I followed just behind our lead mountain gorilla tracker. In the hush of the moment under the canopy, I remembered our guide’s advice earlier that morning: “On your way to the gorillas, don’t forget to enjoy the sound of the jungle. There’s nothing like it.”
My focus had been on climbing through the tendrils, on getting there. I could feel the heat around me, the sound of swarms of bugs above my head.
Then our tracker pivoted and pointed my attention to the right, just past the thickness from which we’d emerged and into the clearing.
Suddenly, it was just me and a mountain gorilla.
His name was Kakono, the silverback leader of the Mishaya family we’d managed to find. He sat just a few meters away, only a group of leaves and the floor of the jungle between us. I stared for a few moments, following his every slow, deliberate movement. Then I came to and realized I might want to capture the moment in pixels. A photo may be worth a 1000 words — I don’t know — but this moment seemed to require a few thousand more.
He had massive hands, blocky, like a catcher’s mitt. Inky black and leathery, too, with rough patches and texture. “A manicure,” I thought.
Kakono got up. He was huge — shockingly so. Fluid and graceful. Majestic and peaceful. He knew no hurry. The deliberate nature of his movements seemed almost oddly incongruous with his size.
I tasted a bit of fear – fear I now know was misplaced. Stereotypes of gorillas are so entirely off the mark. All those images we’re fed – King Kong, American Tourister luggage commercials and all the false clichés of violent Hollywood-styled apes — faded into the buzz of the jungle.
Despite what their size might suggest, mountain gorillas are vegetarian. Take that when you imagine they might devour you. Besides, they are peaceful, almost zen-like in a way we humans might never be able to comprehend. Maybe that’s what sitting and eating in contemplation does to you. That, and give you a big belly.
A connection, they look like us in another age, with more hair, more wrinkles.
A look into their eyes. Simple wonder. What do they think? What do they see? If they could, perhaps they might ask, “What do you people with those things around your necks find so interesting about me? Please, get a life.”
This is our world, together. But we were clearly in theirs.
For many travelers to Uganda, gorilla trekking is the anchor activity. To encounter mountain gorillas not only carries some expense, but it also takes planning and preparation to make the most of your outing.
In this beginner's guide we share all you need to know to prepare for and get the most out of you gorilla trekking experience in Uganda.
Uganda's Mountain Gorillas
Approximately 900 mountain gorillas live in the shared-border forests that extend into Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). After decades of decline due to poachers, civil war and diminishing forests, gorilla populations have begun to pick up in the last couple of years. In some respects, the growth of gorilla tourism may have helped protect these animals as the government receives funding for conservation and sees the economic benefit of protecting the animals and the national parks that serve as their homes.
Today, around 400 gorillas call the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park their home. Of these, nine gorillas families (each family usually consists of 10-15 members) have been habituated, meaning that although they are still wild they have become accustomed to humans and are unlikely to attack.
When to go gorilla trekking
It is possible to go gorilla trekking all year round, but you may face rain or more crowds during certain times of year. The high season is June-September and December-February when Uganda has its dry(er) season and Europeans have their holidays. Even during this time you may experience rain in the forest. Trekking permits will be a bit pricier and more in demand during these times.
Low season is considered March-May or October-November rainy seasons. When trekking during this time you may experience more rain in the forest, making for a muddier, more slippery climb. However, during this time gorillas may be more likely to hang out in the low lands since food is abundant during the rainy season and they don’t need to search long and wide for meals. This means that your treks into the forest to find them will be shorter, often under two hours.
We went in May and lucked out with our weather. It rained the day before and the day after, but on the day of our trek it was sunshine the whole time we were in the forest and with the gorillas. For cost and crowds, we’d recommend trekking in either the off-season or shoulder season.
Obtaining a Gorilla Trekking Permit
Gorilla trekking permits are a hefty expense at $600 per person for most of the year, with April and May at $350 per person (2014 prices). The maximum number of visitors per day is 72, divided into groups of 8 persons maximum. Each group visits a different habituated gorilla family. The permit assigns you to a gorilla family and allows you to spend one hour with the family once your group finds them.
Our gorilla trekking permit and organization was included as part of our G Adventures tour in Uganda. This means that they took care of the paperwork as well as transport to and from our accommodation to the park. Each gorilla family is in a different area of the park, so your accommodation should be coordinated with the park entry point for that particular family. All we needed to do was show up and be prepared. Made for a very stress-free experience.
Even if you travel independently, it makes sense to find a local tour operator to help you secure your trekking permit and arrange transport, accommodation and other logistical support. The reality is that Ugandan tour operators purchase the majority of trekking permits so it’s very difficult for individuals to buy them directly from the National Park. If you want to go during the high season (June-September) you’ll need to organize everything months in advance to be sure you can get a permit.
And while there are no guarantees of mountain gorilla sightings when you set off, the tracking procedures in place at Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park virtually ensure you an unforgettable encounter.
Gear: What to Bring With You Gorilla Trekking
Everyone’s gorilla trekking experience will be different depending upon the weather, the depth of your forest hike, where the gorillas are hanging out, and other factors. It’s important to be prepared for anything so you can focus your time on enjoying your jungle walk and time spent with the gorillas, rather than being worried about your gear.
1. What to wear when gorilla trekking
Note: It’s likely that you’ll be trekking through mud and covered in dirt by the end of your trek so consider bringing clothes that you won't mind ruining.
- Trekking pants. We like these trekking pants (his and hers) because they have lots of zipped and secure pockets so that you can easily access smartphones, wallets, or anything else without worrying that something might fall out in the jungle. If you have waterproof pants with you, carry these in your backpack in case of rain. You will also be recommended to tuck your pant legs into your socks (love Smart Wool hiking socks) to prevent nasty creatures from crawling up your legs.
- T-shirt and long-sleeved shirt. We recommend a t-shirt with a light long-sleeved shirt over top to protect you against sun exposure and bugs (of which there are A LOT in the forest and jungle).
- Waterproof or water-resistant jacket. Keep this handy, especially in the wet season.
- Fleece or light jacket. The park is above 2,000 meters (6,000 feet). It’s unlikely that you will be cold when trekking in the humid forest, but you may become chilled waiting around for word of the gorillas’ location or when stopping for lunch.
- Trekking shoes. For climbing hills, good traction on your shoes is essential. Even better if your trekking shoes are somewhat water-resistant.
- Hat. Sun protection when trekking outside the forest.
2) Food and Water
- Two liters of water per person. While this may sound like a lot, this amount is recommended in case it’s a long, hot hike. Better to have too much water than too little.
- Lunch and snacks. Bring snacks that you can munch on along the way to keep your blood sugar and energy high before lunch, which will usually consist of a sandwich and fruit. Depending on how long it takes your group to find the gorilla family, it can sometimes be a while before you eat lunch.
3) Other useful gear for your gorilla trek
- Small backpack. Be sure this is comfortable, as you’ll need to carry it for hours en route to and inside the jungle.
- Walking stick. Do not worry about bringing your own. Wooden sticks are available to borrow at the park entrance.
- Cameras and rain protection. It might be a bit overboard to carry a dry sack for your camera (although we did), but do carry a plastic bag or similar water resisting protection to keep your camera protected in case of rain.
- Sunscreen and bug spray. Travel staples in this part of the world.
Note: If you’d prefer to enjoy your trek unencumbered, you can hire a porter to carry your small bag and assist you up hills and through the challenging parts of the forest. Just tell your guide that you’re interested in hiring a porter and he’ll find one for you at the National Park entrance. The fee is $15 per day (May 2014 prices).
What to Expect on the Gorilla Trekking Day
Your Team: Guides, Scouts, Trackers
Don’t forget to bring your passport with you as officials at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park office will need to verify your trekking permit against your identification. After a quick briefing on safety measures and what to expect during the day, you will be assigned to a group of a maximum of 8 people for your gorilla family search and visit.
Each group consists of a main guide and two scouts who carry AK-47 guns and walk before and after the group. We were told that the reason for armed scouts is for protection in the forest against wild elephants or angry, unhabituated gorillas. The scouts are trained to fire shots into the air first in order to scare away the animals. We’ve never heard of anyone coming across these wild animals, but we understand that the policy of the National Park is to be safe rather than sorry.
Your group will also have a pair of trackers who will have been sent out in the early morning (prior to your arrival in the park) to find the location of your specific gorilla family and to assess where they may be headed. Trackers communicate the gorilla’s movements to the guide so that he can decide on the best approach to meet the gorilla family.
Trekking to Find the Gorillas
The length of your overall experience and the amount of time it will take to actually meet your gorilla family is said to vary widely. It may take as little as 30 minutes to find your family and as long as five to six hours. The day we went, we spent about an hour looking for the gorillas while another group spent three hours searching in thick jungle.
The forest is lush, humid and damp and there are no discernible trekking paths. The terrain is full of hills and steep slopes where you will be required to pull yourself up steep jungle grades by grasping onto branches, plant roots, bushes and more. Follow the lead of the guide as to the best path and form to take.
If you need a break, let your guide know. The worst thing that can happen is if you overexert yourself or don’t hydrate enough and are forced to leave the park before you find the gorillas.
Quality Time with the Gorillas
Once your group finds the gorilla family the clock starts: you have an hour to spend with them.
Now is when you want to stay quiet, move slowly and avoid sudden movements. I found that just sitting, enjoying being in the gorillas’ presence was the best experience.
It’s not a problem to look a gorilla in the eye, but if he begins charging you, hold your ground but lower your eyes to indicate that you do not want a confrontation. Photos and videos are fine, but no flash.
Ideally, you’ve found several gorillas together in a clearing on the ground. This provides you easy visibility and you can just sit and observe. In other situations the gorillas are up and moving around — in the trees, behind bushes, or walking around through dense brush. Follow the lead of the trackers and guides and stay close as they move around to find other gorillas.
The trackers will often clear the brush with their machete so you can get a clearer and closer look at the gorillas. It is incredible how graceful and peaceful these animals are, especially considering their incredible size. You’ll be amazed when you see the silverbacks (mature males) get up and move around.
Sustainability, Respect for the Gorillas
Gorilla trekking permits exist to limit the number of visitors and thereby reduce the stress on the gorillas. Our individual behaviors can also help to reduce the anxiety that our presence may effect, too. Give the gorillas the space they deserve.
Do not aggressively pursue them if it seems as though they are becoming annoyed and constantly moving to higher branches or behind bushes. Some of the most entertaining actions and displays (e.g., peeing or pooing on you from a tree, or chest beating) are usually an indication that a gorilla feels threatened. Good thing is, those displays are also a gorilla’s way of communicating “Keep your distance. I’d like to avoid resolving this with a fight.”
Some travelers may ask: Are mountain gorilla encounters sustainable and ultimately beneficial to the mountain gorillas? On one hand, the visits are clearly an invasion. Imagine a bunch of photographers coming into your home at approximately the same time every day. You might tire of it, no?
At the same time, to the extent that gorilla treks provide motivation to protect the gorillas and their habitat from encroaching land development and farms, it’s not only worthwhile — it may be the only thing keeping human beings from driving to extinction what few mountain gorillas remain.
With that in mind, respect the gorillas as the wild yet sentient creatures that they are.
As you stare into the eyes of a mountain gorilla you’ll likely feel a connection, one unlike you’ve ever experienced before. A connection of peering into the eyes of an exotic creature that looks and acts quite a bit like we humans do.
It’s a difficult feeling to articulate. We hope that this guide helps you experience it for yourself one day.
Our experiences above were from the G Adventures Uganda & Gorillas Overland Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!