Planning a Gorilla Trekking Safari
Just like any other journey, a gorilla trekking safari requires good and prior planning. Sometimes, a sucessful safari requires planning well in advance atleast a year before the travel dates you intend to take a holiday. Are you looking to taking a gorilla trek? Here are the things you should know so that you can easily plan a great safari to the gorillas in Africa.
When to go gorilla trekking
Gorilla trekking safaris can be done throughout the year. The hiking itself can be more arduous in the rainy seasons from April – May and in November, but at an altitude of 2000m and more, it can of course rain here at any time of the year. For more detail, see Rwanda’s climate.
The most popular times for gorilla tracking are during the drier months, between December and February, and from about June to mid-September.
Permits for gorilla trekking
Inevitably, securing permits for trekking gorillas over these popular periods can be difficult at short notice, so you should plan well ahead. We will make all the arrangements for buying your permits. A maximum of 80 gorilla tracking permits are available each day. Permits cost US$750 per person per visit, which may seem a lot but don’t begrudge it; this money provides Rwanda with a compelling economic reason to conserve the park and, amongst other things, pays for a 24-hour guard for each gorilla group. (Armed teams constantly track each habituated group – like royal bodyguards in the UK!).
There is some talk of reducing the cost of gorilla permits in the future during the low, rainy season so contact us for further information on this if you’re thinking of taking a gorilla trekking safari in April, May and November.
How fit do I need to be to track gorillas?
You don’t have to be super-fit for a gorilla tracking safari but it does help if you have a general level of fitness, if only to enhance your overall enjoyment of the experience. Walking will be at a slow pace with time for breaks if needed. Depending on which group you track, and the time of year you go (gorillas tend to move down the mountains in the rains), you might find yourself walking on some pretty steep slopes for several hours. On the other hand, you could reach your group after a 30-minute stroll. It’s best to prepare for the most active option however, and if nothing else, a few hill walks before you leave would be beneficial.
The gorilla trekking experience in Volcanoes National Park
Whilst a gorilla safari in Rwanda is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you, the staff at Volcanoes National Park have been doing this for several years and run a very smooth operation, hence treks to the mountain gorillas are well-organized and clearly structured.
What it’s like on a gorilla trekking safari
On the day of your gorilla trekking, you’ll set off very early in the morning to track to the apes from the edge of the forest. Your driver/guide will take you from your lodge (see places to stay in Volcanoes National Park) to the park headquarters in Kinigi village. The guides here speak excellent English and are very good. They will be taking you to a specific group of ‘habituated’ mountain gorillas, which they know well and are used to human visitors.
You’ll be divided into parties of 8 and after a briefing on safety and gorilla trekking etiquette, you’ll be driven to the start of the trail to reach your mountain gorilla group. Your guide will then lead you along generally clear paths up into the forest, in radio communication with the trackers that stay with the group so that they can be located. The altitude is over 2,500m, so although the pace is unhurried, the hike is tiring and can be steep in parts, taking from 30 minutes to a few hours. Don’t be surprised if you feel a bit breathless at this altitude – this is perfectly normal.
Most trekkers are a little apprehensive – a large silverback male gorilla can weigh up to 200kg, or three times the weight of the average man, but the apprehension usually vanishes when you see the group. Often the gorillas will be spread around a small area of dense vegetation. They’ll continue with their feeding and interactions, nonchalant about their visitors, though watching you with interest. Occasionally one, often a playful youngster, will approach you with curiosity – sometimes coming so close that you’ll have to move away.
Gorilla tracking etiquette
Mountain gorillas share 98% of our DNA and as such are very susceptible to catching human infections, particularly respiratory ones, but they don’t have our immune system to deal with them – a common cold could eventually prove life-threatening. Various rules for gorilla trekking are therefore in place to help protect these precious primates.
Only one group of tourists can visit the mountain gorillas each day and once you’ve found them, you’ll have just one precious hour in their company. If you have a cold, flu or other contagious infection, you shouldn’t go gorilla trekking.
You should keep a distance of 7m from the gorillas, although of course the gorillas themselves are unaware of this and will often get very close, in which case you should try to move away.
When you’re with your group, you should try not to make sudden movements and to keep your voices low so that the group remains relaxed. Although these mountain gorillas are now used to seeing people, do bear in mind that they are still wild animals and can sometimes react unexpectedly, so always heed your guide’s and trackers’ instructions.
You won’t be allowed to eat or drink when you’re with the gorillas.
What kit should you take for a gorilla trekking safari?
Paths on gorilla treks can be slippery, muddy and steep so sturdy walking boots are essential. Some people take thick gardening gloves because of the brambles and nettles en route and you should wear long trousers rather than shorts. A waterproof jacket may come in handy and take some water and a snack in case it’s a long trek. You might also find a walking stick or pole helpful.
For a small fee, porters are available at the trailheads to carry your backpacks and offer a hand during tricky parts of the hike. Even if you don’t really need them, hiring a porter is a helpful way to contribute directly to the local economy and chatting to them en route can enhance your experience both of local life and of your gorilla trek.
Photography on a gorilla trekking safari
If you’re a keen photographer, taking your own pictures of mountain gorillas is one of the most magical photo sessions you’ll ever experience. Do bear in mind that the light can be poor in the rainforest and that use of flash is not permitted. You might also need to protect your camera against heavy rain.