Article from the series: Attractions of Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern DR Congo
Where else to start our Attractions theme but in the dense rainforests and bamboo thickets that are home to gorillas?! The dream of tracking mountain gorillas is undoubtedly the #1 reason people decide to visit Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo. And those who know these matters a little bit deeper, may also add Grauer’s gorillas to their wish list; another fabulous primate our region boasts.
We have In-Sights: Gorilla Tracking available for our members — a combination of punchy videos, in-depth information and even quizzes — but for the world at large here is a little overview of gorilla tracking and related activities.
The gorilla tracking permit, the often frantically sought-after “ticket”, does not include anything outside of the park boundaries. It buys you one hour with gorillas and covers the cost of park entrance and guiding. See In-Sights for current pricing.
Only 8 visitors aged 15 years or above are allowed to track each gorilla group per day: they all set off early in the morning and usually return by midday. Depending on weather and where the great apes are, tracking can be easy or strenuous, wet or dry. Gorilla movements are followed daily by dedicated teams, so unsuccessful tracking is almost unheard of.
In Uganda, mountain gorilla tracking can be done in Bwindi or Mgahinga national parks.
In Rwanda, the gorilla tracking location is Volcanoes national park.
In DR Congo, mountain gorillas are available in Virunga national park while Grauer’s gorillas reside in Kahuzi-Biega national park.
Permits for Rwanda can be bought from Rwanda Development Board. For Uganda they can be purchased at Uganda Wildlife Authority in Kampala, in Kisoro and at Bwindi gorilla gates. Virunga National Park (official website) and Kahuzi-Biega National Park (official website) can be contacted online and they package gorilla tracking with a two-week DR Congo tourist visa.
Outside of pandemics, it is wise to do these arrangements months in advance. Between June and September obtaining a permit becomes especially challenging—tour companies will purchase them in advance, before they even get customers for their trips. If they fail to get tourists, they will later advertise permit availability.
Gorilla Park Specifics
If Uganda is your chosen gorilla tracking destination, note that the famous Bwindi Impenetrable Forest comes with four different park gates. The distance between these access points is such that a day of rough driving may be needed. In short, knowing that you will track your gorillas “in Bwindi” does not give a very full picture. The Buhoma gate, the park headquarters, is the oldest among them and hence best known and touristically developed. Gorillas here are often easily accessible. However, it would be wrong to ignore the other three gate options. If nothing else, they are closer to towns that offer a wider selection of more modestly priced accommodation.
In Uganda’s Mgahinga, only one gorilla group can be visited. It has a reputation of occasionally crossing into Rwanda but in reality that has not happened in many years. The vegetation in the park has grown to a degree that gorillas seem to feel very comfortable on the Ugandan side. The major advantage of doing your tracking in Mgahinga compared to Bwindi is that you are more likely to find gorillas in the open. If gorillas surprise everyone by moving to the neighbouring country, you will automatically get a replacement permit for Bwindi.
Rwanda’s Volcanoes NP is by far the most accessible location in the Gorilla Highlands region. A perfect tarmac road leads there directly from Kigali, and the closest gorilla group is normally less than a 30 minute hike from the park entrance.
Sister Activities: Gorilla Habituation Experiences and Golden Monkey Tracking
Two national parks, Bwindi and Kahuzi-Biega, offer more than gorilla tracking — you can also get a taste of the on-going process of gorilla habituation, getting new gorilla families comfortable around humans. Such gorilla habituation experiences promise longer exposure to gorillas and come with a higher price tag.
Mgahinga National Park and Volcanoes National Park add something a little bit different. You get a chance to visit another endangered species that shares the habitat with the gorilla: the golden monkey. This is also a one-hour encounter but with the monkeys being smaller and more timid, it will take a bit of luck to see them up close. Mgahinga’s “research group” visit is longer, pricier and gives you an insight into how researchers are monitoring golden monkeys.
photo by Marcus Westberg