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  • Evelyn Nakazi

Gorilla Trekking in Uganda — Everything You Need To Know

Overshadowed by giant safari destinations like Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia, Uganda is an unexplored wonderland of a holiday dream. This small East African country is home to Africa’s tallest mountain range (the Rwenzoris), the source of the Nile, the world’s longest river, and the continent’s largest lake. Rafting the Nile offers a world-class adrenaline adventure, if you view the Big Five, you’ll see that nature – diverse and resplendent – looms large here. But the country’s most iconic experience is tracking mountain gorillas in their misty habitat.

Uganda, along with DRC and Rwanda is the only destination where you’ll find the gentle mountain gorilla and nowhere else. What makes Uganda special is the whole unique gorilla trekking experience that the other two countries can’t offer you.

Before you embark on your journey to go see the endangered mountain gorilla, let’s take a look at what you need to know first.

Places to go gorilla trekking

Uganda protects more than half of the world’s 1000 mountain gorillas in the wild. The other, less than half, can be found in Rwanda and DR Congo. No one wants the fracuss of DRC’s insecurity, Rwanda is so damn expensive and offering not that much. Uganda, oh Uganda (**the national anthem starts**) offers more than just the jungle.

In Uganda mountain gorillas can be seen in two National parks: Mgahinga National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Between the two parks is a total of 18 habituated mountain gorilla groups that are available for trekking. Bwindi alone is a sanctuary to more than 400 mountain gorillas and has 17 habituated gorilla groups plus 4 gorilla trekking starting points that lead into the impenetrable jungle. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park promises you a marvelous experience of the jungle.

Misty Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

As far as names go, there’s hardly a more evocative African destination than the Impenetrable Forest of Bwindi. This swath of steep mountains covered in the thick, steamy jungle is just as magnificent as it sounds. The 331-sq-km World Heritage-listed Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of Africa’s most ancient habitats, even surviving the last Ice Age as most of the continent’s other forests disappeared. This is one of the best places in the world to see mountain gorillas up close. Having a look at these critically endangered creatures up close is an unforgettable experience – don’t miss it.

Lake Bunyonyi

Lake Bunyonyi, a scenic holiday destination near Bwindi

It’s not just the mountain gorillas that would take you hiking into Bwindi’s misty jungles, but the combination of its broad altitude span (1160m to 2607m) and its antiquity has produced an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, resulting in some 120 mammal species and over 350 bird species that would have you standing stunned in the middle of the forest.

Located 462 kilometers (287 miles), about 9 hours southwest of the Kapital Kampala, Bwindi has 4 trailheads (or sectors as known to many) where you would start your gorilla trekking adventure. In these sectors is where you find world-class camps and safari lodges to cater to your homely needs. Let’s take a sneak peek at them:

Buhoma Sector

Buhoma Sector—in the northern part of Bwindi, Buhoma is the most preferred trailhead because of its ease to access, 40 km (1 hours drive) from Kihihi airstrip and Kisoro town and it’s where the park’s headquarters are planted. Buhoma has the easiest to track gorilla groups including them Habinyanja, Katwe, Mubare, and Rushegura. Visitors can easily access other parks like Queen Elizabeth NP, Kibale, and Rwenzori National Parks from Buhoma. Basically, Buhoma is where the crowds go.

Ruhija Sector

Ruhija Sector—in the east between Buhoma and Kibale. Ruhija is most famous for its birdwatching and ecotourism trails and has only 3 gorilla groups (Bitukura, Oruzongo, and Kyaguriro), though one of the gorilla groups (Kyaguriro) is reserved for research with only 6 permits given out per day.

Nkuringo Sector

Nkuringo Sector—Situated in the Southern part of Bwindi, Nkuringo is the most strenuous and most adventurous of all the sectors. IYou’ll find three gorilla families: Christmas, Nkuringo, and Bushaho but Nkuringo group with 19 members are the most entertaining. The hike through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest from Buhoma to Nkuringo (14 km) is the most talked-about showcasing impressive views of the misty hillsides as you ascend the hills towards Nkuringo.

Rushaga region—in the south, Rushaga has more habituated gorillas than anywhere else. Gorilla groups in Rushaga include Kutu, Bikingi, Mishaya, Busingye, Kahungye, Rwigi, Bweza, Nshongi, and Mucunguzi. Rushaga is most close to the Rwanda border, so those avoiding the pricey Rwanda permit but want the easy drive from Kigali (nearest Int. Airport) via Cyanika border and maybe want to hike the Mgahinga volcanoes and enjoy the scenic lake Bunyonyi holiday, usually chose Rushaga Sector.

Silverback Mountain Gorilla

By all means, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the first choice for receiving your dose of gorilla trekking adventure in Uganda. You could also consider Mgahinga a lesser popular choice.

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is set in the far southwestern side of the country about 8-10 hours’ drive from Entebbe or Kampala. The Park covers the northern slopes of the three northernmost Virunga Volcanoes: Mt. Muhavura (4,127 m), Mt. Gahinga (3,474 m), and Mt. Sabinyo (3,645 m).

Gorillas at Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

The tiny 34-sq-km park is Uganda’s sliver of volcanic Virunga range, which extends in greater part to the dense tropical rainforests of Eastern DRC and northern Rwanda. Given Uganda’s small share of the park, its one habituated gorilla family regularly ducks across the mountains into Rwanda. This adds a certain unpredictability to gorilla tracking here and accounts for the park’s relative obscurity compared to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Mgahinga Gorilla is home to just one habituated group of mountain gorillas. Known as Nyakagezi, this group contains nine members, including two babies and a 50-year-old silverback called Bugingo. Whenever you choose to travel here, the experience of a gorilla trek is very memorable. The terrain can be quite difficult to negotiate, but the guides are well able to assist and the sight of a mountain gorilla in their natural habitat is well worth the effort! A trek lasts from one to eight hours.

But there’s much more on offer here than just gorillas. Mgahinga also serves up some challenging but rewarding treks plus golden monkeys, elephants, buffaloes, and many rare bird species.

Golden monkey trekking is another craze in Mgahinga. Both Golden Monkey & Gorilla Trekking activities involve seeing a lot of wildlife. In total, 76 species inhabit the forest vegetation, and hikers can look out for elephants, forest buffalo, giant forest hog, golden cat, side-striped jackal, black-fronted duiker, porcupines, and much more!

Golden Monkey in Mgahinga

The birding is impressive too. The Uganda Wildlife Authority reports approximately 180 species, including ibis, Pin-tailed whydah, speckled mousebird, paradise flycatcher, and firefinch. Most properties provide birding walks, so if this is something that interests you make sure you pack your binoculars!

Volcano at the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Many other activities are on offer in the national park, such as volcano climbing, caldera hiking, and experiences with the Batwa people including village visits, farm walks, and even song-and-dance performances.

Best time to go for gorilla trekking in Uganda

Go for it any time of the year if the weather pattern can’t hold you back. Besides, gorilla trekking is done in the tropical rainforest, it could rain anytime you’re in there.

Because of the equator running through the country, these parts of the continent have two significant seasons; the dry and wet seasons. And these seasons are what determine when most visitors throng the country to spend some moments with the gorillas. The wet season is avoided for its heavy rains and dry with less or no rains is mostly preferred.

Generally, the best time to visit Uganda for gorilla trekking is during the country’s two dry seasons: January and February and from June to September. Now everyone knows this and will most probably want to make use of this information because it’s everywhere online. Gorilla permits become scarce during these seasons, make sure you get yours way before your set date to avoid disappointment.

Gorilla Permits are very scarce during the high season

About 96 gorilla permits are issued out daily by UWA (the only authorized issuer) and only 8 people are allowed to visit each gorilla group. Gorilla trekking attracts huge numbers of tourists to Uganda that make the permit a very scarce commodity.

Rwanda hiked the permit to US$1,500 in 2018 to reap the advantage, Uganda will be increasing the permit from US$600 to $700 starting July 1, 2020, for what could sam the same reason.

You’ll not be able to walk into UWA and buy a permit in the high season, make sure you book your more than 6 months before your arrival.

What should you pack for your gorilla trekking adventure?

When you’re staying in and exploring the bush, my best advice is to choose comfort above all things. But, comfortable doesn’t have to mean frumpy. A jungle hiking style is easily achieved with comfortable layers that will keep you warm on early morning misty hikes and cool during hot afternoons hiking back from the excitement of the jungle. Here’s a simple packing list you could consider;

  • Waterproof, hiking shoes with grip

  • waterproof backpack,

  • Insect repellent,

  • A rain jacket or waterproof jacket

  • Good High Definition Camera (strictly no flash when near gorillas)

  • binoculars,

  • Long safari-style shirts or t-shirts

  • Long safari-style trousers

  • Extra high and thick socks

  • Gardening gloves

  • Hair bandana or hat

  • energy giving snacks and water

  • Trash bag (not trash in the park)

  • First aid kit

A group of gorilla trekkers hiking

Your Physical fitness matters

Mountain gorillas live way up in the cloud forests, ranging from an altitude of 2,200 meters to 4,300 meters. Significantly you may feel a little short of breath. Remember to let your guide know if you feel a headache coming on.

The vegetation on the lower slopes will be dense, often a mix of bamboo, ferns, and galium vines. As you hike, the undergrowth should thin out a bit. The zone where the gorillas live is misty, damp, and (depending on the time of year) can be a bit cold. Mountain gorillas move around depending on the season, spending time in the subalpine regions to feed on Senecio trees during certain times of the year.

It’s important to know what you’re getting into before setting out on a gorilla trek. The good news is, this isn’t Basecamp. The hike through the forest is challenging and tough-going (your guides will often have to machete a path through the ferns that clog the undergrowth), but it’s within reach for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. You will get muddy though. And sweaty. Beneath the forest canopy, the humidity is very high, and it’s a good idea to bring a canteen of fresh water to hydrate as you go.

If you are particularly concerned about the terrain, consider hiring a local porter. The porters will carry your bag, and help you navigate some of the steeper or trickier sections of the trek. In fact, hiring a porter on a gorilla trek is a common practice by travelers of all ages and abilities. Not only does it make the trek easier for you, but you’re also giving back to the communities around the park by employing them. Feels good to travel responsibly!. The minimum cost of hiring a porter on a gorilla trek in Bwindi is US$10. Of course, you can choose to provide a tip in addition to that.

Eventually, after bush-bashing your way through the scrub, you’ll come across a gorilla family, peacefully playing in a forest clearing. Your trekking guides and rangers will have prepared you for what to expect. There’s no direct interaction with the gorillas (unless one moves past you), but you should get pretty close. You’ll have a good 45 minutes to an hour to just sit and observe these animals in their natural habitat, during which you can rest and generate a bit more energy to hike back. We promise it’s something you’ll never ever forget if you do some muscle-building exercises weeks before you catch that flight.

Batwa Native Entertainment

Most Important Gorilla Trekking Rules

At the trailhead, an official or guide will brief the group about the general gorilla trekking rules and guidelines that should be held without fail. They are very simple rules that every adult can adhere to easily, so don’t be intimidated before your adventure. Let’s take a look at some of the most important ones:

  1. Only above 15 years of age are allowed in the Jungle to go see gorillas.

  2. If you’re diseased or sick (especially with influenza or cough), you’ll not be allowed anywhere near these gentle giants for they’re susceptible to human diseases.

  3. You will be guided into the forest by 2 armed guards and a tracker/guide that’ll continuously communicate on the walkie-talkie. Make sure you don’t wander away from your escorts, you may get lost in the jungle.

  4. Carry a garbage disposal bag for your trash, you’re strictly prohibited from throwing trash in the park.

  5. Whisper of keeping your voices very low while in the jungle or near the gorillas. You’re in foreign territory and you don’t want to excite them.

  6. You’ll be allowed only 60 minutes in the presence of the mountain gorillas. Keep 7 meters away from the creatures. Don’t touch them or look at the dominant silverback directly in the eye. Don’t eat, sneeze or show fear near them. Don’t isolate yourself from your group members and the guide.

  7. You may keep away from them but they may not keep away from you. One of them may come close to you, seek guidance from your leader (guide). If the gorilla charges or beats its chest, strictly do not run, humble yourself because it’s trying to show you who’s boss in those parts.

  8. Turn your camera flash off, it gets the gorillas agitated. Avoid the camera sounds, remember you need total silence while visiting in their territory.

These are generally simple rules to follow, right. Then book that permit and get your adventure planning started right away.

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