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Gorilla treking in Uganda

Gorilla trekking in Uganda

There are two gorilla trekking destinations in Uganda: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

Bwindi is by far the more popular choice as the park contains a greater population of gorillasis better situated for fly-in safaris, and has a greater range of accommodation options.

Which park you visit will depend on your wider travel plans and the time you have available. There is no difference in permit prices or chances of sightings across the two parks.

As you’ll notice from the map on the left, both Bwindi and Mgahinga are in the deep southwestern pocket of Uganda, near the border with Rwanda to the south and the DRC to the west.

Many of Uganda’s safari destinations are also found in the south-west. This makes it easy to combine a savannah safari with gorilla trekking to create a single itinerary bursting with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. 

Uganda may be a small country, but it packs a punch. 

Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Bwindi is Uganda’s main gorilla trekking destination. Here, habituated families can be accessed from four trail heads: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo.

Each trail head has its own characteristics, families and levels of difficulty.

Departing from one of the four trailheads on the perimeters of the forest, you join a group of other trekkers (maximum group size of 8 people) for a guided hike into the forest in search of one of the 11 habituated gorilla families.

Led by experienced Uganda Wildlife Authority guides, you will be introduced to the ecology of the forest and the changing landscape as you trek to the gorillas. Your guides are in communication with the team of trackers who will have been shadowing the gorillas since daybreak. The trackers direct your guides to bring you to the gorillas.

The Gorilla Treks

Two tours run daily from the base camp, usually starting at 09:00 or 14:15 and are limited to groups of eight.

The limit on group size is to keep to gorillas safe from any airborne pathogens, but also to increase the chances of sightings, as larger groups often scare off these (surprisingly) timid animals.

From the onset, the imposing southwestern sloped hills and terraced volcanoes prove a formidable adversary. This is gorilla territory, and access requires hiking through the thick, triffid-like tangles of vegetation, up muddy hills and down into craggy valleys.

The high altitude and testing terrain make the journey tiresome, but the rewards all the more magical. 

Making Contact

Once contact is made, there is usually a silent wait, deep within the dense foliage, as the gorilla’s edge closer. 

When they do emerge, seeing the gorillas in their natural habitat, the verdant forest providing the perfect backdrop, is a truly breathtaking experience.

Any silence is soon broken by the rustling of leaves as the gorillas wander and play, and the calls, whistles, and whoops of thousands of animal species for miles around provides the perfect sound-track. 

Once contact is made, you have up to one hour to spend with the gorillas. If you wanted to spend longer, you can take part in a gorilla habituation experience, and spend up to 4 hours with these gentle giants. 

The 4 Trailheads

Habituated families can be accessed from four trail heads: BuhomaRuhijaRushaga and Nkuringo. Each trail head has its own characteristics, families and levels of difficulty.

The trailheads serve as launch points for treks to 11 fully habituated (and three semi-habituated) gorilla family groups. The standard treks depart in the morning and include up to one hour observing the gorillas from a distance of about seven metres.

The treks can be quite challenging, and you need to be prepared to trek for up to 6 hours, although most sightings take place within 2-3 hours.

Gorilla Trekking in Mgahinga

Close to the border with Rwanda, Mgahinga National Park is a popular option for cross-over itineraries with Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. It’s also the only place in Uganda where you can trek Golden Monkeys. A popular option is to combine gorilla trekking in Nkuringo (Bwindi) with a gorilla trek at Mgahinga.

Mgahinga is more secluded than Bwindi and the treks are not as challenging. There are fewer permits available here. Although gorilla families constantly cross the border from Rwanda to Uganda, there is only one family habituated to make contact in Mgahinga. Called the Nyakagazi group, it has five silverbacks, two adult females and three young gorillas.

Traditionally, Mgahinga was used as an ‘over-flow’ gorilla trekking destination for Bwindi, but that has changed for two reasons. The first is that the increase in the cost of Rwandan gorilla permits to $1,500 per person has prompted visitors to explore Rwanda and then nip across the border to Mgahinga where the treks cost $700 per person.

The second reason is that Mgahinga is such a wonderful place to visit. Situated so closely to the lakes Mutanda and Bunyoni, you could spend a week in the far south-west and save the rest of Uganda for a second trip!

You can also climb the volcanoes at Mgahinga – all pretty intense hikes surpassing 4,000 metres with 8-9 hours hiking, but a very rewarding adventure.

Mgahinga accounts for around 10% of all gorilla treks in Uganda, the vast majority are done at Bwindi!

When is the best time to go?

Uganda’s equatorial climate means temperatures remain quite consistent year-round. Rainfall is all that separates the seasons. March to May is the long rainy season, and October to November is the short rainy season.

The gorillas can be visited at any time of year. 

The price for the gorilla permits used to change with the season, but this is unfortunately no longer the case. Permit prices are fixed year-round, so the decision on when to visit should be guided by your availability, the availability of permits, and your travel plans outside the gorilla trekking.

Securing a Gorilla Permit

Gorilla Permit

Gorilla permits are currently fixed at $700 USD per person.

The permits are no longer discounted during the rainy season, but they are easier to secure at short notice if you are travelling during Uganda’s long rainy season (March to May) or in the short rainy season (October to November).

For peak travel months (January – February and June – August), permits can sell out as early as a year in advance. The permit numbers are strictly limited, so we strongly recommend planning early. 

One advantage of visiting the gorillas in Uganda is the relatively cheap permit costs compared to neighbouring Rwanda where permit prices sit at an eye-watering $1500 USD per person at time of writing.

If one hour of contact is just not enough, if you are a wildlife photographer, or if you are simply fascinated by the behaviour of these incredible animals, then it is also possible to join the habituation team in the Rushaga section of southern Bwindi. This experience includes up to four hours with the family, observing the individuals and their interactions, and costs $1,500 per person.

Gorilla permits are non-refundable, but if you trek and do not see a gorilla, the Uganda Wildlife Authority will refund 50% of the permit cost. This happens very rarely.

How difficult is the trek itself?

You should be prepared to walk through a challenging terrain of steep ridges and valleys, following animal paths through tangled undergrowth for about 3 hours, although sometimes contact can be made after 45 minutes, and other times 6 hours.

During the rainy season, the trekking routes can become very slippery and much more challenging. The rains can sometimes bring the gorillas to lower ground which can shorten the length of the trek, but you should be prepared to trek for up to 6 hours in any case. 

The gorillas typically prefer the highlands, so the trek is made more challenging due to periods of steep gradients.

What to wear on a gorilla trek?

Charging through the dense forest thickets at both Bwindi or Mgahinga require a well-considered get-up. Since you’re on the equator, you will need to be prepared for rains no matter what time of year you are travelling. While you want clothing that protects you from the elements, you also need to keep cool for the 2-6 hour trekking, so you’ll want light and comfortable clothing.

The name of the game is keeping your skin covered up to protect yourself from the forest critters (particularly fire ants) and thorny plant life. You’ll want to keep dry whilst also staying comfortable and cool.

The essential clothing:

  • Good quality, robust, waterproof trekking shoes/boots.
  • Light waterproof trekking pants/trousers.
  • Long socks to pull up over your pants/trousers to keep your skin protected. Waterproof Gaters are an even better option.
  • Waterproof jacket/rain coat/wind breaker
  • Long sleeve trekking T-shirt (ideally Dri-FIT or similar)
  • Gardening/outdoor gloves to protect against thorns and allow you to push through the more difficult parts of the trail without worrying about what you’re grabbing on to!

We also recommend bringing a few sachets of re-hydration salts. Water is of course provided for the treks, but you can often find yourself dehydrated after a full day of trekking and the salts can provide quick relief.

Walking sticks are provided for you.

The rules around gorilla trekking

Before you start any gorilla trek, you will be given a brief from your guide about the rules to follow throughout your time tracking the gorillas. It is extremely important you listen closely to this briefing and respect the rules laid out.

The headlines are:

  • You will be given 1 hour to spend with the gorillas once first contact has been made. This may not seem like a long period of time, but most people find that one hour is more than enough time to soak up the experience. If you want a lengthier experience, you can join the gorilla habituation team and spend up to 4 hours with the gorillas. Another popular option is to do 2 gorilla treks in different areas of the park. Enquire for details.
  • You must keep a distance of at least 7 metres at all time.
  • No flash photography under any circumstances.
  • You cannot join the gorilla trek if you find yourself unwell prior to the trek. 

Are Gorilla sightings guaranteed?

While we can never guarantee sightings, the rise of the gorilla populations in Uganda combined with the experience of your trekking guide means that encounters are almost always made in Bwindi or Mgahinga.

That said, you have to be prepared to work for it as you might have to trek for 6 hours before finding a habituated group.

If you do end up not seeing the gorillas, the Uganda Wildlife Authority will refund 50% of your permit cost. In all of our years of working in Uganda, we’ve never had anyone not see the gorillas.

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