Rwanda gorilla trekking tips
It’s not the inaccessible trip that you might imagine to be – rather a four-hour flight to Kigali from Joburg on Rwandair (which has air hostesses who look like models and the best airplane tea ever), and then a three-hour drive through chocolate-coloured hills to the Volcanoes National Park in the northwest of the country. The park forms part of the Virunga Mountains, a chain of active and inactive volcanoes, which span Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, and, together with the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, around 40 km away, is the only habitat on earth where mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengei berengei) live.
To see the mountain gorillas, you need to buy a permit in advance of your visit from the Rwanda Tourism Board. Permits currently cost $750USD a person, and are set to go up to $1000 1 pax, and allow you to spend an hour with a gorilla group.
There are 10 gorillas groups ranging in size from less than 10 individuals to over 40 open to tourists (the remaining seven are observed only by researchers) on the Rwandan side of the park. Each gorilla group is only exposed to a maximum of tourists for one hour each day. That means that less than 100 people get permits each day. (Note that no children under the age of 15 can go gorilla tracking).
Gorilla tracking Rwanda
On the day of your gorilla tracking, you meet at the Volcanoes National Park headquarters at around 7am and enjoy a traditional Intore dance performance while sipping much-needed coffee. Then you get assigned your gorilla group and a guide, based on your fitness level. You can opt for a short hike (which can range from 30 minutes to an hour), a medium one (anything from one hour to three hours) or a long one to the large Susa group, which can take the whole day. Your guide will be in contact with trackers in the park who know pretty much where each gorilla group is – so each morning they have a good idea of all the gorillas’ whereabouts. At the beginning of our gorilla tracking adventure in Rwanda
You then head off into the park with your guide, ready to have what will probably be the most amazing wildlife experience of your life.
To make the most of the ultimate bucket list adventure of gorilla tracking, here are my 10 tips:
1. Be realistic about your fitness level
Rwanda’s already at a high altitude (around 1500 metres about sea level) , and you can hike up to over 3000 metres on steep paths. Be realistic about what you’re able to do. Hikes to the gorilla groups can take anything from half an hour one way to 10 hours. You’ll be placed in a group for the gorilla tracking based on the length of hike you’d like to do – so don’t choose the longest hike if you only exercise once a year, as you’ll slow everyone else down. If you are fit, and can handle hiking at a high altitude then opt for a longer hike – gorillas aside, it’s amazing just to be in the Central African rainforest, amongst moss-covered Hagenia trees, thickets of ferns and dense vegetation in a million shades of green.
2. Do research on gorilla groups before you go
It’s possible to request to see a particular gorilla group (depending on whether you are fit enough to do the hike to get to it). Do research on the gorilla groups in Rwanda and decide if there’s a specific one you’d like to see – for example, a group that’s just had babies.
3. Hire a porter to go gorilla tracking
Near the entrance to the park will be a group of porters. Not only will they carry your bag for you and give you a walking stick (which is really helpful in slippery bits) but they also help you up and down slippery, steep parts of the hike. Even if you don’t mind carrying your own bag, and don’t need help, it’s a good idea to take a porter – most of them are ex-poachers who now make a living from gorilla tourism, so by paying one $10 to carry your bag, you’re supporting both the local community and gorilla conservation.
4. What to wear
The rainforest is full of horrible stinging nettles. It hurts to get stung. Protect yourself by bringing a pair of thick gloves (gardening gloves would be perfect), wearing knee-high hiking gaters, a long-sleeved lightweight shirt and wearing fairly thick pants (although it is quite warm so don’t wear your thermals). In terms of other clothes, you can hike in a pair of running shoes but a comfortable pair of hiking boots (preferably with a high ankle to protect from nettles) would be perfect. It often rains (it is a rainforest, after all) so bring a light rain jacket with a hood. Only take essentials in a small backpack – two bottles of water, maybe a snack if you’re a hungry hiker, camera, hat and sunscreen.
5. What camera to bring
If possible, you should bring three camera bodies with three different lenses – I would recommend a zoom lens, wide angle and an in-between lens or a fixed focal length lens. The gorillas move around, and it’s tricky to change lenses while they’re moving so having different camera bodies is ideal. If you’re more a point-and-shoot-type then make sure your camera is fully charged, and bring extra memory cards just in case!