INTO THE MIST
Inimitable Gorilla Trekking
Every African safari contains more than a handful of “pinch me, I’m dreaming” moments, but few can parallel the surreal magic of gorilla trekking.
One of our closest living relatives, mountain gorillas share 98 percent of our DNA. The familiarity in their movements, expressions and interactions is sublime and, more than any other creature on the planet, there is a kindred connection that flows both ways.
Gorilla trekking encounters can result in physical connections, the troupe curious of their clothed interlopers, tousling hair, tugging on garments and visibly investigating their visitors. It seems as if they are one breath away from asking a question, such is their likeness to ourselves.
But this remarkable encounter isn’t without its hardships, and with this, the reward is exponentially appreciated. Gorilla trekking isn’t for the faint of heart and, while readily accessible by most able-bodied visitors, it requires a certain level of fitness and consideration. With barely 1,000 remaining in the wild spread throughout the hills of Uganda and Rwanda, mountain gorillas are scarce and tragically threatened. They have a 24-hour security detail, preventing poaching and maintaining continual communication with researchers and base camps to advise of location and any potential issues.
This allows the very limited number of visitors to be escorted directly to the troupe, but even so, this can require extensive trekking through challenging terrain. Though perhaps not akin to scaling Everest or spanning the Appalachian Trail, it can prove an arduous journey for some, and expert advice, vitality and quality hiking equipment are paramount.
YOUR GORILLA TREKKING EXPERIENCE
The fragile mountain gorilla population exists in only two locations in the world: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Virunga Volcanoes National Park, which spans Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorilla trekking is carefully monitored. A limited number of properties exist within the area, and entry into the two habitats is also acutely restricted.
Likewise, with gorilla numbers so tenuous, guests must adhere to strict rules, including remaining at least 22 feet (7 metres) from gorillas (unless they approach you), visiting for only one hour of each day, and not using flash photography or taking food into the troupe’s location. Added to this, visitors must be over 15 years of age (or 16 if gorilla trekking in Rwanda), and any sign of illness, such as COVID, flu or even a common cold is strictly forbidden. With such a fragile population, it is imperative that the gorillas’ welfare is paramount, and being so similar to us, though lacking our antibodies, any illness could prove devastating.
Your gorilla trekking experience begins at dawn, when you gather at base camp to receive detailed instruction of the day’s activities. Expert guides will ensure that everybody is fully aware of the necessary protocol to ensure the gorillas’ safety, and your own. Gorillas are incredibly powerful wild creatures and can be highly protective, territorial and unpredictable. However, by following guidelines – including no sudden movements, loud noises or eye contact – the risk is greatly diminished.
Once briefed, you will begin the journey upwards to the troupe’s location. Because gorillas are nomadic, moving continually from one feeding area to another, the exact duration of a trek is variable. It can take as little as one hour to reach the family group, but can just as easily span the greater part of a day. Sturdy hiking boots, long, waterproof pants and a long shirt are essential, and a natural bug repellent is vital to keep the less desirable rainforest inhabitants at bay.
Perhaps it is this increased anticipation, the physical investment in reaching your quarry or the rarity of these magnificent great apes. It could be the tangible connection we share or the knowledge that we might be witnessing the last generations of this marvellous creature. Whatever the reason, such is the gravity of sharing time and space with gorillas that one is invariably rendered speechless, the occasion frequently bringing guests to tears, more emotionally powerful than almost any other animal encounter in the world.
There was a time that gorilla trekking, while a highly limited and exclusive opportunity, was a somewhat rudimentary experience. The entire purpose of visiting the regions is to witness gorillas in their natural habitat, not to be pampered in a luxury resort, so accommodation has been very much a secondary consideration.
Recent years have seen several carefully planned luxury venues appearing. Far from exploiting the gorilla population and its money-making potential, the opposite is true and, while establishing themselves as premium accommodations, these businesses provide significant income for and support of gorilla conservation. Bisate Lodge, located in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, was founded on the principles of reforestation, habitat preservation and population conservation. Guests will learn of the world-leading research established by Dian Fossey, who worked tirelessly to understand and protect gorilla populations until her tragic murder, some believe for her powerful and positive impact upon the poaching trade. Bisate believes that ‘every guest is a philanthropist’, with each visitor helping to reforest over 20,000 indigneous trees in the region. It also aspires to become a Centre of Excellence for great ape research.
Likewise, Gorilla’s Nest works to overcome the cultural history of poaching, leading education projects and employing local staff, helping to build an awareness that conservation is an equally beneficial source of income and infinitely more important and sustainable. Similarly, Uganda’s Clouds Mountain Lodge was established and continues as a community conservation project, providing employment for locals to help eliminate the need for poaching and to support the long-term protection of gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
While gorilla trekking is a single-day activity, with these luxurious establishments now offering residence, many guests enjoy a more extended stay, taking in the organic gardens, rainforest hikes, cultural experiences and indulgent spa treatments on offer.
GORILLA TREKKING: NEED TO KNOW
- Permits to visit the gorillas are necessarily priced, both due to the limited number of visitors carefully allocated per day and the funds required to implement gorilla trekking and maintain the constant and imperative vigil over the populations.
- While your trek will take place on a single day, we recommend spending at least three days in the region.
- Only eight visitors are allowed on any given day, making advanced planning and early booking essential.
- Guests must be at least 15 years of age in Uganda, or 16 in Rwanda.
- It might not be pleasant! Between mosquitoes, long, humid hikes and potential rainfall, gorilla trekking can be a challenge, but one that is far more than worth it.
- A certain level of fitness is necessary, with treks lasting anything from one to five or more hours over challenging terrain.
- For your own safety and that of the gorillas, it is essential that you abide by the rules.
- Illness and non-compliance will prevent you from partaking, so be aware, listen to guides and be responsible.
Discover more facts and advice in our in-depth gorilla trekking blog.
Any safari can be a truly remarkable memory to last a lifetime, whether in the hills of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or on the plains of Tsavo or the Serengeti. But if you are searching for something even more exceptional, perhaps if you have already experienced a more conventional safari, we cannot recommend a gorilla trekking adventure highly enough.
Fortunately, with the trek lasting only one day and the entire excursion taking little more than a weekend, incorporating this into a more extensive itinerary is completely viable. With highly limited numbers of guests and a certain amount of logistics to incorporate, advanced planning is essential, so discuss with your travel designer as soon as possible.
Images: © Bisate Lodge, Gorilla’s Nest & Clouds Mountain Lodge (supplied)