23 April 2019
Gorilla Trekking - Where, When, Why, How
The Long And The Short Of It:
The short of it - if you are on a time-crunch, go to Rwanda; if you want to immerse yourself in a country, spend time with the people, and go somewhere off the beaten track, go to Uganda; if you are an avid Africa traveler and want some serious bragging rights, go to the Republic of the Congo.
The long of it - Gorillas are broadly divided into mountain and lowland, with a few more sub-species. If your heart is set on spending time with the rarer mountain gorillas, the choice is either Rwanda or Uganda. If you’re wanting to explore remote and unspoiled African rainforest, the Republic of the Congo is the clear choice.
Lowland Gorillas vs Mountain Gorillas:
Lowland gorillas (above) tend to be smaller, and their coats appear more brownish-grey with a pronounced ridge across their brow. Mountain gorillas (below) are larger with blacker coats and softer facial features. Mountain gorillas are incredibly rare, with less than 800 living in the wild and are on the verge of extinction. The lowland gorillas, found in the Congo, are highly endangered.
Flying into the capital city of Kigali, which is an easy combination with a safari in Kenya or Tanzania, is the gateway for this transcendent experience. You’ll be met at the international airport on arrival and transferred by road in closed, air-conditioned vehicles along excellent roads to your lodge accommodation. It’s about three hours by road, or alternatively, a quick twenty minute helicopter flight. There are a number of lodges located in close proximity to the entrance of Volcanoes National Park.
This is a bit more involved, and you would need to set aside some time in terms of the logistics. International flights arrive into Entebbe and it’s an eight - ten hour drive to your accommodation in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Spending 8 nights in the country with stops along the way and a few days gorilla trekking is so worth it.
Republic of the Congo:
As an experienced traveler through Africa with a yearning for something unique and adventurous, trekking through the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo to witness the interactions of the western lowland gorillas is the perfect experience.
International flights arrive into Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo. A member from the Odzala Discovery Camps will be awaiting your arrival and walk you through check-in of your scheduled charter flight to Odzala-Kokoua National Park, which is in the north of the Congo, bordering Gabon. It’s a two hour flight that runs on Mondays and Thursdays.
A maximum of 4 guests in the Congo and 8 guests in Rwanda and Uganda viewing any one family of gorillas is permitted. Before setting off, your park ranger will do a full briefing on what to expect, expected behavior when encountering the gorillas, the rules of etiquette as well as some detail regarding the specific family you’re hiking to find. You’ll be led through the reserve, usually in radio communication with the scout who stays with the troop. The pace is slow, relaxed, but taxing on the body for those who are not accustomed to the altitude.
Often the gorillas will be spread around a small area of dense vegetation. They'll continue with their feeding and interactions, nonchalant about their visitors, though watching you with interest. Occasionally one, often a playful youngster, will approach you with curiosity.
Only one group of trekkers can visit the family of gorillas each day and once you’ve found them, you’ll have just one precious hour in their company.
Hikes can vary quite a bit, depending on where the animals spent the night prior and which troop you’re hiking to find. The general consensus is that hiking in Rwanda is easier than hiking in Uganda – a slightly more strenuous exercise! The lowland gorillas in the Congo tend to be more easily accessible.
Don’t underestimate the tiring effect of being at high altitude. Trekking to see gorillas can range from 8,000-10,000 feet above sea level.
The ground can be slippery, muddy and steep so sturdy walking boots are essential. Wearing long pants instead of shorts is a must – protection against the prickly, scratchy vegetation you’ll be scrambling through. A lightweight waterproof jacket will also come in handy.
Uganda – USD600 per person per trek
Rwanda – USD1500 per person per trek
Republic of the Congo – USD355 for the 1st trek, additional treks USD285 per person
Permits are limited. It’s best to secure these well in advance.
Guests are grouped into a maximum of 4-8, paired with a park ranger, and allocated a specific family of gorillas. The hike can take anything from two to six hours in total, dependent on where the families are within the national parks. Guest are permitted to spend one hour with each family.
The dryer season across the equatorial region of the African rainforest runs from December to February and June to September. With less rainfall, and sometimes no rain, makes for an easier hike.
Outside of this, there can be quite heavy rainfall and the ground can become slippery and muddy.
Having said this, though, there has never been a gorilla trek cancelled due to the rain. The sun shines shortly after the rain has fallen, enabling trekkers to continue.
Reserve at least two permits (two treks) if time and budget allows for it. So often we hear that the first viewing of a family of gorilla’s goes by in a flash with sheer excitement. The second viewing allows one to really sink into this extraordinary experience.
During your hour with the gorillas, put your camera down and take a moment to observe these incredible animals in their natural habitat. Immerse yourself and appreciate the connection with these wild creatures.
Need To Know:
No children under 15 years of age are permitted – this is due to both safety and health concerns for the gorillas.
If there is any inkling of a cold, you’ll be turned away from participating on the hike. Gorillas are easily susceptible to human viruses, putting them at extreme risk of illness.
Ensure that you have your medical certificates on hand, showing up-to-date vaccinations against polio and measles and that you’re free of tuberculosis.These may be requested.
Visas are required for travel to each country. The process for a visa for the Republic of the Congo is a fairly lengthy one.
Please keep in mind that, while every effort is made for a favourable outcome, gorilla viewing cannot be guaranteed.
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