The most memorable travel experiences are often the ones that push you beyond your comfort zone. For me, my Uganda gorilla trekking experience in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is likely to become a staple dinner party tale for years to come. What a bucket list experience!
Is Uganda gorilla trekking difficult?
Before arriving at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, I was unsure if I was fit enough to handle the Uganda gorilla trekking experience.
While travelling through Africa, I met other travellers who had done gorilla trekking under varying conditions and the advice of every single traveller I met was the same.
For a person of average fitness, Uganda gorilla trekking is challenging but doable. The degree of difficulty of your gorilla trek is a bit of a lucky draw as it depends on where the gorillas family you are trekking have wandered off to on that particular day.
We were extremely lucky, as we only had to trek for a bit over an hour.
A two or three-hour trek is not uncommon and you might have to trek for longer and in the rain.
In our group, we met a couple from New York who had trekked with another group the previous day following the gorillas for five hours up and down three mountains. In the end, they only managed to catch glimpses of the gorillas swinging from tree to tree.
My Uganda gorilla trekking experience
Watch the video of our search for gorillas in Uganda above.
To see the gorillas, you need to buy a gorilla trekking permit (book ahead if you’re visiting during peak season), which will allow you one trek as part of a guided group.
The permit doesn’t guarantee you’ll see gorillas but your chances are pretty good. However, you can increase the odds by arranging permits for two days.
Our morning briefing with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority started at 730 am.
After a thorough group briefing, our group of eight set of in search of the Rushegura gorilla family, which consists of 15 gorillas. The Rushegura gorillas is a family of habituated gorillas, which means they are comfortable with human contact.
I soon discovered why trekking gorillas in Uganda is quite an experience.
Our Uganda gorilla safari was a challenging march uphill, often through dense jungle. But although it was challenging – and the guides pushed us to keep up the pace – it wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated.
I had imagined it to be a hellishly difficult hike that only super fit and highly experienced bushwalkers could tackle.
After an hour, I was panting in the heat while our porters didn’t even seem to break a sweat! My husband, Roger, and I had hired porters ($15 a day plus tip) to carry our tripods and heavy backpacks bulging with camera equipment.
As this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to get close to the gorillas, we wanted to make sure we had everything we needed.
It was a relief to reach the top of the first mountain and an even bigger relief to find the gorillas just beyond the crest.
Close encounters with the gorillas in Uganda
As gorillas share 98% of genes with humans, seeing the mountain gorillas in Uganda in their natural habitat was a riveting experience.
Male gorillas are twice the size of females and can be over 1.8m (6 ft). Both male and female gorillas have long muscular arms and are strong. A large male gorilla weighs between 160 to 220 kgs (350 to 500 pounds).
The males are called silver backs because as a male gorilla matures, the hair on their backs turns silver.
Gorillas in zoos are mostly lowland gorillas. The difference between a lowland gorilla and mountain gorillas is the mountain gorillas have longer and darker hair to keep warm. Read more about the different kind of gorillas in the Gorilla fact file below.
Uganda gorilla safari photography
We spent an hour filming and photographing.
Photography conditions were a challenge, as the gorillas were often partly shielded by the dense forest foliage.
With eight people and an army of guides, it wasn’t easy to find a spot to set up a tripod.
We were told to keep our distance, ignore the gorillas if they come close and avoid looking a gorilla in the eye (especially the silver back).
The silver back and adult gorillas ignored us so it was easy to follow those instructions with the adult gorillas but it was more difficult to stay clear of the curious juvenile and baby gorillas.
At one point, one of the teenage gorillas sauntered up to Roger, who was trying to film the silver back. The young gorilla looked Roger straight in the eye and then the cheeky gorilla sat down heavily on Roger’s foot.
The safety distance is to minimise the opportunities for the gorillas to feel threatened as well as avoid transferring human disease to the gorillas.
We were so close to the gorillas I had to put away my long lenses!
I used my Canon EF 24 – 70mm 2.8 lens most of the time for photographs and our video cameras rolled non stop.
We were close enough to see their teeth and hear the crunching sounds as the gorillas sat in the forest munching on roots, branches and leaves.
Close enough to see the insects jumping off their coats.
The baby gorillas entertained us with their antics as they swung among the trees. The experience turned into a real bucket list wow one.
It took us 45 minutes to get down the mountain and by 1.30 pm, we were the first group back at camp.
Gorillas of Uganda return to camp
Before my trip, I had seen the amazing footage of traveller, John King, who walked out of his tent at Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp into the arms of gorillas that had decided to visit the camp. One gorilla proceeded to groom the man while the silverback gorilla watched with interest just meters away.
Although we were staying at the same camp, in our wildest dreams we didn’t believe the gorillas would decide to check into my camp too.
Neither did anyone else at the camp, including the staff!
Even more unusual, the gorillas were looking for a place to sleep for the night and made their bed between my cottage and the next cottage!
Gorilla trekking in Uganda is a bucket experience and one that I would definitely do again. I’d love to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda too.
Where to gorillas live?
Gorillas live in natural habitats in Central and East Africa. The two main species of gorillas are Eastern Gorilla and Western Gorilla. Eastern gorillas live to the east of the Congo River in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Western gorillas live mostly in Angola, Cameroon, Congo, DRC, Gabon and DRC while the region between Nigeria and Cameroon is home to cross-river gorillas.
Why are gorillas endangered?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), gorillas are critically endangered, which means there is a very high risk of extinction.
Gorillas are endangered due to loss of habitat (caused by logging, mining and farming), diseases (such as Ebola) and conflict with farming communities. But hunting is one of the biggest threats to the survival of gorillas.
Gorillas are hunted for survival food by militia in Virungas National Park and gorilla meat is sought after in the cities. Trophy hunting of gorillas still exists; gorillas are also captured for use in traditional medicine and baby gorillas are traded as pets.
How many gorillas are left in the world?
Although there may be over 350,000 Western Lowland gorillas in the wild, there are less than 5000 Eastern gorillas and only 1000 mountain gorillas. About half the population of mountain gorillas are in Uganda (the rest are in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo). Most of Uganda’s gorillas are in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. However, there is a small population of mountain gorillas in Mgahinga Gorilla Park.
How much is a Uganda gorilla permit?
Uganda gorilla permits cost USD 600 a person from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority while permits in Rwanda are USD 1500. These permits allow visitors one hour with the mountain gorillas on a group trek. Permits to trek gorillas are high because there’s a cap on the number of people allowed to trek each day.
How much does it cost to go gorilla trekking in Uganda?
When you add the cost of a gorilla trekking permit with accommodation in a safari lodge, transport and the cost of the gorilla trekking guide, a three-day gorilla tour in Uganda costs from USD 1250. Fully organized gorilla tours in Uganda are a more convenient option.
When is the best time to go trekking gorillas?
Trekking gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda can be done at any time of the year. However, it’s more comfortable to stay away from the rainy season as the ground can get very soggy. June to September and December to February are good times to go. If you’re on a budget, gorilla permits are cheaper during low season.
Uganda gorilla safari packing list
2 x sturdy pairs of hiking boots, preferably already broken in
3 x long-sleeved quick drying safari shirts
1 x wide-brimmed hat
High SPF sunscreen
Camera and extra batteries