Standing merely a few meters away from a wild mountain gorilla – gazing straight into her eyes – I was overcome by a feeling of ecstasy. Nothing compares to seeing wild animals in their natural habitat.
There are only 900 or so mountain gorillas left in the world, scattered around the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. So, if you want to see these animals in their natural glory, now is the time.
I went to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National park in Uganda and it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the planning also gave me a total headache. So, I’ve noted down a few things that you need to consider before you decide to go.
First things first, money
Safaris in Africa are generally not cheap, but gorilla trekking is truly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to expenses. Just the permit to enter Bwindi National Park is already is $600 USD (and trekking in Rwanda is even more expensive). This includes your guide for the day, but nothing else. So, you’ll have to arrange for accommodation, transport, and food yourselves.
The easiest thing to do would be to book an all-inclusive safari tour with a local operator. They will arrange your permits for you and the tour also includes lodging, transportation, and food. But I never do things the easy way (plus, I was trying to save some money). So, I decided to do all the planning myself.
To arrange your permits yourselves, you should contact the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. They only issue 32 permits per day, so I would advise getting this sorted as soon as you get to the country. I know some people who got their permits a day in advance or even dared to rock up to Bwindi without a permit in the hope of getting one there. This is possible, but only because it was May, which is the low season. To be on the safe side, get your permit in advance!
Where to stay
Bwindi National Park has four different sections. Your permit will be for one specific section which will determine from which side you will enter the park. You’ll want to arrange your accommodation depending on your section.
Buhoma is located in the north of Bwindi National Park and was the first section from which Gorilla trekking started taking place. It is the most popular and most accessible section. There are many lodges to choose from in the area, but most of these can get quite pricey.
Ruhija is located in the eastern part of the national park. It is easily accessible from Kabale, so you might consider spending the night there and taking transport in the morning before your trek starts. Apart from the gorilla hike, Ruhija is also famous for its many birds.
Rushaga, which is located in the south of Bwindi National Park, has the largest number of gorillas. The area is more mountainous, so your trek will be an uphill climb (literally). Nshongi Camp (where I ended up staying) is a budget lodge located a mere 5-minute walk from the Rushaga trek meeting point.
I hiked Nkuringo, which is said to have the most interesting group of gorillas. However, the hike is also the most strenuous, as it is the most mountainous area in Bwindi. The scenery was absolutely amazing though. I would definitely recommend going there if you don’t mind a workout. Accommodation in Nkuringo was also quite expensive, so an option would be to stay in Kisoro.
I did the Nkuringo trek but actually stayed in a lodge close to Rushaga, thinking that it would be somewhat close. It was not! The National Park is a lot bigger than I had imagined. Plus, the roads in the area are not great, so it actually took me an hour in the morning to get from Rushaga to Nkuringo.
If you’re hiking either Rushaga or Nkuringo and you don’t want to spend a fortune on lodges in the surrounding areas, you might want to spend the night in Kisoro. The accommodation is a lot cheaper and from there it takes one and a half hours to get to Nkuringo and 2 hours to Rushaga. Just make sure you sort out your transportation a day in advance. The drive shouldn’t cost you more than 400,000 USh. The drivers usually wait for you while you’re on you’re hiking and they’ll take you to wherever your next destination is afterward.
What to bring
- Enough water (the recommended amount is at least 2 Liters per person)
- Packed lunch
- Rain jacket (never know what the weather is going to do in the rainforest)
- Proper hiking boots – The surface is obviously going to be muddy and uneven. You’ll be walking through a lot of puddles (and, at some point, we even walked through a river). So, make sure you have sturdy shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty.
- Potentially: gardening gloves – was fine without, but a lot of the trees and bushes have thorns so grabbing onto them I did cut my hand here and there. To avoid this, you might want to think of bringing gloves.
The trek begins around 8 am. An expedition group will leave before your group to track the gorillas. Once they have found the gorilla family, they will contact your tour guide who will lead you there. The duration of your trek will completely depend on how far away the gorillas are. We walked for about 2 hours before we reached them, but I talked to some other people who found them in a mere 30 minutes. Once you’ve reached the gorillas, you’re allowed to spend one hour with them.
I am not going to deny that this was the most expensive hour of my life, but it was also an unforgettable experience. Even just the walk through the rainforest was breathtaking. The scenery is just so different from anything I had ever seen in my life (I got serious Tarzan vibes walking through the jungle).
Then, when I heard the first rummaging of gorillas in the distance, my heart started beating faster from sheer excitement. Once I saw the first wild gorilla swinging from a tree, I realized why people were willing to spend $600 on this.
Honestly, once you’ve seen these animals in their natural habitat, I believe you won’t want to ever visit a zoo again. It’s just not the same (also, I simply don’t think animals should be kept in cages for the entertainment of humans, but that is a whole other discussion).
The whole experience was both physically and mentally tiring, but without a shred of doubt, I would urge anyone who is able to do so, to go trekking in the Ugandan rainforest to go see wild mountain gorillas.