We came to Uganda with one objective: to see wild mountain gorillas. And gorillas we saw! Gorilla Tracking has been a bucket list dream for as long as I remember, so to finally get the chance to do it in Bwindi was a dream come true. A couple of weeks on and I still can’t believe just how close we were to these majestic wild animals! And to think we were lucky enough to track a gorilla family with a tiny 10-day-old baby?! Cutest thing ever! Would you love to see gorillas in the wild too? The good news is you have come to the right place! In this blog post, I will share everything you need to know about gorilla safaris in Uganda to help you plan your very own adventure.
What's in this post:
What is gorilla tracking?
Until I went to Uganda, I always thought it was gorilla trekking. That is, the act of trekking up a hill in search of mountain gorillas. I know I am not alone in this thought as more people use the search term “Gorilla Trekking Uganda” than they do “Gorilla Tracking Uganda”. However, once you arrive in Uganda, you will hear everyone referring to it as Gorilla Tracking.
Gorilla Tracking is the act of finding the gorillas, which is done by a team of highly qualified trackers. In Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, these trackers head for the hills very early in the morning to find the gorillas before the tourists start their trek. They will return to where they left the gorillas the day before, and then they will stay with them all day until the gorillas make their nest for the evening. Only then do these trackers come home.
Meanwhile, tourists will follow their guide to the location of the trackers. So before you even set off in the morning, the guides already know where the gorillas are, as the trackers will have told them as much. Because of this, the chances of spotting wild gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest are very high. Safari companies will say there is a 99% chance of seeing them. During the briefing, they will say 80%. Either or, considering you are tracking wild animals, there is a very high probability that you will get lucky. The most likely reason for you not seeing them is that you find the hike too challenging and decide to turn around. The other reason is if those gorillas get spooked.
Where is the best place to see gorillas in the wild?
You will only find mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We opted to go gorilla tracking in Bwindi National Forest, in Uganda, as we had read that this park has the most gorillas. In fact, nearly 50% of all wild gorillas live in Bwindi. However, there are other options too.
There are basically two mountain gorilla populations. One in Bwindi, and the second one in the Virunga Volcanic Mountains that spread across Mgahinga National Park in Southwest Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in North West Rwanda, and Virunga National Park in Easter DRC. Although politically these might comprise three different national parks, the reality is that it is one large mountainous area, only divided into three because of the arbitrary borders set by humans. The gorillas don’t observe these, and therefore regularly cross borders between the national parks. Lucky them not needing visas!
Seeing gorillas in DRC
So where is best to track gorillas? I hear this debate often, and it is always between Rwanda and Uganda. However, we should not forget that tracking gorillas is also possible in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I know a number of people who have trekked with gorillas in DRC and have had a brilliant experience. It is also the cheapest of the three countries to get a permit. Permits in DRC cost only $400 per person (compared to $700 in Uganda and $1,500 in Rwanda).
However, Eastern Congo is currently facing fighting between local militia and the Congolese Armed Forces. Having visited the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, where 97% of the refugees are Congolese, and having heard their horror stories, it isn’t a place I can recommend.
Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda vs Uganda
I had always assumed Rwanda was the more off-the-beaten-path destination while Uganda was the mainstream gorilla trekking paradise. It turns out that Rwanda just happens to be very good at advertising, and Uganda is not.
There are roughly 1,000 wild mountain gorillas. 459 of those are in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. The rest reside in the Virunga Volcanic Mountains and are spread between Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. While Rwanda only has 12 gorilla families, Bwindi has 26 habituated ones.
Despite having a lot more gorillas though, Rwanda sells a lot more permits. Yet, clever marketing from Rwanda makes it sound like it’s the other way. They both have their pros and cons though:
- Less dense forest, so easier to see
- Only 2 hour’s drive from the international airport
- Easier hikes
- The cost of a permit is $1,500 per person per day
- Fewer gorilla families
- The cost of the permit is $700 per person per day
- More gorilla families
- Three different levels of hikes catering for all fitness abilities
- A full day’s drive from the international airport, but you can take a small Cessna plane to a local airstrip.
More than just gorillas
However, Uganda is incredibly rewarding, and there is no reason why you can’t make it a part of a much bigger holiday. Many people fly in after doing a safari in Tanzania or Kenya just to see the gorillas, yet bypass everything else that is great about the country. We actually spent two weeks exploring Uganda. We went from the chaotic and polluted capital city of Kampala, to the quiet national parks of the West. Uganda is a great safari alternative to the much busier parks in Tanzania and Kenya. During our game drive in Murchinson Falls, we actually saw hardly any other trucks. And not once did we have to share an animal with any safari companies.
So not only is Uganda a great place to come for a gorilla safari, but it is also a great destination if you want to see the Big 5! Or should I say big 6?
What do expect when tracking gorillas in Bwindi
You will all meet at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Welcome Centre at 7:30 in the morning. When you arrive, someone will take your temperate and confirm that you are not ill. Since gorillas can catch human viruses, you mustn’t trek if you have cold or flu symptoms.
You will then head into an auditorium, and while everyone else gets checked in, you will have the pleasure of watching a local dance group perform. They really lifted the mood in the room with their energetic dance moves and storytelling choreographies.
Once everyone is checked in, the Uganda Wildlife Authority officials will brief the room on what to expect on the hike and how to behave around gorillas. The rules are simple:
- Be quiet. Avoid any sudden noises.
- Remain at least 7 metres away from the gorillas at all times
- Do not mimic their sounds; you never know what you might be saying!
- Do not eat or drink near them
- Do not chase them
- Do not use flash photography
- Do not look them directly in the eye, as this could be seen as confrontational
- Follow your guide’s instructions at all times
Finding your tribe
Once the briefing is over, they will call your name and allocate you a group. When booking, your guides (or you if booking directly) will express a preference for your preferred hike length. They are categorised into three: short, medium and long. However, they can’t guarantee that you will get your chosen length. For starters, the gorillas will be where the gorillas want to be!
It is at this point that you will be asked if you want a porter. I recommend getting a porter regardless of whether you need help carrying your bags. The scheme is run to provide additional income to the community. Porters work on a once-a-month rota, and it is an invaluable source of income. I was paired with Brovis, a mother of 3 who used the income to pay for her kids’ schooling.
A quick last-minute visit to the washrooms, and you are good to start gorilla tracking!
How fit do you need to be to track gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest?
We were put on a medium-length hike, totalling 6.5km and 420 metres of elevation gain. Several walks headed out along the same path as ours, branching off at different stages, so for the most part, Bwindi is, in fact, very penetrable! The switchbacks that make their way up the hillside are gentle, and the trackers and guides maintain a very steady pace, stopping regularly for breaks and ensuring the group’s slower members are never left behind. I particularly liked that once those at the back caught up, we allowed them to catch their breath before pushing on again.
Aside from it being very sweaty because of the humidity, I didn’t find the hike in any way challenging, even though we did hike to the col and down the other side. However, I am relatively fit and used to walking long hours.
The porters are there to help though. Maybe a little too much at times. Brovis insisted on pushing me uphill. Whenever we got to an area with a steep step, she would pop her hands on my bum and push me up. It was so unnecessary, but my comments of “Don’t worry, I’ve got it” didn’t seem to do anything to persuade her I really was doing just fine! I suppose fat and fit aren’t two words that often coexist.
The best advice I can give you? Get out hiking before you come. If you are happy hiking 10 km at home, you will find gorilla tracking in Bwindi much more enjoyable than if you do no prep.
What happens once you reach the gorillas?
After a couple of hours of going uphill, we came across our trackers. At this stage, we put our masks on and left all our belongings with the porters, who stayed on the path while we followed the trackers into the thick overgrowth. It isn’t called Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for no reason. The vegetation is thick, and a machete is the only way to get in! The tracker cleared a path for us until we eventually came to a small opening created by the gorillas.
Waiting for us was a family of 17 gorillas, including a newborn baby and two silver backs. They seemed completely unphased by our presence. We stood quietly, watching these magnificent animals in awe. The only sounds were that of gorillas munching and cameras clicking.
Mum and baby lay on the floor mere metres away from us. She cuddled her newborn while it suckled. Mama was relaxed enough even to close her eyes and rest. Older babies played on the branches, testing their balancing skills, while a teenager walked right up to us before flopping on the ground and flicking his privates.
A close encounter
Behind us, the trees started to shake. It sounded like they were being pulled out from the roots. I wasn’t sure what to do since we couldn’t really move in any direction. We were fully enclosed by impenetrable vegetation. As the heavy footsteps got ever closer, we all looked at the trackers with slight concern. “Don’t worry. It is just the silverback joining us,” one of them said. “Aren’t they the aggressive ones?”, I thought. I was sure I was about to be snapped in half like the branches in his way. I looked behind me nervously. And that is when I saw him—heading right at us!
He made an appearance between two of the guests. He stopped, observed the landscape, and calmly walked past us, as if we were not even there. WOW! He was inches from my legs! I can’t put into words quite how unbelievable this encounter was!
But that was not the only time. Throughout the hour we spent with the gorillas, there were three other occasions when one of them decided that the route we had chopped open for us to stand in was the most convenient way for them to move on to their next feeding ground, and so once again, they walked directly past us! Truly a once in a lifetime experience.
When is the best time of year to see gorillas in Bwindi?
The best time to track gorillas in Bwindi would be during the dry season. Uganda has two dry seasons – June to August and December to February. Having said that though, Bwindi is a rainforest, so you can expect rain at any time of year! However, during the dry season, the chances of rain are much lower, and the paths up the mountain range are much drier.
Even so, if you are okay with a soggy, muddy hike, then Bwindi offers gorilla trekking year-round, with the added bonus of cheaper accommodation during the rainy season.
How many days should I stay in Bwindi for?
I would recommend a 3-night, 2-day gorilla tracking itinerary for Bwindi. We only had one day, which, as it turns out, was perfect. However, had we been unlucky and not seen gorillas, we would have had to leave with shattered dreams. Giving yourself two days to track gorillas not only gets you as close to a guarantee as you can get with wildlife. But it also increases the chances of having two very different experiences.
One of the girls we trekked with went out the next day again, and this time got to see a family out in the open, giving her much more space to witness and photograph these incredible animals. So if time and budget allow, I would recommend a 3-night, 2-day gorillas trekking itinerary for Bwindi.
What to wear to track gorillas?
It is recommended you wear long sleeve tops and trousers for trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to protect you from insects, leeches, caterpillars, and the thick foliage, some of which is quite sharp. It was too warm for long sleeves though, so we all rolled ours up. You should also wear gaiters to avoid anything crawling up your trouser leg! Our hotel made them available to all guests. However, if yours doesn’t, then at least ensure you tuck your trouser leg into your socks.
Sturdy hiking boots are a must, not only because of their grip but also because of their ankle support. The terrain is steep and uneven in places, and it can become very muddy and slippery if it rains. There is no mountain rescue here. If you fall, your only option is to pay locals to carry you out! So this is not the time to wear the wrong footwear!
Are you ready for rain?
No matter what season it is, it could rain in Bwindi any day. And even if it is sunny when you set out, it doesn’t mean a storm won’t have rolled in by the afternoon, so make sure you carry a good waterproof jacket with you. Ideally, you want it to be lightweight and with taped seams. I’d also recommend waterproof trousers during the rainy season as you could be out in the rain all day!
You will also want to take your packed lunch with you and plenty of water! It is hot and humid, so make sure you carry enough, not only to get you up and back, but in case of any delays due to injury.
Of course, you will need a daypack to carry it all in. We stayed at Buhoma Lodge, which lent us all the necessary kit, so do check before you travel, as you might be able to borrow a lot of what you need.
Last but not least, you will want a walking pole. They provide walking sticks at the trekking centre. You will be surprised how much they help you both up and downhill!
Tipping in Uganda is expected and appreciated. It is a great way to show appreciation to those who go above and beyond. But beware, there are a lot of people that expect to be tipped. I will be dedicating a whole article to tipping as I uncovered quite a few issues arising from the well-intentioned practice.
However, for the purpose of this article, I will let you know who you are expected to tip on the day of the hike, so you can ensure you have brought enough cash.
- The guide – this is the person that will be guiding you up the mountain in search of the gorilla trackers. He should be a wealth of information and point out other wildlife while you hike. A fair tip would be between $5-$15 per day.
- The trackers – these are the people that ensure you see the gorillas and who will clear the paths for you to give you access to what will undoubtedly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There will be multiple trackers with each gorilla family (we had 3). You can choose to tip them individually, or give the total to the head tracker and ask them to distribute it. A fair tip would be between $5-$10 per person per day.
- The rangers – these are the people that ensure your safety from other big mammals in the forest, such as elephants and buffaloes. They are the ones carrying the guns. A fair tip would be $5 per person per day.
- Porters – they will carry your daypacks laden with cameras, water, and food. They charge a $20 flat fee and appreciate any tip you can give them if you feel it is deserved. As I mentioned above, Brosiv really went out of her way to “help” me up the mountain. A fair tip would be between $2-$5 per person per day.
If you are reading that and thinking, “damn, that’s a lot of tipping!” you are not wrong. We had only been advised to tip the guide and pay the porters $20 each, so we didn’t have anywhere near enough cash, which was rather embarrassing.
However, it is important to remember that tipping is NOT compulsory. You should only tip for a job well done and if the people in question have provided you with a good service. The size of that tip should also align with the quality of service received.
What currency should you tip in?
USD is widely accepted. However, you are always best to tip in the local currency. Not only does the money go further, but it means they can use it instantly instead of needing to travel to a currency exchange bureau.
Is gorilla trekking ethical?
I was very impressed with all the measures that were in place to help protect the gorillas. It is also important to remember that tourist money is essential to protect them from poaching, disease, habitat loss, and human conflict. The mountain gorilla species were seriously threatened until their habitats in Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC were turned into national parks.
The following measures are in place to protect the gorillas:
- Max of 8 tourists per group. There were 7 in ours. Although you hike up the mountain in a much larger team, the porters all stay behind, and only the guide, trackers, and tourists go the final distance to the gorillas.
- Masks are mandatory.
- Before you start the trek, they will check your temperature. You will not be allowed to trek if you have symptoms of being ill.
- You are not allowed to eat or drink near the gorillas, and you are not allowed to feed them.
The only rule that was impossible to maintain was distance. They asked that we remain 7 metres from the gorillas at all times, but they were in such a thick forest that we often ended up closer to them because they would move towards us, and we had nowhere to back away.
Is it right to habituate wildlife?
They were calm at all times and did not at any point seem to feel disturbed by our presence. This is because they go through a two-year habituation process whereby trackers hang out in their presence, gradually getting closer and closer until they don’t mind them being there at all.
This is no different from any other wild animal. When you go on a safari to Tanzania, lions stroll past the trucks like you are not even there. That is because they are habituated to trucks. While on a game drive in Murchinson Falls though, where there are far fewer visitors, the animals were significantly more weary of our safari vehicle.
Is it right that wildlife is happy to coexist with humans? That question is too deep for me to answer. But without tourists, we probably would have no gorillas as there wouldn’t be the money or inclination to protect them.
How to get to Bwindi National Park?
You have two options to get to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park: by chartered plane or by car. This is where Rwanda has an advantage since Volcanos National Park is only a 2 to 3-hour drive from the international airport, whereas Entebbe International Airport is a 9-10 hours drive.
The drive is generally split into two days, with a stop at Lake Mburo National Park, home to zebras, eland, buffalo, hyenas, and hippos among the 68 mammals that call it home.
If you choose to fly, then there is a chartered 11-seater plane that flies multiple times a day into the Kihihi airstrip, which is then one and half hours drive away from Bwindi. Although we drove to Bwindi, we flew back at sunrise, and I have to say, it was rather special! Sail Adventure Safaris arranged all of the bookings for us, so I have no details of the costs.
Don’t skip the good parts!
It would be sad to choose to fly there and back though, as you would miss so much of Uganda’s everyday life. I’d highly recommend adding gorilla tracking to a much larger safari package in Uganda. There are several National Parks, and Uganda is home to the Big 5. The only difference is that Ugandan safaris are quieter, so you won’t be crowded around a herd of elephants with 20 other trucks. Instead, you will have them all to yourself!
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Where should I stay in Bwindi?
We stayed at Buhoma Lodge, and I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough. It isn’t just the facilities that make Buhoma Lodge unique; it is their attention to detail. On one occasion, we arrived back in the pouring rain. We were ready to jump out and dash for cover, but before we had a chance, they were waiting for us with umbrellas.
They offer complimentary massages on the day of the gorilla trek, and you could borrow (free of charge) any kit you need for the hike. It was the first place we came to in Uganda where we weren’t constantly having to put our hands in our pockets. Even the laundry was complimentary! And don’t get me started on the food. It was delicious! A 3-course meal every evening and a hearty breakfast each morning. There was a constant supply of drinks and snacks throughout the day too, and best of all is that it was all included.
But it was the room that blew me away. Buhoma Lodge offers ten spacious treetop chalets, all overlooking Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The bed was the most comfortable one we had during our two-week trip in Uganda, and it was so big that I could roll 2 ½ times on it before falling off!! Yes, I actually did that test!
But it was the lack of glass that I loved. Instead of windows, there was just mosquito netting allowing us to sleep at one with the sounds of the forest. To ensure we weren’t cold they snuck hot water bottles into the room while we had dinner, ensuring we had a nice warm bed.
I haven’t stayed anywhere else in Bwindi, but having experienced Buhoma Lodge, I don’t want to! It is also one of only two lodges within the park and only a 3-minute walk from the welcome centre. Frankly, you can’t get much better than that!
You are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so you might as well treat yourself!
Other things to do in Bwindi?
We had minimal time in Bwindi, however we did get a chance to do two very worthwhile activities:
Take a walk into the village
Just beyond the park gates, you will find yourself in the village of Buhoma. The streets are lined with vendors selling locally made souvenirs. As we spoke to them, it became apparent that not many tourists venture down this road on foot. Guides take them to souvenir shops out of town and warn their guests about wandering on their own.
This makes me sad as it means locals aren’t benefiting as much as they could from passing trade. Yet tourists have just as much to gain as the locals do. We met two fascinating businesses.
The Art Shop
Nestled between a non-profit organisation and a souvenir store, you will find a small art gallery operated by some talented youngsters. While we were there, Deus was finishing off a rather impressive charcoal drawing of a gorilla. However, it was a colourful elephant picture drawn by Godon that really caught my attention. I wish I could have bought it, but alas, I had run out of money. However, I did have a really good chat with them and was impressed at their dedication to pursue their passion.
Non-Profit Reusable Sanitary Towels
The other stop I urge to make is the reusable sanitary towel workshop. Supported by the church, they are on a mission to ensure girls don’t drop out of school because of their period. Penelope talked us through the process and the work they are doing. A reminder that even the simple things we take for granted in the West are not always possible everywhere. Definitely take the time to drop by!
Visit one of the Batwa Communities
The Batwa were the indigenous people of the forest. They were hunter-gathers, part of the forest’s ecosystem. When Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was created, they were evicted and left with nothing. For many years they resorted to begging until, eventually, the Kellerman Foundation was created, and they were provided with settlements.
Visiting one of their communities will give you insight into their way of life and give you a glimpse into the challenges they have faced and still face. It was a bittersweet visit for me. I loved meeting them and completely fell in love with both the King and the Chief. However, I was disappointed to hear that their customs are being lost in an attempt to make them like the “rest of us”.
When I asked about their native language, I was told it was irrelevant because it was no use outside of their communities. Of course, I understand the need for them to speak English so that they can communicate, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of their own tongue. In fact, when I asked the chief if he would speak to us in his native tongue, his face lit up: unmistakable joy.
Although I found the visit very thought-provoking (more about that in an upcoming post), it is a worthwhile experience. All I ask is that you go with a sense of curiosity to see and understand more than what you are being told.
How safe is Uganda?
This is a question I get asked a lot. How safe is Uganda? The problem with describing safety is that it is subjective since we all have very different comfort levels and perspectives. I experienced nothing but kindness. Ugandans, on the whole, are warm and welcoming. I lost count of how many people approached us to say hello and welcome us to their country. This was particularly true when we were in the lesser touristy areas like Hoima and Kampala. I know I’m not alone in this reception. Sasha from Off The Beaten Travel has had the exact same experience.
Once you are on safari though, it is like being in an all-inclusive resort, the truck being your resort. As you drive through the villages, you will see daily life from the confines of your vehicle, while the hotels all have gates and guards. We broke these barriers as often as we could so that we could interact with locals. Although some looked at us with a degree of scepticism to begin with, as soon as I greeted them in their local language (Uganda has 41 languages!), their expressions changed, and we were warmly welcomed like long-lost relatives.
It is important to read the government’s advice before visiting any country. I urge you to read it before you decide to travel and to make your own assessment of safety. We of course took precautions to avoid unnecessary opportunistic theft, which is the most likely challenge you might encounter. The other probable cause of harm is a traffic accident since driving standards are pretty poor. This is where booking with a reputable safari company is essential. We travelled with Sail Adventure Safaris, and felt safe with Dennis’ driving at all times.
Are you ready for a gorilla safari of a lifetime?
I’ve put as much detail as possible into this post. However, if you feel I have forgotten anything, then please let me know. I am always happy to answer any questions and appreciate everyone who leaves comments or sends me thoughtful emails. It always makes my day!
I hope you enjoy your gorilla tracking experience as much as we did. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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