There are just a handful of destinations in Africa where it’s possible to come face to face with a gorilla in the wild. And even fewer – just three countries in fact – where guided treks lead to the lofty habitat of highly endangered mountain gorillas.
Even so, for a variety of reasons some destinations are better than others. The best places to see gorillas have excellent infrastructure, offer expert ranger-led treks, and are kinder on the pocket too. This short guide to the best places to see gorillas is therefore a must read for anyone considering undertaking this magical experience.
Where To Find Africa’s Mountain Gorillas
Firstly, it’s important to highlight exactly where the natural habitats of Africa’s mountain gorillas can be found. The animals inhabit the mountainous forests of central and east Africa. Today, their total population of around 1,000 individual animals is split between just two separate populations in three countries.
Roughly half the world’s population (around 500 animals) resides in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park alone, located in the country’s far southwest. The remaining 50% of all Earth’s wild mountain gorillas call the Virunga mountains their home.
These mountains straddle the border between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This makes these three countries the only ones with indigenous mountain gorilla populations. They are divided between Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and Virunga National Park in the DRC.
The Best Place to See Gorillas in Africa
Given these facts, which of the four potential national parks is the best place to see gorillas?
Because it contains most of the world’s mountain gorilla population (more than both Rwanda and the DRC), it’s not hard to place Uganda gorilla trekking trips in pole position. A trip to either Mgahinga National Park or Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is also easily combined with traditional vehicle-led Uganda safaris, allowing for rare interactions with a whole host of species.
Having the largest number of mountain gorillas means more families which have been habituated to the presence of humans than anywhere else. You see, you can’t just rock up to a wild gorilla – it sometimes takes years for a group to get used to the presence of humans nearby. Uganda has about twelve family groups for visitors to meet, with another two reserved solely for scientific research.
Meanwhile, Rwanda gorilla trekking trips are limited to fewer habituated groups. Since all trekkers require a trekking permit, and permits have daily limits on their number, this means there are fewer permits available on any given day. They can be booked up months in advance at the most popular times of year.
What’s more, a must-have gorilla trekking permit for Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park will cost over twice that of Uganda’s Mgahinga or Bwindi Impenetrable Forest at $1500 versus $700. And while the DRC offers the cheapest permits at $400, on-off instability and a limited number of tours rules out the DRC for most people keen on the best places to see gorillas.
Is Mgahinga Or Bwindi Impenetrable Forest The Best Place To See Gorillas?
As we’ve already seen, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park protects half the entire mountain gorilla population. Most travelers therefore opt to go gorilla trekking in Bwindi. Mgahinga offers a slightly more exclusive feel as a result.
However, while 34 square kilometer Mgahinga is largely about its gorillas, there are plenty of other attractions in Bwindi. Almost exactly ten times larger than Mgahinga, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is recognized as one of Africa’s most diverse rainforest environments.
Spanning an altitude of 1,500 meters (from 1,160m to 2,607m above sea level) it protects over 300 species of tree, 400 types of butterfly or moth, and more than 50 reptiles. Its long list of 120 mammal species not only includes mountain gorillas, but nine other primate species too, including chimpanzees and largely unknown L’Hoest monkeys.
Should you need a further reason to head to Bwindi, here it is. Bwindi runs a gorilla habituation program which not only helps science and protects the gorillas from harm, but also gives visitors up to four hours in the presence of these astonishing animals rather than the one hour allowed as part of the trekking permit system.
When To Go Gorilla Trekking
The best places to see gorillas sorted, it’s also important to know the best time to go gorilla trekking. The ideal trekking months are roughly similar across Uganda, Rwanda, and the eastern DRC. Dry seasons stretch between June and August, and December and February. However, you should still be prepared for wet weather because of the rainforest nature of such treks.
The main advantage to trekking within the dry seasons is that the mountain tracks you’ll be following will be less muddy. The views from clearings will also be much more impressive. The downside is that the dry season months are more popular. You’ll need to book as early as possible to secure your trekking permit, with bookings a whole year in advance not unheard of.
The remaining months of the year – April, May, September, October, and November – belong to the region’s wet season climate. Rain is both regular and heavy, turning jungle tracks into muddy pools. The advantage is that you probably won’t need to book so far in advance.
Further, group sizes tend to be smaller, without any extra cost, resulting in a more intimate experience with your gorilla family. Finally, sometimes gorilla families prefer lower altitudes during the wet season, meaning treks can end up lasting no more than one hour, when six hour treks should be expected.
The Wonder of Gorilla Trekking
To stand within a few meters of a wild mountain gorilla in its natural habitat manages to put the thrill of a standard game drive, where you’ve seen everything from rhino to a lion hunt, in the shade. Part of what makes gorilla trekking so special is the rarity of these animals, meaning choosing the best places to see gorillas is even more vital!