Rwanda is one of just a handful of countries in the world where it is possible to see silverback mountain gorillas and their family groups in their natural environment. This makes gorilla trekking in Rwanda the top of any list of things to do in the country, alongside more traditional big game safaris and exploring the culture in towns and cities big and small. If you love the idea of gorilla trekking in Rwanda but are not sure whether it’s for you, take a look at this guide covering all the basics.
What Does Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda Involve?
Gorilla trekking isn’t like your average Rwanda safari, where you might take a game drive of two or three hours before settling beside a waterhole with a drink from a bar. Instead, you will be walking for several hours (at a comfortable pace) along mountain paths and through sometimes thick foliage.
You therefore need to have a basic level of fitness. You’ll also be walking at altitudes of around 2500 meters, which puts additional strain on the body’s ability to take in oxygen. In dry weather, it can take you and your ranger-led team multiple hours to reach a particular family group, although encounters are known to occur after just 30 minutes in rare circumstances. Animals tend to occupy lower altitudes during the rains.
Where to Go Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is based in Volcanoes National Park, which sits on the country’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It runs continuously with national parks in the DRC. Between them this area – the Virunga Mountains – is home to roughly half the entire population of mountain gorillas left on the planet. The remainder inhabit the southwest of Uganda.
There are close to 500 individual animals in total in the Virungas, split into ten family groups which have been habituated to the presence of humans. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda will have you enter the territory of one of these ten groups, with all the sights, sounds and smells of the wild that come with it.
The Gorilla Trekking Experience
The staff at Volcanoes National Park have become consummate professionals and are proud of their work protecting the park’s gentle giants. You’ll set off at a given time in the early morning or early afternoon with a ranger in groups of around eight people.
You’ll then have around an hour to watch the group from a short distance of around seven meters. This is deemed to be the point at which the mountain gorillas feel safe in the company of humans, and also stops these highly endangered creatures from the risk of human diseases including both coronavirus and the common cold.
When to Go Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
Although gorilla trekking in Rwanda is offered throughout the year, most people decide to visit during one of Rwanda’s two dry seasons. These last from December through to February and again from June until mid-September. Their start and end times vary slightly with each year, meaning the middle months of these periods provide the best chance of dry weather.
As we’ve already mentioned, planning a Rwanda gorilla trekking trip during the dry season will see you walking further distances, since the gorillas spend much of their time at higher altitudes. Because they are the most popular months of the year, tours can sell out months ahead of time – if you’ve got your heart set on gorilla trekking in Rwanda in the coming year, it’s best to book as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.
The alternative is to visit during Rwanda’s rainy seasons. They peak from April to May and again in November. You may not have to hike quite so far at these times of year, although trekking can be more difficult because of the wet conditions on the mountain paths.
Permits – Need to Know
To go gorilla trekking in Rwanda (and Uganda) you will require a permit. These vital pieces of paper are limited to keep visitors small in number, and can be particularly hard to obtain during popular times of year as a result. Only 96 permits can be issued in any one day.
Permits for gorilla trekking in Rwanda currently sit at $1500 per person per trek. Stay for a minimum of three days in either Akagera National Park or Nyungwe Forest National Park and you’ll be entitled to a 30% discount.
However, you shouldn’t complain at these fees. They allow the country’s wildlife authorities to secure the future of these animals by mounting a 24 hour guard over them. It also means your guide will know precisely where a group is located when you’re trekking. Obtaining a permit is usually one of the services provided by your tour operator.
What to Wear Gorilla Trekking
Walking on unsurfaced and sometimes slippery paths with obstacles such as tree roots, a good pair of walking shoes or boots should be high on your list of must haves when considering what to pack. Avoid wearing a new pair your feet aren’t used to, and try and to stay away from unnatural colors such as bright whites, which stand out as ‘foreign’ in a jungle environment.
For clothing, take long-sleeved pants and shirts rather than short-sleeved tops or short pants to stop unnecessary abrasions. Some people also like a have a pair of old gardening gloves to tackle rogue thorns and nettles. During both the dry and the wet seasons waterproof gear is also a good idea, but remember you’re in the tropics where such clothing can become very stuffy and uncomfortable.
Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park offers a portering service. They will carry any day pack you may want to take on the hike, leaving your hands free for the path and any photography you may want to take. Porters cost around $10, and help contribute money to local communities, reducing the temptation to poach wildlife.
The Wonder of Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
There’s no other wildlife experience on Earth quite like encountering mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. But short of it being a fly-in and fly-out experience lasting just a couple of days, it’s worth exploring Rwanda’s other natural wonders on an 18-day safari too.