Gorilla Trekking in Uganda & Rwanda - July 2018 - Kirsty Taylor Photography

Mountain Gorilla trekking in Uganda & Rwanda

My experiences, tips & advice

Before I went on my Mountain Gorilla treks I did a lot of  googling on all aspects of gorilla trekking. Which country should I go to? What do I take? What do I need to wear? What lens/ focal length is best to use? How close do you actually get to the gorillas? Will I be safe as a solo traveller? etc etc 

I found most of this information eventually through some hard core (and borderline obsessive) research but it did take some searching!

I've put this blog together to share my experiences of my treks in Uganda and Rwanda and hopefully provide some useful information to others that are planning treks.

Here goes!....

I booked my trip through Gorilla Trek Africa which are a Company based In Uganda. They have 11 years experience in African tours and focus on Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania. They also arrange trips to D.R. Congo but at the time of writing the UK Government do not advise travel to the Congo. So don't be tempted by their cheaper permits and go there!

I contacted Gorilla Trek Africa in early October 2017 shortly after returning from Kenya. I had been bitten by the Africa bug!  All arrangements were made with Nelson in the Uganda office and he was nothing but helpful and polite, despite the 100,000 questions that I had!

I wanted a slightly different trip from what they offered on their standard itineraries. I wanted to trek Mountain Gorillas in Uganda and in Rwanda but also wanted to trek the Golden Monkeys.... This was no problem at all and Nelson put together an itinerary for me, i paid a deposit and the wheels were all put in motion.

Visas

I opted for an East African Visa as this was the cheaper option and it means that you can travel freely between Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. Brill!

These cost USD $100 (approx £76) and can be applied for at the following website:

https://irembo.gov.rw/rolportal/web/dgie/east-africa-tourist-visa

Photography kit

Nikon D5

Nikon D500

Nikon 300 2.8 (Nb: I only used this on a game drive, not for the Mountain Gorillas!)

Nikon 70-200 2.8

Nikon 24-70 2.8

Spare Batteries (2 for each camera)

Battery Chargers

XQD cards

Black Rapid strap

Cleaning Kit


*Useful Information*


1) Hire a porter

It’s not disrespectful at all! In fact, you’re actually supporting the local community and providing that person with a wage! It only costs USD $10- $15 and it doesn't matter if your bag is heavy or not, it’s a great thing to do and in my experience the porters were very attentive & observant - they always seemed to “know” when I wanted some water.

Also, give them your lunch (or left over lunch) - they really appreciate it :)


2) Take a rain coat

This is key! You are trekking in a rainforest after all... Even if it doesn’t look like it will rain on your trek, or if you are going at a time of year when it’s less likely to rain, it’s still worth taking.

It may have rained the night before in which case the leaves and foliage that you brush by will still be wet. Plus, it's a barrier between you and the sometimes thorny/scratchy rainforest.

You only need something light and don’t worry about it rustling, the main thing is that you wear earth tones.


3) Use one of the walking sticks when offered

Don’t be proud... You will most likely find it useful if not for going up to the gorillas but for the trek back down through potentially slippy terrain. You can leave these with the trackers while you are with the gorillas.

4) Make sure you put the camera down and take time to enjoy the gorillas 

You only get an hour with your allocated gorilla family and it is oh so easy to lose that time ferociously clicking away as after all, these guys are so photogenic! 

Do take the time to watch them. There’s nothing like that realisation that you are sat there watching endangered Mountain Gorillas with your own two eyes.


5) Talk to the rangers and guards - It can be just as rewarding for you as it is for them!

I spent a lot of my actual trek talking to them and learnt lots about the the respective rainforests, the history, the local culture, the gorillas themselves as well as the other fascinating wildlife that they had seen previously. 


6) Keep your distance! 

They tell you to keep 7/10 metres from the gorillas but the gorillas don't respect this rule and will often come very close!

Mountain Gorillas don’t understand or respect this rule.... But you must!

Uganda 🇺🇬

Permit cost - USD $600

We arrived into Bwindi at the end of the day just as the mist was setting in, it looked exactly how I had imagined! 

My Ugandan trek took place in the Rushaga section of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The Rushaga section is located in the southern region of the National Park and is known to have the largest number of habituated Mountain Gorilla groups for trekking.

I stayed at the Gorilla Safari Lodge which in itself was stunning! My room was lovely with a wonderful view over the forest canopy and the sound of the Batwa people singing below.

After a good nights rest and an early breakfast Elvis and I grabbed our packed lunches (provided by the lodge, make sure this is organised before you go to bed the night before!) and made our way to the Rushaga Gate and to the starting point at 7am. 

On route Elvis asked me what I wanted from the trek i.e. a large group, a long trek, baby gorillas etc so that he could work his magic and try and get me the group I wanted.

On arrival I went and joined the other trekkers for a briefing where we were reminded of the gorilla trekking rules,  the do's and don'ts, what to do if you need the loo while on the trek and the importance of telling the authorities if you are feeling unwell!

Meanwhile, Elvis was busy lobbying with the park officials and was able to get me the group we wanted, the Kahungye group! 

After our briefing we all went and stood by the sign of our allocated group. It was at this point that we had the opportunity to hire a porter for the day and were given walking sticks.


The Trek

The Kahungye group was a little way away so we jumped into our vehicles with the rangers and guards and made our way to the starting point.

Our trek started by crossing a small river and walking up through farm land. The scenery in Bwindi is stunning and as we walked on the views became more and more breathtaking!

My porter for the day was a lovely young lad and he made sure that he stayed close to me for the duration of the trek. Always quick to my side if I wanted to get my camera from the bag or have some water. 

The group walked at the pace of the slowest person with one guard at the front and another at the back. We stopped for a drink regularly and were able to make short stops to take photos of the beautiful scenery which was nice!

The rangers were in radio contact with the trackers who, using information from the previous day's sightings, were able to locate the gorillas and guide the rangers to the right place.

We trekked for about 2.5 hours before we reached a raging river which we had to cross before we could start the steep accent up to the gorillas. The bridge we were supposed to cross had been washed away so we had to walk a little further to another crossing point.

Once on the other side and now among the trees it became very clear why it is called The Impenetrable Forest! The vegetation was so thick with ferns everywhere!

We walked in single file following the rangers while they cleared a path for us with their machetes until we found the trackers. We gathered in a small clearing where the rangers told us to leave our bags and non-essentials behind and to grab our cameras. They reminded us again of the do's and don'ts before the trackers led us a little further into the forest to find the gorillas! Ahhhh finally!

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Ugandan Mountain Gorillas


The first Mountain Gorilla's that I laid eyes on were a mother and her two playful babies! Amazing! The vegetation was very thick but the trackers used their "machete sticks" to cut away annoying branches and move them out of the way so we could all get a good view of the gorillas. 

We watched these three for a while as the two little ones chased each other around,  jumping on each other and playing while Mum watched on protectively. One of the babies climbed on top of a bush and playfully rolled down right to our feet! The trackers were quick to ask us to step back and had to remind one of the group members not to panic!

Meanwhile another one of the trackers found the dominant Silverback (!) and promptly led us to him, again clearing a "window" in the vegetation so we could all get a good view. And wow what a view!

This magnificently powerful animal was sat just metres away feeding and completely unfazed by our presence!

We ventured further into the forest and saw another Silverback, a mother with a very young baby, other females feeding and a Blackback. At one point one of the Silverbacks suddenly got up and walked past me within petting distance! No touching though and definitely no shoving your camera into it's face for a close up!!..... Needless to say the guy who did that got told off by the trackers! Some people....

My hour with the gorillas flew by far too quickly and within no time at all we had to tear ourselves away and head back down.

Once we were back at the starting point we received our trekking certificates, tipped the team (I tipped USD $40 which is divvied up between them), paid our porters and then headed back to the vehicles.

Rwanda 🇷🇼

Permit cost - USD $1,500

Immediately after my Ugandan trek we drove down to Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park where I stayed at another lovely hotel called Five Volcanoes Hotel.

My room was amazing and spacious with fantastic views of, you guessed it, five Volcanoes!

The format of the following morning was very much as before. Elvis and I had breakfast and discussed which family would be best for me to see that day. We grabbed our packed lunches and set off on the short drive to the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters.

The Headquarters in Rwanda was quite different to Uganda and seemed more "touristy". They had WiFi, teas’s & coffee’s and a big TV playing gorilla trek videos.

It was more “modern” but almost lacked the authenticity of the Ugandan experience. I liked them both for different reasons.

Elvis was once again lobbying with the other guides to get me a good gorilla group. He managed to get the Kwitonda group which had several members including Silverbacks, Blackbacks, females and lots of babies! Yay!

We gathered round in our groups for a briefing, hired our porters and then headed off in vehicles for the short drive to the start of the trek. 

Volcanoes National park

The Trek

The trek up to the Kwitonda Group was about 1 hour long and started at the edge of a village.

We again walked at the pace of the slowest person and made our way up towards the forest. The scenery was quite different to that of Uganda but it was still very beautiful.

On the way up we passed through farm land where large groups of people were hard at work ploughing the land by hand. It was quite an eye opener.

We reached the edge of the forest where we had a briefing on what was to come. We then excitedly headed off in single file up into the vegetation to find the trackers who had already located the gorillas.

The forest was lush and green and was reminiscent of a scene from Tarzan!

We made our way up the winding steep path, passing spectacular vines that hung lazily from the trees which themselves were covered in beautiful vibrant mosses.

As we climbed higher the vegetation changed and there was now more and more bamboo which meant that the canopy was not so thick and more light was able to break through.

We continued along the steep and winding path until we met the trackers in a small clearing.

The trackers had been out since the day before and always stay within close (ish) proximity to the gorilla’s to ensure that they are safe. 

We grabbed our cameras and followed the trackers around to the other side of a bamboo plantation.


Within 30 seconds we had our first sighting of the Alpha Silverback, Akarevuro, who was browsing and feeding on bamboo. Wow!

A young gorilla came out from our left with a baby gorilla on it’s back. Meanwhile another juvenile was climbing on top of the bamboo above my head sprinkling me with rain drops and leaves as it went so we kept very still so not to spook it.

The trackers can "speak gorilla" and know many sounds/grunts which they use to communicate with them to reassure, say hi and tell them to back off if they get too close. 

One of the trackers led a few of us to another Silverback who was feeding not far away. We spent some time with him and watched in awe as he chomped bamboo, had a little groom and all the while was completely unfazed by our presence.

After a short while we left him be and headed a little further up to where a group of juveniles were playing in the bamboo, swinging and climbing on the trees and mock charging each other.

They were so entertaining and at one point, while I was photographing a young one in a tree, another young one climbed up the tree beside me and was reaching out trying to touch my lens! One of the trackers gave him a “telling off” grunt and he quickly got down and scampered off.

We then headed further up to where another Silverback was feeding. It is unusual to have multiple Silverbacks in a group but these ones live fairly harmoniously, probably because they tend to keep their distance from each other!

Rwandan Mountain Gorillas

The hour was quickly up and as we headed back down we came across the Alpha Silverback laying on his front with the Alpha female grooming him! Then, from under its mothers arms, a tiny 3 week old baby gorilla popped its head up and looked right at us! Magic! The trackers let us have a few more minutes with these guys which we were all very grateful for!

Once the trackers managed to drag us away from this little family we made our way back down through the forest, slipping and sliding as we went (there had been thunderstorms the night before) until we reached the edge of the forest again and headed back down to the village where Elvis and the other guides were waiting. 

We paid our tips to the lead ranger which again was divvied up among the team, paid our porters, handed out our lunch and headed back to the hotel.

Uganda vs Rwanda - What did I like about each experience?

Uganda 🇺🇬

- Bwindi is breathtakingly beautiful! The scenery in itself is worth going to see!

- The rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, therefore there’s lots of other cool wildlife around!

- The trek was a good 2.5 hours long & felt very authentic;

- The gorillas were in lovely thick foliage which made for great habitat photos;

- The permit is USD $600, cheaper than Rwanda’s permit by USD $900!

Rwanda 🇷🇼

- Volcanoes National Park is stunning and the volcanoes are very impressive!

- You can also trek the endangered Golden Monkeys which are endemic to the area;

- You can visit Dian Fossey's Research Centre and go on a hike to visit her grave;

- The gorillas I trekked were in an area where the canopy was more open. I found this easier for photography;

- There was more room to move around the gorillas meaning I was able to get great views and different angles for photos.

Conclusion

I didn't prefer one trek over the other. They were both incredible and I would do the trip again in a heartbeat!

Both countries offer fantastic gorilla viewing opportunities and the chance to see other wildlife. 

Both countries are superbly set up for tourist trekkers and I felt safe everywhere I went.  

If you're trying to decide on Uganda or Rwanda then I guess ultimately, it's going to depend on your requirements, other travel plans and how much you are prepared to spend on permits! 

Either way, seeing a Mountain Gorilla in its natural habitat is a life changing experience and one which I would recommend everyone do if they get the opportunity :) ❤️ 🦍


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