Mountain gorilla trekking is one of the world’s headline wildlife activities, on par with whale watching, bear safaris, tiger tours or shark diving. A gorilla safari is a memorable experience, and one that a lucky few treasure for the rest of their lives. Despite the notoriety they have gained through popular culture, mountain gorillas are intelligent, shy and gentle creatures with complex family structures.
Gorilla tracking takes place in two forests in Uganda, and Rwanda. Gorilla trekking in Uganda is best experienced in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which homes about half the total population. About 11 families here are “habituated”. This means that they have very carefully, over a period of 5 or more years been made accustomed to the presence of humans. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda takes place in the Volcanoes National Park, where about 8 families are habituated.
A visit to the gorillas is not to be taken lightly, as it involves finding a reliable company to book your tracking permits up to two years in advance. It also involves planning the logistics to travel to remote locations, and preparing the equipment for the challenging conditions of the rain forest. If you make the effort to track gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda, though, it is well worth it. There are only 790 or so left – less than the number of children in a small school. All of these are found in the wild, as no mountain gorilla has ever been raised in captivity. The gorillas found in zoos are the western lowland variety.
On the day you track gorillas, you awake before dawn. After breakfast, a short walk or drive brings you to the park headquarters for your briefing. The track starts at about 9:00 am, led by rangers who keep a 24/7 watch on each family. A gorilla safari in Rwanda involves walking times of about 4 to 6 hours, at high altitude. A Uganda gorilla tracking safari involves lower altitude, but steeper slopes, with longer walking times, of 6 to 8 hours. Regardless of whether you track gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda, you will be allowed to spend a maximum of one hour with them, to reduce stress on the family.
This hour will give you a glimpse into the life of a gorilla family, and their interactions bring home the similarities and differences between us and them. If you are lucky enough to gaze into the eyes of a gorilla, you may sense a connection there. Know, however, that your presence in their home has helped ensure their conservation and continued existence.