Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda takes you to Volcanoes National Park which is by far Rwanda’s major international attraction. After the release of the feature film, Gorillas in the Mist, about the late Dian Fossey’s pioneering work habituating the gorillas, and numerous documentary films, interest in gorillas in Rwanda has reached new heights and continues to grow yearly, with available gorilla permits being sold out virtually every day of the year. Nyungwe Forest National Park too is gaining popularity for trekking for chimpanzees and other primates.
A Gorilla permit in Rwanda costing USD 1,500 per person is your ticket to the activity and must be purchased in advance through an international tour operator, or in Kigali where a copy of the first 3 pages of a visitor’s passport must be presented at the time of purchase. As there are only up to 64 people allowed to gorilla trek each day, permits are very limited and should be purchased 6 months to a year or more in advance if possible. The most popular time to visit the gorillas is during the dry seasons, which occur June to October and December to March. Golden Monkey Trekking In addition to gorilla trekking, a golden monkey trek is well worth considering.
Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans) is home to the mountain gorilla Rwanda, first documented by Europeans in the early 1900s. The peaks of the Virunga Mountains, heavily forested extinct volcanoes, serve as a border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda and are part of the watershed between the Congo and Nile river systems. The 62-square-mile (160-km2) park supports several vegetation zones, from lush bamboo stands to luxuriant mountain forest to Afro-alpine.
From 9,020 to 10,825 feet (2,750 to 3,300 m), the primary forest is dominated by hagenia trees growing 30 to 60 feet (9 to 18 m) in height. Hagenia have twisted trunks and low branches covered with lichen, out of which epiphytic orchids, moss and ferns often grow. Volcanoes National Park borders both Virunga National Park in the Congo and the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. The park receives a high amount of rainfall, over 70 inches (1,800 mm) per year. Daytime temperatures at Park Headquarters range from 70 to 90°F (21 to 32°C).
Other wildlife in the park includes the blue monkey, golden monkey (a rare subspecies of blue monkey), black-fronted duiker (very common), bushbuck, giant forest hog, African civet, genet, and buffalo. One hundred nineteen species of birds have been recorded, including spectacular mountain turacos (the Rwenzori turaco is the most common) and forest francolin. The mountain gorilla grows to 6 feet (1.8 m) in height and weighs up to 450 pounds (205 kg). These gentle giants are found in the Virunga Mountains (a chain of volcanoes with altitudinal ranges of 3,500 m–4,507 m). Mountain Gorillas are found in the high-altitude forests surrounding these volcanoes.
The Gorilla Trek
A maximum of 8 tourists can visit each gorilla group daily. For an in-depth treatise on gorillas and this region beautifully presented with color photographs, we only recommend a visit on one of our carefully crafted Rwanda gorilla safaris.
The Gorilla Families
Gorilla Trekking Rwanda as of this writing, offers 8 habituated gorilla families that can be visited. Please keep in mind that makeup of each group listed below is quite dynamic and changes on a regular basis.
The Sabinyo Gorilla Group consists of 13 members, including Guhonda, the largest known silverback in Africa Amahoro Group – 18 members, including 2 silverbacks Agashya Group (previously known as Group 13) – 25 members, including 1 silverback
The Susa Gorilla Group consists of 30 members, including 3 silverbacks Karisimbi Group – 15 members, including 1 silverback Umubano Group – 13 members, including 1 silverback Hirwa Group – 16 members, including 1 silverback Kwitonda Group – 21 members, including 1 silverback
A visit to see gorillas in Rwanda starts in Kigali, the Capital of Rwanda. You will be picked to drive from Kigali to Musanze, previously called Ruhengeri. The 2.5 hour drive is on a good road through the countryside with beautifully terraced hills. During the day there are always people walking along the road, riding or pushing bicycles, many of which were laden with banana or sorgum beer. We walk around the bustling market at Kinigi — a microcosm of Rwandan country life loaded with photographic opportunities. There were many bicycle taxis and motorcycle taxis taking clients short distances at reasonable prices.
Travelers that have stayed the previous night at lodges close to the park are usually picked up around 6:30 am. Check-in/registration is at 7:00 am at the RDB/ORTPN Park Headquarters at Kinigi, approximately 10 miles (15 km) from Musanze. Do not be late as they will leave without you. You will need to present your passport and fill out a form that includes your age. The trekker’s driver/guides will then have a short briefing with the chief warden who will assign all the trekkers to gorilla groups. By this time, the warden would have received reports as to the location of all of the gorilla groups, along with the approximate time it should take from the departure points to the group, and the difficulty of the hikes.
This provides a wonderful “comfort zone” for people who have concerns as to whether or not they feel they can handle the hiking. On the other hand, those who like to hike may want to choose a group that will involve a longer trek as the area is so beautiful. Most travelers in good condition can trek the close groups. The guides set the pace to that of the slowest walker, and take many rest breaks enroute. There is generally no rush to find the gorillas as you will have 1 hour with them regardless. The only exception is if a group is a very long way from the departure point (i.e. the Susa Group), there may not be a lot of time to rest as you need to complete the trek before dark.
Trekkers are then separated according to the gorilla groups they will be visiting and given a briefing by their respective national park guides that lasts about 15 minutes. Trekkers then return to their vehicles and are driven to the departure points by their guides. Departure points can be a 30-to 90-minute drive from Headquarters and difficult to find if you are not with a knowledgeable driver. Before departing Park Headquarters, make sure that you or your guide has the necessary vouchers. As there is no public transportation from Musanze to the Park Headquarters or to the trek departure points, you need to either book your safari with a tour operator or self-drive in a 4wd vehicle (not recommended).
In other words, if you do not have pre-arranged transportation, you will probably not trek. Once at the departure point, each trekker is given a walking stick, and assigned a porter, if they choose to have one, currently at a cost $20.00. We highly recommend hiring a porter, not only to make the trek less strenuous and to have some assistance up some steep hills, but to support the local ecotourism in the area. The hike normally begins with an uphill walk through villages and farmlands for a wonderful snapshot of rural life in Rwanda. You hike to the stone wall marking the border of the park, which is designed to keep the buffalo and elephant in the park and to mark a clear border of the park for the people not to cross.
After a gorilla etiquette briefing, you begin trekking. When you get close to the gorillas you leave your hiking sticks and backpacks behind with your porters and bring only your cameras. Please note that children under 15 years of age or anyone having the flu or other sickness that might be transmitted to the gorillas are not allowed to visit the gorillas. Children of all ages are allowed into the park for other activities such as nature walks and visiting Dian Fossey’s grave if accompanied by an adult. Each gorilla visit will be limited to a maximum of only 1 hour, once a day. One must be prepared for a strenuous hike of 1 to 6 hours each way but 2 to 3 hours is more usual. Bring plenty of water.
Porters are available at the National Park entry point to help carry bags, heavy cameras, etc. They are most definitely recommended. Please, however, do NOT leave any valuables inside the bags they will be carrying. Tipping is not included in your park fees or tour price. Please obtain tipping instructions from your tour operator. The “head” gorilla guide will split all of his tips with his assistant guides — so there is no need to tip individual guides. Some Rwandan army personnel will accompany you into the forests. They are there for your protection. Please do not photograph them. They will not ask but please do not tip them.
Gorilla Trekking Etiquette
A guide will accompany all groups to the gorillas and on entry to the National Park will advise you of the rules for observing the gorillas. The main rules are total silence, no smoking or eating, and no pointing at the gorillas. Do not stand above the height of the guide so if he kneels, you need to also kneel. Follow the guide’s actions at all times. Move slowly and be calm at all times. If a silverback should charge, do not run. Keep behind the guide at all times. In order to minimize behavioral disturbances to the gorillas, only 8 people are allowed to visit each of the families. This means that only 64 people are allowed to trek daily. The limits serve to protect gorillas from the risk of exposure to human-borne diseases.
What to Pack
When visiting the gorillas, please ensure that you carry with you rain protection gear and wear good hiking boots. Boots with a good grip really do make all the difference. An extra set of dry clothes left behind in the vehicle can also be helpful. Gloves are recommended as protection from stinging nettles (a bush). For this same reason, wear long pants and a long-sleeve shirt for the hikes. For camera equipment, we suggest a zoom lens 70 or 80 — 200 or 210 mm and a standard 50 mm lens, or lenses with similar powers.
Fast lenses (F1.8– F2.8) and video cameras are best as gorillas are often found in deep shade. Please use waterproof bags (NO plastic) to keep equipment dry. Mist is encountered year-round and rain must be expected from November to May, so ensure your camera is protected accordingly in a waterproof container. Video is highly recommended, as long as you limit your time looking through the camera, otherwise you will miss a lot of the experience! No flash photography of any kind is allowed.
Other things to do in Volcanoes National Park
Golden Monkey Tracking
The golden monkey (Cercopithecus mitis kandti), a subspecies of the blue monkey, is also found only in the bamboo forests of Volcanoes National Park where these beautiful primates can be trekked. Golden monkeys weigh from 10 to 25 pounds and has a golden body with black limbs. Trekking these monkeys is certainly complimentary to trekking gorillas. They are extremely playful and entertaining to watch.
Iby’Iwachu Cultural Village
The Iby’Iwachu Cultural Village is located near Volcanoes National Park, and is a community-based initiative that includes a walk through the village of traditional huts, meeting a local healer, see how bananas are brewed into local banana and sorghum beer (and “enjoy” a taste), watch and participate in traditional dances. There are also local schools that are happy to have visitors; consider bringing some pens and pencils, etc., as a donation.
Dian Fossey’s grave
Dian Fossey’s grave may also be visited, however it needs an extra day. For those interested in also trekking gorillas in Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is less than a day’s drive from Volcanoes National Park. Trekking gorillas in both reserves is highly recommended!
Hiking in the beautiful Virunga Mountains is an adventure in itself. Trails lead to the craters or peaks of the park’s 5 volcanoes, upward through the unique high vegetation zones of bamboo, hagenia-hypericum forests, giant lobelia and senecio, and finally to alpine meadows. Views from the top, which overlook the lush Rwandan valleys and into the Congo and Uganda, are spectacular. Some travelers spend a day or 2 of gorilla trekking interspersed with hikes to one or more of the volcanoes.