Renowned the world over for being home to the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas and the opportunity to go gorilla trekking to observe these critically endangered great apes in their natural habitat, there is actually much more to both Rwanda and Uganda than these impressive creatures…
Besides the great apes and primates, there are incredible cultural experiences, beautiful birds, big herds of plains game and tree climbing lions in these two fascinating African countries!
There’s no denying that the chance to encounter a wild mountain gorilla is top of many a travel bucket list. The world’s largest living primates are our third closest relatives, after chimpanzees and bonobos. They are found exclusively in two distinct areas – the Virunga Mountains which straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most popularly accessed via Rwanda, and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Let’s look at both options…
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga National Park – Bwindi is located in the south-west of Uganda and is a mixture of rolling hills, steep-sided valleys and ancient rainforests. From the air it looks a little bit like an African version of Switzerland in summer! It’s home to almost half of the world’s remaining mountain gorilla population and is twice the size of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. With more habituated gorilla families there are more permits available for trekking. Tiny in comparison, Mgahinga National Park shares a border with Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and the DRC’s Virunga National Park, Bwindi is home to a single habituated gorilla family so permits are extremely limited. Permits for both Mgahinga and Bwindi can be booked up to two years in advance.
Volcanoes National Park (the Virunga Mountains) – Located in the north-west of Rwanda, these dormant volcanoes are home to misty mountain forests that provide the perfect habitat for the mountain gorilla. Put on the world map by legendary primatologist Dian Fossey, who lived, worked and died here, this park is home to several gorilla troops that have been habituated to human presence for research and tourism purposes. Only eight permits per gorilla group are issued on a daily basis, so the number of permits is limited, meaning that it’s essential to book a gorilla trekking experience as far in advance as possible.
In both Rwanda and Uganda a maximum group of eight people is allowed to visit each gorilla family for a period of one hour a day. Children younger than 15 are not allowed to trek and anyone suffering from a cold or other infectious illness (even if on anti-biotics) is not permitted to trek to protect the gorillas from possible infection.
Must-see in Uganda
Queen Elizabeth National Park – Offering some of Uganda’s best game viewing, this dramatic and diverse reserve is fringed by towering mountain peaks and features several extinct volcanic craters. It’s home to large herds of elephant and buffalo and Africa’s big cats, as well as more than 600 bird species and some of the highest concentrations of hippo in Africa.
In the southern Ishasha region of the park the lions have become famous across the world for their tree-climbing abilities, creating some of the most extraordinary photographic opportunities on the continent – lions, in numbers, in the high branches of trees.
Queen Elizabeth National Park also offers boat-based safari activities along the Kazinga Channel and into Lake Edward, as well as chimpanzee tracking experiences in the forests of Kyambura.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest & Mgahinga – Besides gorillas, Bwindi is a renowned birding destination with 350 different avian species including 23 that are endemic to the Albertine Rift region. Mgahinga is also home to a population of golden monkeys, and offers amazing cultural experiences with the local Batwa pygmy people.
Kibale National Park – Home to the highest concentration of primates in Africa, Kibale’s most famous residents are its chimpanzees. Visitors can track habituated troops with experienced guides, with the possibility of seeing colobus, L’Hoests’ and mangabey monkeys en-route. The Bigodi Wetlands is also worth a visit with its raised wooden walkways offering a unique view of this waterlogged wilderness.
Murchison Falls National Park – Where the River Nile is forced through a 7m wide gap in the bedrock, creating a spectacular cascading waterfall in the process. Here you can indulge in Nile cruises, game drives through vast savannahs and exploring the wetlands looking for one of the region’s most famous residents – the shoebill stork.
Jinja – Close to the source of the Nile, this is Uganda’s equivalent to Victoria Falls in terms of its adventure offerings. Here you can do white-water rafting on the Nile, kayak, mountain bike and bungee jump, trek through the beautiful Mabira Forest or just explore this historic town.
Lake Victoria – Dotted by islands with picture-perfect beaches, this is Africa’s largest lake and home to Uganda’s leading resorts, especially around the capital city of Entebbe. Kayak, go on boat cruises, relax at beach bars, or visit Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary.The Rwenzori Mountains: Otherwise known as the Mountains of the Moon this dramatic range creates an impenetrable wall of craggy, snow-capped peaks on Uganda’s western border. Renowned for its hiking trails taking in foothills, sparkling streams and Afromontane forests, keen hikers can also attempt to climb Africa’s third highest peak – Mount Stanley’s Margherita Peak.
Must-see in Rwanda
Kigali – The country’s capital city is more than worth exploring with wonderful cultural tours on offer that take you to the bustling street markets, vibey urban centres and the must-see Rwanda Genocide Memorial. It’s renowned as the safest and cleanest African capital and is a pleasure to spend time in.
Lake Kivu – The Rwandan “riviera”, Lake Kivu is crystal-clear and free of both hippo and crocodiles, making it safe to swin in and enjoy a range of watersports on. Fringed by rolling hills and some great resort-style beach hotels, here you can go kayaking, on boat cruises, cycling tours and hiking, visiting the various islands in the lake or just relaxing on the beach or at one of the vibrant beach-style bars and restaurants. Lake Kivu is also the perfect base for tours of the surrounding coffee plantations and coffee tasting.
Nyungwe Rainforest – Thought to be one of Africa’s oldest forests, this breathtaking rainforest is home to habituated chimpanzees and 12 other primate species, as well as a plethora of bird species, 16 of which are endemic to the forest itself. Enjoy hiking trails and a fabulous canopy walk 60m above the forest floor that’s part of the Igishigishigi Trail.
Akagera National Park – Located in the north-east of Rwanda and named after the Akagera River which flows through it into a series of lakes, this game reserve offers diverse landscapes and excellent game viewing. It’s home to lion, leopard and eastern black rhino as well as more than 500 species of birds.
Volcanoes National Park – Besides gorillas, this park is also renowned for its endangered golden monkey population. Visitors can also explore the ancient Musanze Caves, reputed to be 62-million years old, or hike to Dian Fossey’s tomb as well as visit the Karisoke Research Station that she founded.
What To Expect On Gorilla Trekking Day
There are nice walking sticks to choose from and you’llhave the option to hire a porter to carry your backpack.This is recommended so that you can be hands free as well as provide employment.
The trek into the forest is beautiful but can be slippery and steep depending on the season and where the gorilla family happens to be that day. A tracker that has gone ahead finds the gorilla family and radios the location and best route to the trek guide.When you meet up with the trackers, you leave your porters and backpacks with water, foods etc behind and approach the gorillas quietly and wearing masks with just the trackers.You stay with the gorillas for one hour. After an unbelievable time in the presence of these amazing animals, you say goodbye to the trackers and reunite with the porters and depending on where you are, sit down to a packed lunch before walking back down to the park headquarters, thanking your guide, porter, or return to your lodge in time for lunch.
Time Spent Trekking – This could be 1 hour or it could be 6 hours, depending on the location of your designated family.The time spent with the gorillas is always 1 hour from the time that you encounter the family. It will be the quickest hour of your life!
Your 1 hour with the gorillas – Don’t spend all your precious time trying to get the best photograph. Remember to just sit and observe and enjoy the moment. Unless you’re a pro photographer, 80% or your photos will be repetitive and mediocre in comparison to the emotions you’ll experience just BEING with the gorillas.
Consider doing 2 treks – Some travelers sign up for two treks. This is recommended if your budget allows. No twoe treks arer the same and every gorilla family envounter is different. it’s a good idea to spend your first trek just observing and your second trek behind the lens of your camera, especially if taking amazing photos of the gorillas is on your bucket list.
Close encounters with the gorillas – The rule of thumb is between 5 – 7 metres form the gorillas. But its quite common for the curious, playful youngsters to come closer to you – even within 1 or 2m of you! You’ll be so lucky and completely safe if a Silverback walks, nonchalantly right past you!
Cost of permits – The cost of a permit in Uganda is $700 in Uganda and $1500 in Rwanda. 10% of the gorilla permits cost goes back to the communities and rangers.
The Gorilla Habituation Experience
The Habituation Experience entails spending all day on a trek in the forest which includes 4 hours with a gorilla family. It is only available in Uganda (Rushaga). This incredible experience must be well booked in advance since there are only a total of 8 visitors allowed, 4 per group, unlike a normal gorilla tracking where you have 8 participants in one group. This is an intimate, one of a kind, experience where you are with researchers, trackers, rangers, conservationist, all part of getting a gorilla family used to human presence, a process which takes ± 2-3 years. The cost of a Gorilla Habituation permit is $1,500