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Panda’s Guide to Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

January 3, 2022 No Comments

 The bushes in front of me rustle softly and I look ahead curiously. The ranger parts the branches with his machete and peeks through. I feel a hand on my shoulder and it’s another ranger who whispers into my ear, “Do you see him?”. Yes. YES I CAN SEE A GORILLA, sitting right ahead of me. I think of taking a photo, but I don’t. I’m both paralysed and mesmerised. How is this real life? I watch him sitting there, chewing on leaves like a baby with a chew toy. For some reason I feel the need to whisper, as if he’s going to turn around and shush me if he hears my voice. I stand there staring at him; he meets my gaze and doesn’t even flinch. I gasp quietly. WOW.

Home to more than half of the total mountain gorilla population, Bwindi Forest is one of the best places for mountain gorilla trekking.

Situated in southwestern Uganda, Bwindi national park can be accessed via Kampala or Entebbe by road, which is an 8 – 10 hours drive in the direction of Southern Uganda.

Planning the trek and booking the gorilla trekking permit

There are 4 main regions where you can do the gorilla trek in Uganda.

  • Buhoma (northwest) – three habituated troops, 24 permits per day.
  • Nkuringo (southwest) – one troop, 8 permits per day.
  • Rushaga (south) – five troops, 40 permits per day.
  • Ruhija (east) – four troops, 32 permits per day.

None of this really matters to the average person as the chances are your tour operator or accommodation will book the permits on your behalf. The area you trek in will depend on where your accommodation is (you’ll trek as close as possible to where you will stay) and where there are available permits for your chosen date.

Please note that only children 15 and older can do the gorilla trek in Uganda.

There is also an expectation that you have taken a PCR test within the last 72 hours before the trek and that you tested negative. This wasn’t explicitly asked for but the rangers did know that we had just arrived the day before and therefore had tested at the airport.

Also, the rangers mentioned various times about how we are all vaccinated against Covid but the gorillas are not. Vaccination against covid is considered a norm to do this activity. 

Please do not put the gorillas at risk of covid if you refuse to take a covid vaccination.  

The cost of the gorilla trekking permits and how to pay

Unless you are a citizen or resident of Uganda or another East African country, the gorilla trekking permit costs 700USD per person. There is no room to negotiate that, so please be prepared for it. You can also not show up on the day and try to hustle your way onto a trek; the rangers need advance notice of how many people are coming so they know how many guides and porters they need.

In order to pay for the permits, the cost will either be:

  • Absorbed into the cost of your tour and the tour operator will pay for them upfront (or out of your deposit)
  • You’ll be asked to pay for them online on the Uganda Wildlife Authority Website with a unique code. 

Permits are strictly limited particularly with covid restrictions, so I suggest arranging your trip at least 3 months in advance.

To read more about why the permits cost what they do and where the money goes, I suggest this informative post. All of this was explained to us on the day of the trek.

What to pack for gorilla trekking

Many online websites advise neutral coloured clothes, gardening gloves and a whole host of other unnecessary items.I am also one of those people who plan to buy certain items once I get to my destination (I hate packing heavy).  But please note: UGANDA IS NOT THE PLACE TO DO THAT.  Once you leave the big cities, there is very little in terms of shopping and resources. So I would strongly recommend bringing everything you need and getting cash- Ugandan Shillings- at the airport and keeping them with you. 

Here are the items I actually found useful:

  • Quick dry clothing that covers every inch of skin- can be any colour. You don’t need to blend in, the gorillas are quite used to humans. Do not wear crop tops or sleeveless clothing, because branches and bugs will ravage you.
  • Long socks- that you can tuck your pants into.
  • Hiking boots- this is a non negotiable as the terrain is very muddy, rocky, slippery and chaotic. You need ankle support and grip. Do not go in regular sneakers/crocs/sandals etc. 
  • Sunscreen- You’re covered by the forest for most of the hike so it’s not unpleasant but you still need protection. Your hands, face and neck will most likely be the only parts of skin exposed.
  • Insect repellent- Doesn’t have to be anything specific but just something you can spray over your clothes.
  • Waterproof jacket- it tends to pour down in the forest for short bursts of time.
  • Waterproof covering for backpack- in case of rain, to protect my camera. 
  • Fully charged camera and phone for capturing your memories! 
  • Reusable water bottle to be filled at your accommodation prior to the trek. 
  • Cash (to tip your guides, as well as hire porters for $15 USD if desired)

My Experience gorilla trekking

The day began with a drive to the tracking headquarters- in our case it was the Ruhija center. It was a short drive (around 30-40 minutes). The community dancers welcomed us with an incredibly lively dance showcasing their culture and clothes.

We tipped the group around 5 dollars each (there were 5 of us).

Afterwards we were briefed warmly and efficiently by a couple of gun toting rangers. The basics: prepare for lots of walking, don’t get too close, wear your mask around the gorillas (but can remove them when you’re away from the gorillas) and take lots of water. We were told the name of the family we would visit- the Oruzogo gorilla family and we were shown photos of the family tree. So we knew who we would meet! That’s it for the motivational speech and within moments we’re back in the van and off into the depths of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

By the way, the rangers carry guns not to shoot you or the gorillas as I had mistakenly assumed. They carry guns in case elephants are around and they shoot into the air to make sure they change their course so no one is trampled. I felt at ease knowing I was not going to be shot or see a gorilla being shot.

I would highly recommend hiring porters if you have a heavy bag, if you aren’t in great shape, or even if you are in good shape but a little older (as this hike can be very exhausting on the way up, and hard on knees/hips/etc on the way down). These guys are strong and will literally help push/pull you up and down the mountain.  It’s only $15 (and you pay someone’s wages for the day). Most of us in the group were happy to carry our own bags (I carried mine the whole way) but I felt it was better to have them there as an option and not need them than to have difficulties and later regret not getting one! They also helped a lot on the slippery terrain and when one of our party got stuck in some mud, they pulled her out. 

Once we descended into the forest I repeatedly thanked all the higher powers that I had a walking stick (provided at the start of the trek) and that I was wearing my proper trekking boots. It is no regular bushwalk like we have in South Africa; it is a proper forest with no signs, no paths, lots of thorns, rocks, bugs and slippery stuff. The wrong footwear would certainly lead to a twisted ankle while gorilla trekking. 

Our group traversed through thick brush, as the ranger hacked away with his machete to clear a “path”.  It’s at this point that I realized how important the long pants, long sleeves and hiking boots were.  They saved me; if you didn’t have the right clothing, it would probably be pure torture.  Some of the plants in the park are VERY prickly and sharp.  There are also tiny flies EVERYWHERE and I got bitten by fire ants despite having no skin exposed!  

But after a while I wasn’t concerned about the prickly plants or flies and was totally enraptured in the adventure of seeing gorillas in the wild!! We left our porters a short distance away and just our group with 2 rangers proceeded closer to the gorillas. 

I tried to describe the moment of seeing the first gorilla at the beginning of this post but honestly not sure if any words can do it justice. It was a moment when my breath caught in my throat and the reality of where I was and what I was seeing just overcame me.

Not to get anyone in trouble, but we were definitely closer than 7 meters away too.  We were SO CLOSE. I took photos of them without even zooming in on my iPhone! 

Seeing the baby- named Sapato- was the sweetest thing ever. He was so playful and mischievous, climbing the trees and bothering his parents.

The gorillas moved, ate and relaxed but they didn’t ever go far, they just moved a few meters away to get a new branch to munch.  So throughout the hour we just sort of moved in a large circle with them.

What was so surprising was that the gorillas acted completely natural. They continued playing and didn’t show any reaction or concern towards us. They must be used to the fact that we only stay for around one hour so as not to disturb them too much.

We spent an hour with them but it passed in a blur! 

We took a leisurely 1.5 hours to ascend back to the road. Not going to lie, it was a challenge due to the steepness of the terrain (and I work out frequently) so just keep that in mind.

At the end we were awarded certificates by our ranger and then we hopped back in the van and devoured our packed lunches! What a day!

How fit do I need to be for gorilla trekking?

The Bwindi Forest is like a massive crater, so the hike back is uphill and infinitely harder than reaching the gorillas. It won’t hit you at first – you will be buzzing from the magical experience of seeing the gorillas but after the first 20 minutes, the physical exertion will kick in.

Realistically, you should be comfortable walking for an hour uphill on a steep incline. If you’re not an experienced hiker, start practicing on the treadmill or climb stairs. It is not extremely challenging but there is a basic level of fitness required.

On the plus side, you can rest as much as you need to and the rangers follow your pace. In the worst case scenario, you can hire a porter who will literally pull you up if necessary.

How much time should I allocate to this activity?

While it’s impossible to predict where the gorillas will be, I think the average time for the trek is around 3 hours. This excludes time driving to the headquarters, the briefing and opening ceremony which will add another 2 hours. 

You should not book any other activities on this day and just allocate the entire day to the trek. Do not plan any long drives afterwards either. Just rest and relax. 

Where should I stay?

We stayed at an incredible place called Ihamba Residence.

I could wax lyrical about this property for eons but what I will say is this:

  • Personalised service in a pristine setting overlooking the forest and neighbouring tea plantation
  • The funds you spend here are pumped back into helping the local community by empowering women and girls.
  • For every guest that stays at the property, you plant a tree to help preserve and grow the forest.

You can find out more on their website and contact them directly (they are a full board establishment and take into consideration your dietary needs)

Is it worth it

I am not a particularly outdoorsy person (camping is not my idea of a good time), but something about this experience touched me. I am already thinking that in the next few years I might do the gorilla trek in Rwanda to have a different experience. This is undoubtedly one of the BEST things I have ever done in all my travels to over 50 countries and if you can do it, please put it on your list!  

My last tips:

  • Make sure someone in your friend circle has a good camera with a Zoom lens. I was that person for my group and I loved the photos I was able to capture.
  • Wear light layers for the trekking; it alternates between warm and cold depending on the weather and the forest.
  • Pack excellent walking boots, and wear them in beforehand
  • Take a moment to put the camera down and enjoy the spectacular feeling of being with the gorillas

Lastly, I have a wealth of information on my Instagram especially in the Uganda highlight. Do have a look. If you enjoyed this post, please pin it using the pin below:

If you have a question about gorilla trekking in Uganda, please leave it in the comments below! 

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