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Seeing a mountain gorilla in the wild satisfied a lifelong dream of mine. Since only 1000 mountain gorillas remain, it’s an incredible privilege to spend one hour with them. Watching them blowing strawberries, tickling one another and contemplating, it’s easy to understand how they share 95% of our DNA.
Learning about Dian Fossey’s mission to study and save the mountain gorilla from both the “Gorillas in the Mist” book and movie touched me immensely. I found myself giddy with excitement anticipating the opportunity to observe the Susa troupe she studied.
After admiring Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas and Jane Goodall’s primate conservation work for as long as I can remember, I found spending time in the presence of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas to be an intimate experience.
Mountain gorilla mannerisms are fascinating
Seeing a mountain gorilla in the wild for the first time left me breathless and brought tears to my eyes. After trekking for two hours, we encountered a silverback scratching its head, while appearing deep in thought.
Watching his mannerisms, expressions and dexterity, its similarities to us are obvious. Despite his huge hands, he meticulously dissected the bamboo he wanted to eat. We were all in awe as a result of his proximity and the fact we were observing one of our closest relatives.
After seeing numerous National Geographic mountain gorilla documentaries and images, witnessing troupe interactions with my own eyes is a unique privilege. You’ll be delighted as you peek into their world with silverback mountain gorilla males lounging, babies riding on their mother’s backs, and juveniles being playful.
Mountain gorilla twins are extremely rare
At the time of my Rwanda visit, only three sets of mountain gorilla twins had ever been documented, with only one set surviving. Having the opportunity to witness interactions between these two adorable twins in the Susa group (Byishimo & Impano) is heartwarming. I found it hilarious to watch one stick its tongue out while intently concentrating. The side eye he gave his brother made it even more amusing.
Watching the babies roll around, antagonize one another and climb on their mum is hilarious. At times, you can sense the mother’s frustration, seeming to signal the babies to “cut it out.”
Baby mountain gorillas will melt your heart
Having always been obsessed with baby mountain gorillas, I had to control myself and not let out a squeal when I saw a baby hanging from its mother’s back and chewing on its little fingers. Mum munched while the baby took in its surroundings.
TIP: Be mindful of where you place your feet as I fell into a small gulley when I got distracted admiring this cute baby.
When we came upon a second baby, my heart melted as I noticed its tiny ears, eyes and nose. I love the way it clung to its mother as she made her way through the brush.
While I wished I could have stopped time, the hour seemed to pass at warp speed. Although it seemed we had just arrived, our trackers signaled the time had come to depart. This last image I captured is still emblazoned on my memory to this day.
Rwanda mountain gorilla trekking = a worthwhile investment
Having always prioritized experiences over material things, the joy derived far outweighs the required monetary investment ($1500 in Rwanda, $600 in Uganda, $450 in the Democratic Republic of Congo). Importantly, a portion of these funds is reinvested into conservation and the local communities. To maximize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I opted for two one-day permits. After visiting Dian Fossey’s Susa troupe one day and the Kwitonda troupe the second day, I wished I had the time and money to spend a week and visit all of the groups.
After identifying a time that I could visit, the challenge became making sure permits were available. To minimize human contact, they only issue 8 permits per group per day. (80 permits a day in Rwanda, 56 in Uganda and 64 in Congo).
TIP: Be prepared to arrange a gorilla permit one year in advance!
What to expect with Rwanda mountain gorilla trekking
In Parc National des Volcanoes in Rwanda, trackers head out early to determine the gorillas’ location. After seeking out nests, droppings and broken bamboo, they radio information to headquarters to aid with that day’s trek.
Trekking groups depart from headquarters between 7:30 – 8:30 each morning. Depending on the group, it can take one to four hours to reach the gorillas, often over steep terrain. The Susa troupe is usually one of the most challenging to reach.
TIP: It’s important to be aware that you need to have transportation arranged from your lodging to park headquarters AND from park headquarters to the trailhead.
Walking sticks and porters make the trek easier
TIP: Hire a porter for $10 at the start of the trek to carry your backpack. This not only benefits the local economy, but also decreases your fatigue. And, opt for a walking stick to help you balance on the steep, and often muddy, terrain.
Since the gorillas don’t follow a set trail, the trackers hack through the undergrowth with machetes to create a trail for the day’s trekkers. I felt like “Jane of the Jungle” hanging on to vines and dropping into a steep ravine where the gorillas were hanging out.
TIP: Make sure to wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gaiters and gardening gloves to protect you from the thorns and stinging nettles. Given the constantly changing weather, a light rain jacket is key too.
Once you get close, the trackers will signal to everyone to leave all backpacks behind and take only your camera gear. Given gorillas’ curiosity, backpacks are left so as not to tempt them. Your porter will stay and watch your backpack.
While regulations require that you stay 21 feet (7 meters) away, the gorillas don’t get that memo. The babies sometimes come in much closer to check you out.
Gorilla trekking planning considerations:
- Permit cost: Rwanda – $1500; Uganda – $600; Congo – $450
- Book your gorilla permits BEFORE you book flights as securing permits takes time. You will likely need to secure a permit one year in advance.
- Seasons: June – September & December – February = peak season
- Dry season: December – February & June – September
- Wet season: March – May & October – November
- Permits available per day: Rwanda – 80; Uganda – 46; Congo – 64
- Rwanda: Kigali
- Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is 2 hours from Kigali
- Uganda: Kampala/Entebbe
- Rwanda: Kigali
- Yellow Fever Vaccine: You must show proof to enter Rwanda, Uganda & Congo
- Visas: Make sure to secure a visa to visit Rwanda, Uganda or Congo
- Links for more information
- Rwanda: https://www.volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com/trip-planner/gorilla-permits.html
- Uganda: http://www.bwindiforestnationalpark.com/gorilla-trekking-uganda-bwindi-safari.html
- Democratic Republic of the Congo: https://visitvirunga.org/treks/
What to bring/wear:
- Lightweight, quick dry, dark long – sleeve shirt and pants and to protect from stinging nettles. (Don’t wear bright colors).
- Gardening gloves to protect your hands. These are key!
- Waterproof hiking boots for the uneven, muddy terrain. Make sure they have good traction.
- Lightweight rain jacket as the weather changes quickly
- Long socks to tuck pants into to protect you from biting ants and leeches
- Gaiters to protect you from stinging nettles
- Bug spray/wipes
- Backpack with a rain cover
- Refillable water bottle (Sterilize tap water at your lodging with UV Steripen)
Mountain gorilla photography tips:
- Flash photography is NOT permitted. Bring fast lenses that perform well in low light. I used a Canon 70 – 200 mm f 2.8 lens. Others opted for a 24 – 70 mm f 2.8 lens. You won’t need a super long zoom lens since you are very close.
- Shoot at a higher ISO (800).
- Shoot in RAW vs Manual to give maximize editing latitude.
- Tripods are not allowed, so you will be hand holding your camera. Make sure your shutter speed is at least 1/Focal length. (I.e. If you are shooting at 100mm, your shutter speed should be at 1/125 or faster to achieve a sharp handheld photo.)
Logistical tips for your trekking day:
- Hire a porter for $10. (S)he benefits directly. And, it’s wonderful to have someone to carry your camera equipment. Since you must leave your backpack behind once you reach the gorillas, it’s nice to have someone to watch it.
- Opt for the walking stick. It will help you tremendously on the steep and varied terrain.
- Arrive on time for the briefing. If you miss it, you won’t be allowed to trek.
- Bring money to tip your guides & porters.
- Be prepared for a 30 minute to four hour trek.
Rules for mountain gorilla trekking:
- Don’t look the gorillas directly in the eye – this is viewed as aggressive behavior.
- Don’t run or make sudden movements. If they charge, you should crouch down and not make eye contact.
- Stay with the group and be quiet.
- If you are sick, you will not be allowed to trek. This is to protect the gorillas and minimize illness transmission to them since they share 95% of our DNA.
- Only people aged 15+ are allowed.