midst of their fighting the gorillas saw the people and charged, the rangers stepped in between the group and the gorillas with machetes, not to hurt the gorillas, but to warn them to stay away. The rangers made it very clear to us that they will never hurt a gorilla under any circumstance. The gorillas however, did not just calm down. Instead, they knocked over a tree which fell on the man and woman, leaving them with a head injury and a broken arm. This is why it is so important to listen to the ranger’s direction and how to interact around gorillas. While they are completely wild animals, you can never completely predict what your experience will be like.
Every experience is different in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Because we went with the head ranger, and he chose to have us wait for the call that the gorillas had been found instead of hiking in circles, our hike was very short. In total, we only hiked about three and a half miles. However, that does not mean that it was easy. We hiked about a mile to find the gorillas which was relatively easy terrain despite not being on a real trail. Once we found the gorillas though, we had a hard time keeping up with them.
We spent most of our time chasing the gorillas up and down the mountainside through thick brush, steep slopes, and stinging nettles. Our rangers were having to machete through thick brush so that we could continue following our gorilla family. We were worried that we were irritating the gorillas and that is why they kept running away, but the rangers told us that every gorilla in the family follows the silverback’s lead. They stay close to him as much as possible for protection, and that our particular silverback was extremely unhappy with the taste of his food so he kept moving to find more enjoyable food. We would watch him take a bite of a plant, throw it down angrily, and then sprint off in a new direction. Gorilla trekking in Uganda is definitely unpredictable.
After chasing the gorillas around for most of our hour with them, they finally found some “tasty” food and we were able to watch them for a bit without running up and down the hillside. We ended up doing most of our mileage chasing the gorillas as our walk was very short to get to them. Every one of our friends trekking groups had a different experience. One of our friend’s groups had to hike for 6 hours in total, but when they got to their gorilla family, they were all relaxing in beautiful lighting. While our group had a short hike, our experience with the gorillas felt like a race through the jungle with little time to sit and appreciate the moment. Also from a photographer’s perspective, most of our gorilla time was in thick, dark brush that made them difficult to photograph.
Being Touched By The Gorilla
Ok, I know this is the part you have all been waiting to read about. What was it like being touched by a gorilla? Well, to be completely honest, it was both terrifying and surreal at the same time. I should preface this by saying that you should absolutely not, under any circumstance, ever try to touch or be touched by a gorilla. It is unethical to interact with wildlife in a way that puts you or them in danger. The gorilla touching me was a completely unexpected surprise that happened while following all of the rangers directions.
Anyway, toward the end of our time with the gorillas, when they had finally stopped running all around the jungle, we were standing on a hillside watching the silverback, a few of the females, and the babies eat and relax in some nearby trees. All of the sudden we heard trees crashing down on the hillside behind us. We can hear an animal running toward us, but we couldn’t see it.
All of the sudden, I heard it rush up behind me, and I suddenly felt a strong shove against my leg. The young male gorilla had appeared behind me and nudged me with his shoulder to get out of the way. I was absolutely shocked and scared. The ranger warned us to get out of the way, but to do it slowly and to make sure that we don’t fall or trip and startle the gorilla. This was a hard endeavor as we were on an awkward incline and walking backwards to get out of the way. I started to move out of the way, trying not to fall, and unsure of what the gorilla would do next. I was nervous to turn around and look at him in case he was trying to make eye contact. The gorilla, however, was sitting there waiting patiently for me to move out of the way so that he could continue on his way. When I had finally moved out of the way, I turned to see him sitting there, completely ignoring me and looking ahead, and just waiting for me to move.
It was crazy to know that I was so close to a gorilla that he reached out and touched my to get me to move out of his way, very politely I might add. I feel like it was a jungle blessing and an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.
If you are wondering how the gorillas are comfortable with humans being so close to them, it is because of a process called habituation that each gorilla family goes through. Gorilla habituation is an important part of gorilla trekking in Uganda. Habituation is the process by which wild gorillas become accustomed to human presence, allowing a more intimate experience for trekkers in the national parks. The habituation process can take several years and involves regular visits to gorilla groups by dedicated field staff and researchers, often accompanied by tourists for an extra fee. The actual gorilla habituation experience can be scary for humans though as it often is a mixture of gorillas charging at them an attempting to assert their dominance in various ways. However, it is the perfect experience for a true gorilla enthusiast.
The process of gorilla habituation is an important part of the gorilla trekking experience and requires gentle but precise effort on the part of tour guides and conservationists. This process begins long before tourists arrive, when a group of wild gorillas is chosen for close observation. Over time, a team of experienced trackers follows the group and records daily activities, noting behaviors such as feeding, nesting, interactions between members, and other habits. Gradually, the presence of humans becomes normal to the gorillas: if they sense we are not a threat, they will become more comfortable in our presence. Essentially, by the end of the process, the gorillas view humans as simply another primate in the jungle.
The habituation process starts when groups of wild gorillas are identified and visited regularly by field staff and researchers. The goal of this is to get the gorillas comfortable enough with humans that they don’t run away when someone approaches them. During the habituation process, researchers monitor the behavior of individual gorillas and make sure that their interaction with humans is calm and natural. It’s important that these interactions remain low-key so as not to cause any stress or disruption to the gorillas’ daily lives. Usually after 1-2 years of regular visits, some of the more tolerant gorillas will allow trekkers relatively close access while they graze and play on their natural terrain.
Once a group has been fully habituated, it can be opened up to tourists for treks. During these treks, visitors must always stay several meters away from the gorillas at all times and remain silent throughout their encounter. Tourists are allowed a maximum of one hour with each group, after which they must return back to base camp or move on to another group if time allows. It’s also important for visitors to keep in mind that each gorilla family has its own social dynamics and rules – just like human families – so it’s important to pay attention to cues from both animals and field staff throughout your visit for safety reasons as well as respecting their habitat.
Gorilla Trekking in Uganda vs Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo
Gorilla trekking can be done in Uganda (Bwindi National Park), Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)(Virunga National Park). Each country has its own unique offering for travelers looking to explore the beauty of nature and observe endangered mountain gorillas. In order to decide between gorilla trekking in Uganda vs Rwanda or the DRC, it is important to understand the differences between each option.
One key factor in choosing between these three countries is cost. Gorilla permits prices in Uganda are currently around $600-700 USD per person, while those in Rwanda cost $1500 USD, and $400 USD for permits from the DRC. This makes Uganda a much more budget friendly option for those looking to get close to their primate cousins without spending too much money. The amount of time allocated for trekking also varies between these countries – Uganda allows up to 1 hour with the gorillas, whereas Rwanda provides just one hour and DRC offers two hours with its primates.
Another important consideration when deciding on where to go gorilla trekking is safety. Rwanda has become renowned over recent years as having some of the world’s best gorilla tracking experiences due to its strict regulations which guarantee a safe environment for both visitors and animals alike. On top of this, Rwandan guides are highly experienced and will be able to offer extra insights such as behavioural analysis of gorillas during your visit that cannot be found elsewhere. Meanwhile the DRC is still known for having some political unrest which makes visiting the country itself more dangerous than visiting Uganda and Rwanda. The best place to go gorilla trekking depends on your own personal preference when it comes down to it.
How To See Gorillas in Uganda
In order to see gorillas in Uganda, it is important to book your permit around 3 months in advance (or as soon as you know your travel dates) as there are limited permits available each day. This is especially true during high season which is during Uganda’s dry season: December-February and June-August.
You can book your permit yourself through the Uganda Wildlife Authority or go through a local tour operator. I would recommend working with a local tour company as they will make it easy to arrange your journey and will often provide you with an experienced local guide. There are many tour companies that offer this experience. I personally went with Absolute Africa, and I highly recommend them.
After deciding on the date that you would like to apply for your permit, you will want to find accomodations near the park. The closest major town to the main (south) entrance of the park is Kisoro. This is often used as the starting point for gorilla trekking adventures.
Reaching the gorgeous Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda can be a bit of an adventure in and of itself due to the poor road conditions between Kisoro and the national park. To get to Kisoro, the closest airport is actually Kigali International Airport in Rwanda. Alternatively if you do not want to do a border crossing, you can fly into Entebbe International Airport in Uganda.
Packing List For Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
It is important to be prepared for your gorilla trekking in Uganda experience so that you can fully enjoy the day without worrying about what you have forgotten. This packing list will help you feel prepared.
- Small Backpack- to carry all of your stuff!
- Camera- a phone will do just fine, but it really does make a difference to bring your real camera if you have one for the experience
- It is a good idea to carry an extra camera battery and memory card (Just in case) OR external charger for your phone (just in case)
- Waterproof boots- the jungle is thick and often wet
- A face mask- this is a REQUIREMENT for visiting the gorillas as they are highly succesible to human diseases. You will not be allowed to see the gorillas without one. I’d recommend bringing an extra or two just in case.
- long pants- it is a dense forest and full of stinging nettles, you don’t want to get scraped up.
- long sleeved shirts- same reason as above (I recommend layers)
- snacks and a sack lunch- you have no idea how long you’ll be out there
- at least 2l of water
- insect repellent
Other Useful Information
- You can hire a local porter from one of the local communities to carry your stuff for $20+ tip if you are worried about carrying everything and hiking. (Prices as of 2023)
- Don’t wear any really bright colors
- You will be hiking at a high altitude so it is important to prepare in advance for the difficulty of hiking in a dense jungle as it requires a certain level of physical fitness
- You should plan to tip your guides, guards, and scouts.
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