Africa

Trekking with the Mountain Gorillas in Uganda

Mountain gorillas are one of the biggest and most powerful primates in existence, and they share a whopping 98% of the same DNA as us humans. Isn’t that crazy? That gorillas can seem so, so different from us humans but really they aren’t that different at all?

According to the World Wildlife Foundation there are about 1,063 mountain gorillas in existence, all residing in East-Central Africa (Uganda, Congo & Rwanda). Although they are endangered, between the last two census surveys, researchers have seen an increase in their population. However, the biggest threat to their population is still degradation of their habitat, that’s why conservation efforts are incredibly important for these black furry primates.

I don’t even remember the first time I ever first discovered that you can visit the mountain gorillas in East Africa, but all I know is it was something that I quickly added to my bucket list and knew I had to experience at some point in my lifetime.

Animal tourism can be tricky. Especially now that there are more people out there talking about the good, bad, and the ugly when it comes to it. However, rest assured, you can’t just go see the mountain gorillas that easily. East Africa does a great job at limiting the amount of people that can visit the gorillas each day, and conserving their natural habitats and well-being. That’s why when you want to trek to see the mountain gorillas, it requires planning.

The best spot to see the mountain gorillas currently is in Uganda or Rwanda. (Congo isn’t a safe place to travel to, so no one is out here recommending going to find the gorillas there).

I can only really speak to the experience of trekking in Uganda since I haven’t done it in Rwanda, but recently Rwanda has hiked up the cost of their gorilla treks to $1,500 USD per person versus the $600 USD per person in Uganda. The reason for the high cost is because it contributes to the conservation of these beautiful animals. For the price of your pass, you will have one hour when you reach the gorillas to watch them and only 8-12 people are allowed to go in a group at once, and they limit it to only 80 people per day. Obviously the reasoning for this is to minimize the exposure gorillas have to humans and of course, they do not want to turn gorilla trekking into a circus with busloads of tourists ruining the experience for both the gorillas and humans.

Note: Uganda is increasing the price in July 2020 to $700 USD

What to pack & wear

It’s important to make sure you’re prepared for the trek. You will not know how long it’ll take you to find the gorillas (that’s nature for you) so you are preparing as if it could take all day. What you’ll want to make sure you bring with you or wear is:

  • Light coloured clothing
    • You’ll need to wear pants that can be tucked into your socks so the safari ants don’t climb up your pant leg (make sure you wear long socks, not short ones)
    • Layers are important as weather is unpredictable. Pack a rain jacket, and layers if it cools down
  • Garden gloves (some of the trees and branches are sharp)
  • Hiking boots (I’ve read some people just wore runners, but again, you can end up with a very hard hike up a mountain so I’d wear hiking boots)
  • At least 2L of water
  • Snacks and lunch
  • A great camera (I brought a zoom lens and a regular one but never needed my zoom lens because we were so close the whole time to the gorillas)
  • Lots of small bills/change to tip all the different trackers and guards that come with you, plus $15-$20 to hire a porter to carry your stuff
  • Sun protection – hat, sunglasses & sunscreen
  • Bug repellent

My experience

Even though I did a multi-week tour with Intrepid that visited more than just the gorillas, the main reason most people were on this tour was for the gorillas (the rest of the tour was just an added bonus). The gorilla trek took place about half way through our tour which meant we had several days to anticipate it (and be anxious about it).

After reading several different blog articles about other tourists experiences stating that it was the hardest hike they’ve ever done, and it took hours before they found the gorillas, I was definitely worried. I’m an active person back home but I can’t say I do much mountain trekking in flat Toronto.

Since they broke our group into two groups that went on two different days, I eagerly volunteered for day one so I didn’t have to hear the other group talk about how hard it was and give me more butterflies than I already had! When the day finally arrived, we got fully prepared for what could be a multi-hour treacherous hike up a mountain. We started the day early to leave camp around 6:30ish in the morning and drive towards Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. There are a few different entry points for gorilla trekking in this area, so some of the other groups were heading a bit further away to where they would begin their trek.

One of the things I read about in other blog posts was that you’d be given the option to select between an easier or harder level of hike. This was not the case on the day any of our groups hiked. This could be just based off where the gorillas were that day, but note that if you’re going with the hopes you will get to choose, you may not be able to.

Arriving at the park

When we arrived at the park, those butterflies in our stomachs escalated. We were sat down in a little orientation area where our guide for the day quickly reviewed some of the rules for trekking, such as to stay still when a gorilla is coming towards you, and to not make eye contact with the silverback of the group.

I think it’s important to point out that I felt so safe on this entire trek. You are surrounded by not only your guide but multiple trackers and other guards at all times with giant guns. They do a great job at watching the gorillas every move just in case one decides to head for you. The head ranger who is your guide went through lengthy training so the gorillas know him and feel comfortable around him. This is critical for the gorillas to be okay with being with humans and not aggressive.

We had the option to hire a porter before we started our trek and I’d highly recommend it. First off, you don’t know how long you’ll be trekking so you’ll want someone to carry your bag, and secondly, you’ll be supporting the local economy. You’ll also be given a walking stick as part of the trail are literally just cut down by your guide as you are hiking. This isn’t a pre-made/man-made trail, you are legit walking through the forest.

The trek begins (and ends quickly)

As we began our trek our guide stayed at a great pace making lots of stops for photos or water. I was trying to stay positive as I had no idea how long of a trek this would be or how hard. However, about 45 minutes in our guide stops to tell us the gorillas are just around the corner and it was time to leave our porters and grab our cameras.

WHAT?! We were shocked that it only took us 45 minutes of hiking when we prepared to potentially have to hike all day. However, you really have no way of knowing what the trek will be like each day. The group that went the day after us found them in 10 minutes, and my cousins went a few weeks after and hiked uphill for about 2-3 hours before finding them. This is nature and it’s impossible to know or control this part of the experience.

Our first look at the gorillas

As we went around the corner from where we stopped, there they were, the gorillas! It’s hard to really put into words what this felt like. It was wild to be standing only meters away from real mountain gorillas. It was so out of this world that it didn’t feel real at all.

As you arrive you get to spend one hour with the gorillas and it’ll go by fast because these guys are entertaining! They’re so fluffy and black, some are playful, some are chill. We saw a few babies with their Moms and the silverback hiding among the bushes. It was absolutely incredible that it almost brings you to tears. Whether or not you are worried about the trek itself, it will 110% be worth it no matter how easy or hard it ends up being. I can promise you that!

After our one hour was up, we sadly said goodbye to our gorilla friends and headed back to the starting point where we had a mini graduation ceremony and were given certificates of completion.

As you pull away from the park you’re going to be on the best adrenaline high you’ve ever had. I feel so privileged to have been able to experience this and was just in awe for the whole day (and days later) at the incredible experience I had with the mountain gorillas.

This was hands down one of the best things I’ve ever done and even though the price tag is hefty, it’ll be worth every single penny. Now if you need me, I’ll be over here day dreaming about going back!

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