Spending time with mountain gorillas in the wild has to be one of the best experiences of my life. I can’t give it any higher praise than that. But just how difficult is gorilla trekking in Rwanda?
In this post I describe what you can expect on a trek to see these fabulous animals.
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Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda
Volcanoes National Park is located in North Western Rwanda. This protected area is home to 10 groups of mountain gorillas, all of varying sizes. Each gorilla group is allowed one visit by a tourist group each day, for a maximum of 1 hour.
Whilst the groups don’t stay in one place they do tend to stay in one general area. The trackers head out every morning to locate the groups, but there are no guarantees that they will be where you expect them to be.
Like many, I first learnt about the plight of the mountain gorillas after watching Gorillas in the Mist. This 1988 drama was based on the true story of American naturalist Dian Fossey. It tells the story of her journey in Rwanda as she studies these magnificent creatures.
Unfortunately it didn’t end well for Fossey in her pursuit to protect these gorillas. As a young child I remember being so completely confused and saddened as to why people would want to kill these beautiful animals.
To this day I’m still not sure I understand.
However, I am grateful to the work and sacrifice that Fossey and her team went through to raise awareness for the mountain gorillas, and for the work that continues to happen to this day. A large part of the gorilla permit fee goes towards anti-poaching and education programmes.
Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park now comes with hefty price tag, but if you’re willing to part with your hard earned cash, you won’t be disappointed. A cheaper alternative is to do gorilla trekking in Uganda, at Bwindi National Park.
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How Difficult is Gorilla Trekking?
When people first think about doing a gorilla trek several questions come to mind relating to fitness levels, hiking lengths and choosing a gorilla group.
All of these are valid queries but since gorillas don’t stay in one place, it’s difficult to provide a generic answer. Mountain gorillas move around in very dense jungle at areas of high altitude.
That said, generally speaking, anyone with a reasonable level of fitness can do a mountain gorilla trek.
The toughest aspects of the trek will be the tricky terrain and high humidity levels. Guides will often use machetes to bush whack their way through thick jungle and the jungle canopy traps in the heat.
Expect to get muddy and sweaty on your hike.
The gorillas live at altitudes between 2200 to 3000 meters so there is also a risk of altitude sickness. It is therefore recommended to arrive at altitude several days to a week before your hike begins.
Local porters can be hired to help if you are concerned about your fitness levels. They will carry your bag and help you through the variable terrain. Porters typically cost $20 plus tip.
The Gorilla Trek Itinerary
Before your gorilla trek begins your guide will ask what level of hike you would like – easy, medium or hard. Based on your answer they will then assign you to a specific gorilla group.
After a drive to the respective starting points, all gorilla treks begin with a hike through farmland to the jungle edge. This takes between 30 – 60 minutes depending on hiking speeds of the group. Once into the jungle the trek can last anything from a couple of hours to all day.
For example, I chose the difficult level hike and we found the gorillas within 1 hour of entering the jungle. However, members of my group who had opted for the medium level hike spent all day trekking as their gorilla group moved locations. Proof that there are no guarantees when it comes to wildlife!
What to Expect on a Gorilla Trek in Rwanda
Our hike began from a village in the lowlands and the weather was humid but dry. We spent around 1 hour meandering our way up through the farmers fields until eventually we arrived at the edge of the jungle.
After a short break we started our venture into the jungle. We were told that the gorillas had been spotted approximately 20 minutes away.
Don’t get too close, don’t look them directly in the eye, don’t make any sudden movements.
As we got close to the gorillas these instructions were replaying through my mind. The anticipation was building and I could barely contain my excitement when I caught my first glimpse.
Our viewing started with a young silverback and a female who were just lying down and relaxing. I couldn’t believe how close we were able to get and how they were completely unfazed by us.
They were just doing their thing – yawning, picking their nose, having a little peek up when one of us moved to get a different view.
Then we moved into the jungle a little more and observed several mothers feeding their babies, along with some adolescents being boisterous and playing around. The adolescents were so funny to observe as they rolled around and wrestled with each other.
One female decided to run between us and grabbed hold of a member of the group as she passed.
She grabbed him right at the top of his leg and I think he held his breath for a moment or two!
Finally, we got word that they had found the head silverback just a little way from the group, so we hiked up a bank and further into the dense jungle.
From a distance I could see this beautiful giant and under instruction of the tracker, we inched our way closer. I had just managed to get a few snaps before all of a sudden I was diving into the trees to escape a charging gorilla!
As I clambered back on to my feet I looked over to see our gorilla tracker lying on the floor chuckling to himself. He jumped up and smiled to us.
That wasn’t a real charge, he casually informed us, he was just playing with me!
Playing, I thought, as my heart raced. I’m not sure I want to experience a real charge!
After the excitement of meeting the head silverback, our 1 hour was over and it was time to head back down. It had all gone so fast and naturally we wanted to stay longer however, we completely respected the fact that we needed to leave the gorillas in peace.
We bobbed and weaved our way out of the jungle and back into the farmlands. As we emerged onto the open land we could barely keep the grins from our faces.
What an incredible experience we had all just been privileged to, observing them acting just like we do. Being able to watch these animals that share 98% of their DNA with us was truly one of the best experiences of my life and one that I won’t quickly forget.
Like African adventures? You might also be interested in this post about Sudan
The park head quarters are located near the town of Ruhengeri, just a 2 hour drive from Kigali. In the town of Ruhengeri there is also a Dian Fossey museum, which is dedicated to the work that she carried out with the gorillas.
What do you Need for a Gorilla Trek?
- Sturdy, waterproof hiking boots to cope with the wet jungle environment
- Waterproof jacket
- Long pants and shirts
- Camera – check out the camera I use
- Gloves to protect your hands from the dense jungle
What’s the Best Time of Year to Trek With Gorillas?
June to September or December to February are the driest months, so are good times to plan your visit. However, jungle weather can be unpredictable and it can rain any day of the year.
What’s the Cost of Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda?
Gorilla Permits in Rwanda are now $1500 USD. 96 permits are available each day.
Trekking to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda is an unforgettable experience. Although you may ask to see a particular gorilla group, their presence at that planned location cannot be guaranteed. Therefore the ease or difficulty of the trek can’t be guaranteed.
Prepare for your gorilla trek by achieving a reasonable level of fitness and you should be fine. If you are concerned about your abilities you can always hire the services of a local porter.
It may push your boundaries as you fight your way through the dense jungle and climb over steep sided hills, but the end reward is well worth the effort.
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