Gorilla Trekking in Uganda is surreal and unlike any other experience in Africa. The atmosphere of the trek through the jungle mist is unreal. With each step your anticipation builds and the reward of seeing the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world is spectacular. The setting, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is arguably one of the most mystical in all of Africa.
Way before we decided to self-drive across Africa I asked fellow travelers about their gorilla trek experience. “To see the gorillas is incredible, it’s worth the high cost to see them in their natural habitat,” my friend had told me. It was an easy decision to add gorilla trekking to our Africa bucket list.
So, when we were presented the opportunity to go gorilla trekking we made our way to Uganda to visit the largest population of mountain gorillas in the world.
Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Gorilla trekking is a hike into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a jungle that is home to mountain gorillas. The trek involves getting a little dirty and bushwhacking through thick jungle with an experienced local guide to find a troop of habituated gorillas.
Where are the Mountain Gorillas in Uganda?
Mountain Gorillas can only be found in the Virunga mountains in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda and also in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Uganda holds 60% of the total mountain gorillas left in the world with about 400 of them residing in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Bwindi is the most popular place to trek the gorillas in Uganda. The park is located in the Southwestern part of the country and is one of the most diverse national parks in East Africa.
Bwindi is divided into four regions: Buhoma region, Ruhija region, Rushaga region, and Nkuringo region. Make sure to book your accommodation where your gorilla trekking permit is issued. Or contact your accommodation to help arrange your permits.
The Buhoma region is the most popular region for trekkers. There are four groups of gorillas near Buhoma that are habituated to humans. The group names are Mubare, Habinyanja, Rushegura, and the Nkuringo group.
What to expect when you Gorilla Trek in Uganda?
A typical day of trekking starts at a designated meeting point. Ours happened to be the Buhoma park headquarters. We showed up at 7:30 for a short video and gorilla briefing with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. From there we were divided into groups assigned to the different groups.
Groups consist of no more than eight people. Small numbers are easier to manage and do not overwhelm the gorillas. Cameron and I were assigned to the “H Group” with three other people – five trekkers in total. We set out to track down the Habinyanja family. A family of 17 gorillas it is the largest habituated gorilla family in Bwindi National Park.
Starting Point For Gorilla Trekking
Some groups start their trek from the park headquarters, while others will have to drive to a starting point into the forest. You typically will not know until the day of if you will need to drive or start your trek from the headquarters. We have our own truck so the 30-minute drive to the other side of the forest was no problem.
Once we drove to our designated starting point and parked it was time for the physical stuff. We followed our guide, Boaz, through the thick of the forest and up and down the rolling hills of Uganda. The five of us were accompanied by two armed guards for security.
Length Of The Gorilla Trek
Finding the gorillas can take anywhere from one to five hours (sometimes longer). These are wild animals and the trackers have to locate where the gorillas have gone each day. It took our group less than two hours to find the H group deep in the jungle. The trek was mildly difficult, but our whole group ranged in age from 26-60 and everyone kept up just fine. I would say that if you are in at least decent shape and health a gorilla trek in Uganda will prove enjoyable.
If you’re worried about the trek we would recommend hiring some of the local porters. They porters come from the surrounding villages and cost $15 day plus a tip.
Interacting with our second closest living relatives
After we found the gorillas we had one hour to observe, ask questions, and take photos and video of our encounter. There is no drinking or eating around the gorillas and flash photography is prohibited.
Gorillas share about 98% DNA with us and they are highly suspectable to human diseases so humans should not walk closer than seven meters from the gorillas, unless they approach you.
The entire hour we couldn’t take our eyes off the family. They each had their own personality and demeanor that made for the most intimate wildlife encounter. When the gorillas look into your eyes it is humbling. One young female gorilla ran up to Cameron to grab his arm out of playfulness and curiosity.
These gorilla groups are familiar with humans. We never once felt like we were in danger with the mighty animals. We just felt as if we had wandered into a foreign home and quietly observed the father, mothers, and children going about their daily lives.
After an hour and two minutes of our unforgettable gorilla time was up. Too much time with the gorillas could do harm and make them agitated and uncomfortable. We made the trek back through the forest and ate our packed lunch while reminiscing about our once in a lifetime wildlife encounter.
Uganda Gorilla Trekking: Best Time To Go
Gorilla trekking in Uganda is a year round activity and permits are issued every day. However, most people prefer to stay dry and travel during Uganda’s dry season which is May-September and January and February. Bright and sunny days are more prominent during these months and visitors are much less likely to experience those rains down in Africa.
We went gorilla trekking in the middle of March – low and rainy season in Uganda. We’ve managed to miss high season throughout most of the countries we have traveled through in Africa and I prefer it that way. Crowds are fewer and rates can sometimes be cheaper. We experienced rains, but they aren’t non-stop rainstorms all day. Instead, they are short amounts of heavy rainfall throughout the day keeping us cool and comfortable.
I believe I have to attribute our small group size of five to the fact that it was low season in Uganda. A small group meant that we were able to keep up with our guide more efficiently. This also led to a more intimate experience with the gorillas. It’s also worth noting that gorilla permits are reduced during the rainy season from $600 to $450 to encourage tourism in Uganda.
How Many Mountain Gorillas Are There in the World?
Sadly due to poaching, war, disease, and habitat loss it is estimated that there are only around 850 Mountain gorillas left in the world. The good news is that with implemented conservation efforts between Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC their numbers are slowly rising.
Uganda Gorilla Permit Cost
Ugandan gorilla permits cost individuals $600 for one day or one hour with the gorillas. This is the mid-range price point. The Rwandan gorilla permits cost $750 (UPDATE They are now $1500) and DRC gorilla permits cost $400. We preferred going gorilla trekking in Uganda as they are cheaper than in Rwanda and the country is more stable and safe than the DRC.
Uganda also holds more gorillas than neighboring countries and besides the gorillas, there are plenty of other wildlife and birdlife to see in the country! Such as, the tree climbing lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
In the off season, (April, May, and November), permits run for a discount. The cost is $450. This means fewer people, a little more mud, and a lower cost.
How To Acquire A Gorilla Permit
The easiest way to acquire gorilla trekking permits in Uganda is to go with a local operator. A packaged deal that includes your lodging, transport, food, and permits will save you a lot of time and headache when booking. However, it is possible to do the trek by yourself if you have your own transport or patience on a local Ugandan bus and can get to Bwindi.
It is not advisable to show up to the park without gorilla trekking permits, as they only issue a set number per day and during high season it can get busy. Instead, I suggest contacting the Ugandan Wildlife Authority at least one month before your arrival to Uganda to set up your gorilla trek on your own. If this is not an option check out their office in Kampala to see if you can get a gorilla trekking permit in person.
For ease and convenience, I recommend going with a company like Volcanoes Safaris to do all the work for you. For every booking they receive they donate $100 to conservation and local communities. Although we ended up driving to Bwindi ourselves we stayed at their beautiful Bwindi Lodge and they specifically cater to guests that are going on a gorilla trek.
What to Bring and Pack for Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Come prepared for muddy and wet conditions. It’s pretty green forest, meaning things get a little moist.
What to wear for a gorilla trek
- Lightweight and waterproof safari clothes are recommended. The goal is to blend into the forest so greens, khakis, and general dark colors do well in Uganda. I cannot stress the importance of layers and long sleeves enough. The altitude is forever changing and one minute you are cold and the next burning hot. Whatever you do – bring one long sleeve shirt! The meanest of mean fire ants reside in the forest and they will find you and kill you. Okay, they won’t kill you, but you will want to kill each and every one of them as they attack your bear skin – I’m speaking from a bad experience with a tank top – don’t make my mistake!
- I would recommend also bringing a rain jacket in case you get caught up in a morning shower.
- Gaters or long hiking socks are recommended through the thick bush and to avoid those ants up your pants.
- We recommend a good pair of hiking shoes. I never do any long treks without my Merrell Moab Ventilators.
What to bring for a gorilla trek
- Walking Stick: we were provided one of these where we stayed at Bwindi Lodge, which is an ideal place to stay while tracking the gorillas.
- Binocularsare never a bad idea in Africa.
- Gardening gloves:If you like to grab trees and things when on a hike then make sure to bring some basic gardening gloves. Many of the trees and branches have tiny thorns on them.
- Insect repellent with DEET. Might as well throw some sunscreen in just in case.
- Bring a good carry-on sized backpack or great travel daypack to keep all your belongings in. It is advisable to bring one to two liters of bottled water on your trek as well. Make sure to have your nearby lodge provide you with a packed lunch in case those gorillas take four to five hours to find.
- I almost forgot to mention a camera! You’re going gorilla trekking so I’m sure you will want something to take photos with! We travel with a Fujifilm X-T10 with a 200mm telephoto lens which is what the photos in this post are taken with.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Accommodation
There are a number of accommodation options around Bwindi National park ranging from luxury to camping. We took a break from the tent to stay at Volcanoes Safaris Bwindi Lodge for a few nights. They provide full board, all alcoholic drinks, comfortable beds, complimentary massages, and laundry. The lodge is eco-friendly and generate power by solar panels and heat their water with solar tanks. It is a ten-minute walk to the park entrance as well. For a more budget-friendly option I recommend checking out Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge or Buhoma Community Campsite if you would like to do the more DIY camping thing.
How to Save the Last Mountain Gorillas?
Visit them! The price to see the gorillas for just one hour is expensive. However, it’s important to understand that gorillas are critically endangered animals. We learned that 25% of the money earned from gorilla trekking in Uganda goes back to the local communities. The tourism creates local jobs. And the majority of the permit contributes to the conservation of the mountain gorillas. I’ve seen and chatted with many Ugandans, trekkers, and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority and they care about the preservation of these animals. It is possible that they will still be living in the wild for future generations. Gorilla trekking is not only an unforgettable African wildlife experience, but a donation to rural communities and wildlife conservation.
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Plan Your Gorilla Trek in Uganda
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- Look the part: Here is our guide to choosing the best safari clothes for your adventure.
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- Water: Much of the water in Africa is questionable at best. We always use our Lifestraw Go Waterbottle to ensure safe drinking water.
- Guide Book: Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend picking up a Lonely Planet to get you through the wireless nights.