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Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Gorilla trekking in Uganda is maybe the ultimate bucket list tick. One of those once in a lifetime, pinch me travel moments. Nothing could be more special than going gorilla trekking to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. Due to their inability to survive in captivity there are no Mountain Gorillas in zoos anywhere in the world, so the only way to see this incredible species is to hike through the rainforests.
I travelled to Uganda on a G Adventures overlanding tour, which is an excellent way to see this part of the world. The tour I took was this one: Kenya & Uganda Gorilla Overland. I highly recommend!
Gorilla’s in Uganda
It is now estimated that there are just over 1000 Mountain Gorillas in the wild. A survey is conducted every 5 years. The last was in 2011, when there were 860 and they are in the middle of conducting a new one now. Half of these gorillas live in the Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, which is the trek this post is based on.
Full disclosure – I was very nervous about embarking on the Gorilla Trek. People spoken to had said how difficult it was and even the name ‘the Impenetrable Forest’ evokes thoughts of having to hack your way through. Being told to bring gardening gloves for the hike, you know it’s not going to be an easy one. This feeling of nervousness only intensified when our group was told the story of a couple who had to be stretchered out of the rainforest as it was too hard going.
However, I want to put your mind at rest. If I can do it, you can do it. I am not the fittest person by a long stretch, my exercise regime is minimal at best and I have an unhealthy addiction to chocolate. And I managed it. I didn’t even find it as hard as when I hiked up a sand dune in Mongolia (read the struggle here).
What to wear for gorilla trekking in Uganda
The gear needed for gorilla trekking in Uganda is specific a set of items but not expensive or anything unusual. Firstly proper hiking boots are essential, with a good grip on the bottom. The terrain is muddy and difficult, so without these you will be falling over even more!
With the boots wear long socks so you can tuck your trousers into them, which is definitely a good look, but stops ankles being bitten by midges.
On your top half wear a lightweight top but definitely make sure it has long sleeves, firstly to cover up and secondly to avoid all the scratches from the trees. It is a forest you are hacking through! On your hands wear gardening gloves (keep ones are fine). They come in useful, often for gripping trees as you slip down a hill!
You don’t need to bring walking poles, you are supplied with a wooden stick for the trek. These again are incredibly useful and you will find it hard to imagine walking without one.
Make sure you definitely bring a rain Mac as it can start raining at a moments notice. However, even with the rain it is still possible to go Gorilla trekking in the rain!
Finally bring a backpack for your camera, lunch and water. Ideally put your camera in a waterproof bag, just incase the heavens open!
How much does it cost to go Gorilla Trekking in Uganda?
In 2019 the cost of a permit to hike in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is $600, although this is due to rise to $700 in 2020. Discounts are available in the low (rainy) season months of April, May and November, which will be around $450. The fee includes your permit, park entry, guides, and walking stick. More importantly, 20% of the entry fee goes to support community projects in the area and the continuing survival of the species.
To buy your permit you can either do it directly through the Uganda Wildlife Authority, or if you book an organised tour group, your tour company will arrange it for you. For more information visit the Bwindi National Park site.
Additional costs you might want to consider are hiring a porter, for approximately $15. If you are fit and healthy and your bag isn’t extra heavy, this might not be something you need. However, it does support the local community.
Arriving at Bwindi
When you arrive at the forest the rangers will check your passport. After this you head into the rangers hut for a briefing about what to expect, give you your staff and to check all is ok. They will also ask if you are ill, as gorillas are so genetically similar to humans they can catch the same disease.
After this each group heads off with their ranger to start the trek. Some start straight from the hut, however other groups might have to get back into the jeeps to start the trek from another location. This is all dependant on where the gorilla family was when they were left the day before.
The Gorilla Trek
Up to 8 people can go gorilla trekking to visit each family of gorillas and there are 11 different families which you can spend time with. Each in different locations of the forest, depending on where they have wandered to.
There is no real way to guess the distance of the hike, as it depends on the location of the gorillas. I was told it can be up to a 4 hour hike each way.
The trackers start out earlier and pick up the trail from where they were left the day before. A little later you set off with your guide and armed guard who are constantly talking to the trackers to find the location.
We started off gambling through farms and fields and it was fairly straight forward, albeit a little muddy. Sometimes the path went nearly vertically upwards and it was tricky not to slip back down, but manageable.
We then headed into the forest itself, again on a path. As we entered we saw where the family we were tracking had nested the day before. Right by the entrance, which means it would have been an incredibly easy trek!
But no, it was not to be that easy. Soon we veered off the path and into the, wall like, jungle mass. Our guide, and the trackers earlier on, had cut (ish) a path through the undergrowth. At this point the path was heading steadily down the hill and therein lay the challenge. While I wasn’t exhausted, staying upright was a difficulty. We all fell over at least once, and I lost count of how many times I fell by about the 4th fall.
We were gorilla trekking for about an hour and a half to two hours before we found the family we were following.
The return trek
After the allotted hour with the gorillas it was time for the trek back. It suddenly dawned on me that the walk to the gorillas was downhill, which meant the return was going to be a less attractive uphill!
This is more challenging than the trek downhill. All the trackers had also left the gorillas and came back with the group, so they were leading the way. These guys spend all of their days hiking through this forest (in welly boots no less) and so set off at quite the pace.
We paused a couple of times before we made it back to the flat (ish) path. It was hard work climbing back out of the forest, but as I said, if I can do it you can do it. When you have one of those magical experiences the effort seems more than worth it.
The Gorilla family
After the trek through the jungle you finally (hopefully) arrive at the family of gorillas. You are allowed to spend one hour with the family once you find them, and they mean exactly one hour.
We stopped and heard a call from the tracker, which meant we were just out of sight of the family. Suddenly I looked up to see a young male swinging in the trees above us.
A little further in and we were greeted with a mother and her young. In the tree above them was the silver back himself.
We had visited the Busingye family, a family of 15 (at the time), who are apparently very friendly! The rangers briefed us on what to do if one of the gorillas, and in particular the silver back, approached. Stay still, look down and act submissive. The gorillas have been habitualised to humans but they are still wild animals. Luckily we didn’t have any problems.
Soon the silver back gambled down the tree, quite effortlessly for someone of his size and proceeded to continue his meal on the ground. One of the young gorillas was staying close to him, and as a reward had his fruit stolen. It was very clear who was in charge!
The highlight of being with the family was when a particularly friendly female walked right by the group with her 4 month old baby. We could even see the infant due to the mother being so relaxed. This would not have happened with many mothers, who are usually much more protective of their infant.
It is hard to describe how emotional and special it is to see these animals in real life. Gorilla trekking in Uganda will be an experience that will stay with you forever. The most incredible experience and such a privilege.