Written by: Moses Konde and Jackie Nantume
Coming face to face with mountain gorillas in Africa is one of life’s great experiences. Nothing quite prepares you for the moment when you come upon a gorilla family in the wild.
Here is some brief advice for anyone planning on trekking with mountain gorillas.
When to go
It’s generally easier to track mountain gorillas in the rainy seasons. They usually hang out at lower altitudes from April to May and then November. It’s great to keep this in mind when considering your physical fitness. Meanwhile, the busiest time of year for tourists is December to February, followed by June through August – these are the dry seasons.
Where to go
Mountain gorillas are found in three African countries, which include Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park, and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla Park. Each country has gorilla families identified by name. For example, Rwanda has Susa, Amahoro, Ugenda, Kwitonda, Sabyinyo, Group 13, Umubano and Hirwa. DRC Congo has several families: Kabirizi, Humba, Rugendo, Mapuwa and Lulengo. Uganda, has the the highest number of mountain gorillas with the Mubare, Habinyanja, Rushegura, Oruzogo, Nkuringo, Bitukura, Busigye, Kahungye, Bweza, Mshaya, Nshongi, Kyaguriro, Bikingi, and Nyakagezi families. It’s a scary to think that all the mountain gorilla families are listed right here!
Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, is East Africa’s unsung safari destination–a country that combines many of the attractions you won’t find elsewhere in region, including mountain gorillas. It’s usually best to visit Uganda if you plan on an extended stay. For shorter trips however Rwanda is a great country to trek for mountain gorillas.
Permits are always required to visit the gorillas and booking well in advance is well advised. Most permits are arranged three months in advance and are different for each country. They can be secured from the conservation departments directly or through your tour company. Your fee goes toward the continued conservation of mountain gorillas!
What to wear
It is recommended to wear long trousers and long sleeve shirts when in the forests to avoid nettle stings. Steady walking shoes or hiking boots are essential. You may also want to bring rain gear, a hat, sun screen, and insect repellent. Be sure to bring a water bottle and a small snack although eating, drinking and smoking near the gorillas is forbidden. Most food and water will be provided by your tour company. Porters are also available to help you carry your day pack for a small fee.
It’s important to remember that mountain gorillas live at high altitude. While this may cause difficulties for some visitors, no one should feel deterred from making the trip. You should walk slowly and drink plenty of water.
Gorilla trekking guidelines
Mountain gorilla visits are limited to one hour. To minimize possible transmission of human diseases, visitors are asked to maintain a distance of 7m (about 22 feet) from the gorillas. The wildlife authorities do not advise visiting the gorillas if anyone is sick with a contagious illness, including minor viruses like the cold or flu. If you feel the need to cough, it is best to cover your mouth and turn away from the gorillas.
Mountain gorillas are very peaceful animals. The gorillas visited on these treks have been habituated to human presence by the game rangers who track their movements and provide them with necessary protection as they are an endangered species. Each family is visited by no more than eight visitors.
Visitors may experience a mock charge, but that is simply the mountain gorilla way of explaining that they prefer a little space. It’s also a silverback’s way of communicating to outsiders that he’s the boss, and you’re on his turf. If you do experience a mock charge, you will be told not to run, to keep your eyes down and your hands at your sides. But should you feel inclined to make a getaway, there will be a game ranger at your side to help keep your feet firmly rooted to the ground. Plus you’ll have a great story to tell friends and family when you get home.
Did you know there are three other types of gorillas? Get to Know the Gorillas here.