This is a guest post from Marcello Arrambide from Wandering Trader.
Gorilla Trekking in Africa is one of the most unique things that you can do while traveling around Africa. Gorillas are found in Eastern Africa on the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. When I moved to Eastern Africa, I knew that I had a unique opportunity to experience something that only a handful of people get to do every year and I wasn’t leaving the continent until I saw some gorillas!
The Logistics of Choosing a Tour
There are two things to keep in mind when booking a gorilla trekking tour: the permit costs and the cost of the tour itself. All governments require everyone to get a permit to see the gorillas. The normal price for a permit is $500 USD. The permits are issued by the government of the country where you will be scheduling your trek. As of June 1st, 2012, Rwanda will be increasing the gorilla permit fee to $750 USD. Uganda and Rwanda occasionally have promotions during the low season (September and October) for as low as $250 USD.
In searching for a tour, I chose to stay away from the DR Congo because of the complex visa process. Rwanda has no visa cost for visitors from most Western countries while Uganda charges upwards of $50 for single entry and $100 for multiple entry visas (for various countries).
Most gorilla families are constantly monitored and tracked so tourists are able to see them. Rarely are there situations when tourists do not see them, even on the shorter 3 day tours. On average, it is between $500 to $800 for the tour, depending on the tour operator and also the size of the group. When you have a larger group the costs go down since you are able to fill up the transportation vehicle. I chose a tour that offered me the rates below:
- $870 for one person going alone on the trip
- $485 per person for 2 people
- $375 per person for 3 people
- $340 per person for 4-6 people
I was lucky to find a group of four other people and the total cost of my gorilla trek was $840, $500 for the gorilla permit and $340 for the tour. If you are traveling alone, you may incur an additional fee of $50 for a private room. Breakfast and lunch were included in the tour.
When I first started reaching out to the various tour operators, I tried to make sure I chose a tour that had a minimum of 4 people to keep my costs down. I stayed in contact with several companies that offered me the lowest prices and eventually found a date that fit my schedule perfectly that also included 4 people on the tour.
I arrived the day before my trek was scheduled just in case something happened or there were permit issues and I needed to find another tour operator. But there was nothing to worry about. I paid the tour operator and we were on our way. Note: If paying in cash, make sure you bring larger bills that were printed after the year 2000 otherwise anyone in Uganda won’t accept them.
What Country Should You Choose?
DR Congo was immediately crossed off my list because the visa process is extremely complex and expensive. I spoke too many people that also had significant problems at the border of the DR Congo.
There are roughly 720 mountain gorillas left in Central Africa, and half of all gorillas are found in Uganda’s Biwindi Impenetrable Forest. This alone was the main reason why I chose Uganda for my gorilla trek.
I’ve found that since both Rwanda and Uganda have nearly the same exact process for obtaining the permits and booking the tours, it just comes down to the price. Since the rates for Rwanda permits will be increasing in June, the complete costs of a tour and permit will be cheaper in Uganda.
If you haven’t already booked your tour ahead of time, flying into the capital city of Kampala, you’ll be able to find plenty of tour operators that would love to sell you a package. Remember that a special permit is needed so it is better if you purchase a tour as soon as possible so the gorilla trekking permit can be acquired by the tour operator (they do run out as there are a limited number of permits available).
Going Trekking with Gorillas – The Tour Itself
It takes an entire day to drive from Kampala to Bwindi National Park, including a stop at the equator. Depending on what group your permit is assigned to, you will arrive in one of four cities outside the national park: Buhoma, Ruhija, Nkuringo, or Rushaga. We arrived in Nkuringo on the southwest edge of the park.
After you spend the night, the next day will all be about gorillas! We woke up at dawn and began our journey into the park, arriving at our outpost around 7:45am. There was a quick briefing and then we drove deep inside the Ugandan mountains, where there will be a brief orientation during which you will be given a set of rules stating that the gorillas can approach you but you cannot approach the gorillas. (Don’t touch wild animals!) After the orientation, the rangers prepare to search for the gorillas and you begin your trek into the jungle.
Finding the actual gorillas can take anywhere from one to five hours as it all depends on the movement of the gorillas. They are very mobile animals that move around continuously. Once the rangers locate the gorillas, you will spend roughly an hour or two watching them, possibly interacting with them if you are lucky, before you head back to the hotel. (If you choose a longer tour, you’ll get to go back again the next day to find more gorillas.)
We were lucky as we found them within 45 minutes; they weren’t hard to spot either, as they were feeding and playing on the edge of the forest near the ranger camp.
I cannot tell you how amazing it is to be inches away from such unique creatures. The gorillas, especially the silverbacks, are incredibly strong and they could easily injure a human in seconds. Yet they didn’t fear us at all – they will walk right up to you if you are in their way. (Tip: move out of the way!) There were several times that we walked around to see different silverbacks and no matter where we were or how we positioned ourselves, they completely ignored us. They were just going about their daily routines while we were busy snapping pictures and video.
Thinking back on the experience, gorilla trekking in Uganda was one of the most unique and memorable things I’ve done while traveling around the world. If I ever have the opportunity to do this again, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. And, if you get the chance to do it, don’t hesitate either.
Marcello Arrambide is a professional day trader that travels around the world. He runs the blog Wandering Trader which is focused on everyone that loves to travel the world with a unique look at how to finance it, day trading. You can find Marcello on Facebook & Twitter.