So you’ve decided that you want to go for a gorilla trek, but you can’t decide between Rwanda and Uganda. (While some travelers go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to see these critically-endangered mountain gorillas, our research led us to conclude that the Congo may still lack the infrastructure and safety that we require.) After looking into gorilla treks in Rwanda and Uganda, we couldn’t find enough data to compel us toward one more than the other. So we decided to do both.
Rwanda (December 27, 2017)
This was our first gorilla trek. We were part of an 8-person group assigned to the Kuriyama gorilla group (the Kuriyama gorilla group has twelve gorillas, two of whom are babies. The Kuriyama gorilla group is led by one silverback.) A few minutes before reaching the briefing point, you pass the site of the “Kwita Izina,” the site of the annual gorilla-naming ceremony to acknowledge each of the baby gorillas born in Volcanoes National Park during the last year.
You spend approximately an hour at the Kinigi Headquarters (there are twenty-four gorilla-trek permits issued daily, and each group of eight must be placed into one of three treks: easy, medium, or hard). Tip: If you want to increase your odds of being in a smaller group, request the hard trek.
Once assigned (we were assigned to the medium trek), you are briefed by your guide before driving to the starting point (have a look at previous posts for info on what to wear or which vaccines you need).
Before beginning the trek, you can opt to have a porter carry your gear. (He will also assist you in negotiating difficult climbs and descents.) The trek in Rwanda begins with little fanfare. Your vehicle makes its way onto adobe-colored dirt roads that end at a village, approximately one hour’s walk from the entrance of the forest.
Our trek began on a reasonably well-maintained trail. It was hot, and the elevation was 3000 meters (9000 feet), but if you bring fitness to Rwanda, then it’s not too demanding.
Eventually, you reach the entrance to the forest.
At this point, the trail begins to toggle between what mountain-bikers would call “single-track” and what some of us would call . . . “no trail.”
While the gorillas are vegetarians and not considered a legitimate danger to the trekkers, there was a guard who followed us. He brandished a machine gun just in case anyone was charged by an elephant or water buffalo.
After walking for over two hours (much of it was uphill), our guide indicated that we were close to the gorillas. (Throughout the trek, he was in touch with the gorilla trackers—three men who’d been tracking the Kuriyama gorilla group since 5:00 a.m.)
We followed our guide into the vines—at this point there was no trail, just millions of nettles to sting your legs and arms. You’re trying not to fall. You’re questioning why you’re here. But then, when you see your first gorilla in the wild, the pain goes away.
He doesn’t run away like a monkey. He’s not jittery. He’s thick. Strong. And when he makes eye contact, he maintains it. But it is not fierce. It’s passive. Gentle.
Of course, the silverback may tell a different story. During our visit, though, he was so cool.
Uganda (December 29, 2017)
Gorilla trekking in Uganda begins the same way. People are assigned to one of three groups (easy, medium, hard), there is a briefing, and the members of each group (there were nine in our group) are driven to their designated entrance to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This is where the similarities start to fray.
Unlike Rwanda, which began by ascending a well-groomed trail, Uganda is what some might call “legit.” Your vehicle drops you off along the edge of a dirt road, and you carefully hurdle the lip that separates the dirt from the forest. There is no trail. Instead, you slide. Or, rather, you hold onto vines as you steadily lower yourself into something resembling a jungle, a rain forest, a free-for-all. You search for trees on which to place your hand as you brace yourself during the descent. Unfortunately, many of the trees, wrapped in an almost florescent-green moss, have rotted. The result is a tree trunk that snaps in half if you apply much pressure to it.
Some would call this dodgy. And while my research led me to expect a more pure experience in Uganda, I didn’t realize I’d be crawling on all fours (like a prison escapee or a crab) in order to keep from tumbling into the green unknown.
The elevation at Bwindi (2200 meters) is lower than in Rwanda, so insects abound. We found ourselves consistently immersed in a fog of mosquitoes, thankful for the precautions we took prior to coming here.
Of course, just like the Rwanda trek, all of the pain and uncertainty and concern dissipate when you see a gorilla.
Unlike the Kuriyama gorilla group in Rwanda, the Oruzoho gorilla group of Uganda seemed less habituated. In other words, while the Kuriyama family seemed to view us as neutral, the Oruzoho family continued moving upon noting our presence. This meant that we were constantly on the move when visiting the Oruzoho family. At one point, the nineteen-gorilla family (with three silverbacks, and one blackback) took to the trees! Many of them were eating fruit, some were taking a siesta, one was breast-feeding. Notice how carefully and deliberately they seem to measure each move before lowering themselves to the ground.
Mountain gorillas are a critically-endangered species, and having an opportunity to see them in Rwanda and Uganda was magical. If you are considering a gorilla trek, hopefully this has been helpful. You’ll find additional observations below.
Rwanda Gorilla Trek / Uganda Gorilla Trek*
3000 meter elevation / 2200 meter elevation
Few mosquitoes / Many mosquitoes
$1,500 permit per person / $650 permit per person
Trails (single-track, but maintained) / Not many trails
Lots of stinging nettles / Not many stinging nettles
Enforced the one-hour rule / More relaxed about the one-hour rule
Ascended first. Then descended. / Descended first. Then ascended.
Upon completion your shoes are dirty / Upon completion your whole body is dirty
More manageable for older travelers / Less manageable for older travelers
Gorillas were neutral about our presence / Gorillas seemed unsettled by our presence
*Of course, each trek is likely unique. These are simply my observations after one trek in Rwanda and one trek in Uganda.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me.