Gorilla in the forest

Where to go for Mountain Gorilla trekking - Uganda, Rwanda or DR Congo?

March 09, 2015

It is often the low, heavy grunts which first disclose their whereabouts, followed by the rustle and crunch of breaking vegetation as they slowly graze the dense mountain slopes. You won’t find mountain gorillas living captive in your local zoo. It is only within the jungles of the Virunga Volcanoes, which straddle Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), as well as the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to the north that they exist. Their numbers were previously threatened by poaching and habitat destruction, and it was Diane Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist that brought these impressive creatures to the world’s attention, their rarity making them all the more special to visit. Despite limited and expensive permits required for the privilege, an encounter with the mountain gorillas has become the top of many African travellers’ agendas.

It is a once in a lifetime experience to venture into the jungle-clad mountain slopes of Rwanda’s Volcano National Park, the DR Congo’s Virunga National Park or Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to spend a precious hour with a mountain gorilla family, so how do you decide which country’s park is right for you? From permit costs, to accessibility, to political stability, here we compare the only three parks in the world where mountain gorilla trekking is available and weigh up the pros and cons of each.

Permit costs and availability

With all three countries cooperating in their conservation efforts for these exceptional creatures, the experience itself is fairly consistent in all parks. Guides and scouts are highly trained and informed, with an intimate understanding of the mountain slopes and jungle environment, although the operation in the DR Congo has been challenged by the country’s instability and corruption. Each park has a number of gorilla families which are habituated to human observers, and only eight tourists are allowed to visit each family per day, limiting the possibility of spreading human disease, as well as the intrusion into their lives. The number of families in each park changes each year as the governments balance research and tourism needs, but in general Rwanda offers the most permits, followed by Uganda, and then the DR Congo.

Gorilla families in Uganda
Permits cost USD$750 in Rwanda, USD$600 in Uganda, and USD$400 in DR Congo for a day trekking.

Currently permits cost USD$750 in Rwanda, USD$600 in Uganda, and USD$400 in DR Congo for a day trekking, accompanied by a park guide. While this may seem extortionate to some, keep in mind that a large portion of the money goes back into conservation and research, and gives these relatively poor African countries an incentive to protect the mountain gorillas and their environments, reducing the incentive to hunt for bush meat or clear land for agriculture. For some, the inflated costs of the Rwandan permit are justified by the accessibility of Volcano National Park and the reduced on ground transport costs, while the reduced price of the DR Congo permit is a compromise for the uncertainty of visiting the country at any one time.

June to September and December to January are the peak tourist seasons when permits are in high demand, and securing one at short notice can be next to impossible. But if you are booking through a tour operator, they will do the hard work for you. April to May and November are the low, rainy season and in Rwanda permits are 50% cheaper, so if you can handle the arduous hiking conditions in the wet, then this can be an economical way to visit.

Trek duration and gorilla sightings

Your chances of seeing gorillas in all three locations is almost guaranteed, as the habituated families are followed every day and trackers head out early to radio in their location to your guide. Until this time, the length of the trek is unknown. You may get lucky and encounter gorillas feeding on the lower mountain slopes within one hour of the park entrance, or you may have to trek four or five hours on slippery, steep and muddy tracks before you reach them. It is vital to be prepared for whatever trekking conditions await and carry enough water for what may be a ten hour day. Remember also that you will be trekking at altitude, and a day or two allowing your body to adjust to the elevation before you trek will help to reduce stress significantly. An all-day trek is far from disadvantageous, however, but rather an incredible opportunity to spot the rich and varied birdlife that provide a cacophonous soundtrack to these mountain slopes.

A family of Mountain Gorilla in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
A family of Mountain Gorilla in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

Once you reach the gorillas, you are allowed one hour with them and must remain at a distance of 23 feet - although whether or not the gorillas choose to observe this restriction is up to them! While dense jungle thickets can obscure clear views and photograph opportunities, Volcano National Park in Rwanda has large stands of bamboo and open meadows which often making viewing slightly easier.

Park accessibility

In terms of accessibility, Rwanda’s Volcano National Park is only two hours drive along good roads from the capital Kigali and its international airport, while Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a lengthy ten hour drive from Entebbe Airport near its capital Kampala. The DR Congo’s Virunga National Park is usually accessed via Rwanda and takes around four to five hours from Kigali with delays sometimes experience at the border when securing visa. While the DR Congo’s eastern border with Rwanda has been stable recently, it does experience sporadic unrest, during which time the border is closed to tourists.

Combining gorilla trekking with other activities

If you are looking to combine gorilla trekking with a more classic savannah wildlife safari, then Uganda may be your best option. The country is home to parks such as Queen Elizabeth National Park, home to big game wildlife, as well as excellent rafting on the turbulent waters of the Blue Nile. If you are just looking to fly in, trek, and fly out, then Rwanda’s mountain gorillas are the easiest to access, however this country, long remembered for the horrific genocide of the 1990’s should not be overlooked, with stunning landscapes, resilient people, and a thought-provoking recent history to explore at its memorial sites. Instability throughout much of the DR Congo restricts visitors to the eastern border region, although for adventure-seeking African travellers, this unchartered territory is wildly appealing and crossing the border is all part of the experience.

Hippo group swimming in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
Uganda is home to parks such as Queen Elizabeth National Park for big game viewing.

Accommodation options

When it comes to bunking down after your trek, there is accommodation within a short distance of all national parks. Whether you are looking for basic comfort or all the luxury perks, there are a variety of options to suit all types of travellers.

Uganda, Rwanda or DR Congo?

No matter where you decide to trek, the experience of being so close to one of our nearest relatives is an unforgettable one. While permit prices vary between countries, when all things are considered (including on ground transport, park accessibility and visas) there is little which differentiates between the overall cost involved. The determining factor should, rather, be how you want to combine a mountain gorilla trek into a wider African itinerary and what else you want to see and experience on this magnificent continent.

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