Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

Nestled within the heart of the Great Lakes region in equatorial Africa, Uganda is a landlocked country characterized by endless verdant hills,  expansive valleys, mountain peaks, and a scattering of giant shimmering lakes and streams. Roughly the size of the United Kingdom or twice as big as Pennsylvania state in the United States, Uganda is home to four major distinct ethnic groups and dozens of regional languages that form a  rich cultural tapestry of over 44 million people.  Undoubtedly what makes Uganda so exceptionally unique in the world is its outstanding variety of wildlife.

This small beautiful country is proudly home to over half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas, a critically endangered species of gentle giants that need our protection. Located along the mountainous southern border with Rwanda and the Congo are the majestic Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and nearby Mgahinga Gorilla Park,  some of the last protected stretches of Africa’s central rainforests and home to Uganda’s rebounding mountain gorilla populations. The only way to see the gorillas is to purchase a permit and go on a guided gorilla trek in one of these two parks.  The parks are best reached by vehicle from either  Entebbe Airport near Uganda’s capital city of Kampala or Kigali Airport in Rwanda, a nine-hour drive and a four-hour drive respectively. Many visitors to Uganda’s gorilla parks choose to weave gorilla trekking into a wider Uganda itinerary,  enjoying the magnificent variety of activities and landscapes on the route.

What does mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda constitute?

On the morning of your gorilla trek, you are led by a park ranger into the dense, beating heart of the rainforest. You hike along narrow, winding footpaths and through terrain that is slippery and often steep.   The round trip hike can range from roughly two to six hours, so you need some walking fitness and to wear hiking boots with good grip. You can usually request a longer or shorter hike to suit your fitness level. The first sign that you’re close to making contact will be the distant calls and commotion that ring out across the forest as the gorillas try to establish who is approaching.  The moment your eyes catch a flicker or shadow through the undergrowth is truly electrifying.  

Then, as you approach, it’s the profound familiarity and intelligence in the eyes of the gorillas that leave most in awe. Their sweetness and kindness is what quickly melts your heart.  Everybody’s experience with the gorillas is unique,  but the gorillas generally don’t pay you, the humans, too much mind and get on with their daily business. You will likely see youngsters playing and flopping around, mindful mothers keeping an eye on their babies and, if it’s lunchtime, the gorillas eat shoots and leaves. Your presence is softly observed by the patriarch of the family,  the enormous silverback male whose role is to protect the group from danger.  

At times the gorillas may come close and even within arm’s reach, but don’t panic, lower your gaze, and don’t make any sudden movements;  your team is always with you and by following a  handful of basic rules you will thoroughly enjoy the experience. The trekking group spends 45  minutes to an hour meeting the troop, then you must head back to base. Unless however, you’ve booked a habituation experience, which permits you four hours with the gorillas. But more about that later.

How much does a gorilla safari cost?

A Gorilla trekking permit in Uganda is priced at  $700 per person. Do note that this is for the permit and guided trek alone. Whilst this may sound dear, it’s important to remember the role you’re playing in the conservation of the species. Gorilla trekking tourism has been so effective as a catalyst for conservation due to its reluctance to fall victim to mass tourism.   Seventy-five percent of the price of your permit is reinvested into the upkeep of the parks and expanding conservation initiatives, so the money is truly well spent.  For those who are interested in spending more time meeting the gorillas, a habituation experience is priced at $1,500 per person and allows visitors up to four hours with the troop. 

Permits must be booked well in advance, as demand is very high. Group size for the habituation experience is limited to only four tourists unlike the 8 tourists for the ordinary trek and most interestingly you become a participant in the habituation process.  Some researchers and doctors may be present too,  but do not fear – these gorillas are towards the end of the habituation process – you are only helping them along. Again, while this may sound expensive, this is equal to what you would spend for only a one-hour gorilla trekking experience in neighboring Rwanda (but more on that later).  we highly recommend booking a gorilla trek at least several months in advance or more to avoid any disappointment, especially during the peak seasons. Permits are highly sought after. 

Are you guaranteed to see the gorillas in Uganda?

The gorillas are completely wild and are free to roam as they choose so a  hundred percent guarantee cannot be given, however,  the likelihood of sighting gorillas is very high as they are tracked carefully on a daily basis by the park rangers. We are yet to witness a group that has not seen the mountain gorillas upon visiting.

Is mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda dangerous?

You can’t be faulted for your imagination running a little wild here, but no, gorilla trekking is not dangerous.  There are no recorded incidents of serious attack or harm caused by the gorillas out on a trek and despite having the strength to wrestle a tiger, these majestic creatures are remarkably docile and tender, and vegetarians to boot. It’s this kindness and intelligence that makes their presence so heartwarming and magical.  It’s important to know that the mountain gorillas that trekkers are permitted to visit have become habituated to the presence of humans. This habituation process is a slow one and gently familiarises the gorillas to the presence of humans over a duration of two years. Here the park rangers build deep and intimate knowledge and understanding with the troop, meaning you are in the safe hands of a highly trained and experienced team.

What is the best time to see mountain gorillas?

Uganda, like much of East Africa, is governed by four seasons: two wet and two dry. The dry seasons from December to February and then June to  September are generally considered the best months for gorilla trekking. Here you’re less likely to have rainy days, and the paths are drier and a  little easier to navigate. That said, there is no time of the year that is considered off limits; mountain gorillas live in rain forests and so conditions are never dry regardless of the season. The good news is that gorilla parks are open all year round and the mountain gorillas don’t migrate or hibernate,  so visitors can go gorilla trekking all year long.  Just be sure to bring some waterproof gear with you no matter what the season.

Mountain gorilla Conservation to date

Under mounting pressure from human activity conflict and poaching, mountain gorilla populations dwindled close to extinction in the late 1980s to less than 620 individuals. Today mountain gorilla populations are thankfully on the rise and stand at over one thousand.  Sustainable tourism has been decisive in reversing the trend. Stringent rules and very limited permits have minimized exposure to humans and kept their remaining habitat pristine. Many scouts who at one point may have been poachers are now their protectors and earn their livelihood by safeguarding the future of the species. 

And as of 2018, the IUCN even revised mountain gorilla vulnerability status from critically endangered to endangered in a massive victory for conservationism. In the interest of covering all sides of the story, it must be noted that one unfortunate drawback of the creation of the protected gorilla parks has been the displacement of some Batwa pygmy communities from their ancestral hunting lands.  This difficult decision was taken by UNESCO and the Ugandan Government in the early 1990s in order to provide the gorillas with refuge and the best chance of surviving the intensifying threat of extinction. 

At Masai Mara Holidays Ltd, our Uganda gorilla tracking safaris encourage visits to these communities to support the Batwa and learn about their history,  ancient culture, and fascinating way of life.

Where to stay?

A wide range of accommodation options can be found to suit all budgets, from basic lodging to high-end luxury lodges. So you are not stuck on a choice.  At Masai Mara Holidays Ltd, we mostly head to Bwindi  Impenetrable National Park instead of Mgahinga,  one key reason being that substantially more gorilla trekking permits are available at Bwindi. Our clients love to stay at varied accommodation options in Bwindi notably for their gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding rainforest and rolling hills.  Nothing beats unwinding and reflecting on your gorilla encounter with a refreshing drink as the sun slowly sets. It’s a really wonderful spot that will sow lifelong memories. For a series of accommodation options, we are happy to recommend carefully picked top-notch lodge options upon inquiry 

Gorilla Trekking Rwanda or Uganda?  

Both offer stunning adventures and access to fantastic gorilla trekking experiences.  However, some key differences do exist.  Most notably, gorilla trekking permits in  Rwanda are substantially more expensive at  USD 1,500 per person as opposed to  $700 in Uganda. In addition to price,  Uganda’s larger gorilla population makes securing permits easier, as more permits are issued per day.  

This makes Uganda a good option for spontaneous types or those with less runway before departing for their trip. Where Rwanda has an advantage for some is its easier accessibility and connectivity.  The Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda sits a few hours’ drive from the capital Kigali, so those who are looking for a brief stopover to go gorilla trekking may find this convenient. 

However, for those travelers with time and seeking a more complete, holistic itinerary, Uganda offers a richer, more varied range of sites, landscapes, and activities.  From outstanding safari and wildlife experiences,  immense lakes, and snow-capped mountains to world-renowned adventure activities, Uganda truly has everything for the complete African holiday.  

And with so much choice in Uganda, where do you start?  

Here are favorite things to see and do in Uganda, these activities are excellent add one to a gorilla safari to the jungles of Uganda; Canoe in a traditional dugout canoe on beautiful  Lake Bunyonyi and, for the daredevils out there,  challenge yourself to zipline. Go on a boat safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and keep your eyes peeled for hippos elephants, and any crocodiles lurking in the waters below. Go white water rafting and tubing in Jinja, Uganda’s adventure sports playground, and pinpoint the source of the River Nile.  

Hike the mesmerizing Sipi Falls and abseil down the rock face if you’re up for the challenge.  Bicycle through Lake Mburo National Park in search of wildlife and beautiful vistas. Hike the mighty. the mist-shrouded Rwenzori Mountains for otherworldly vistas and landscapes. Go on safari in Murchison Falls National Park and take a boat cruise to see the powerful falls.  Swim, kayak, and unwind on Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake and poetically known as ‘the home of gods’ in Uganda. Visit the Equator line for some great photo opportunities and a grand sense of perspective. Go chimpanzee trekking for the thrill of a lifetime. 

Most of these adventures and safaris are well put together in our crafted gorilla tour itineraries, please feel free to check them out and request a free quote.

 

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