Gorilla trekking is such an experience where there is no room for disappointment to the trackers. So here is an effort to exhaustively see what transpires on the day of actual gorilla trekking specifically at volcanoes national park. Even as a gorilla trekking safari is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you, the staff at Volcanoes National Park has been doing this for several years and run a very smooth operation, hence treks to the mountain gorillas are well-organized and clearly structured.
As you may be aware, there are only about 1000 mountain gorillas remaining in their natural habitat. These habitats are in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. Presently, Rwanda not only enjoys the best security in the region but also has the easiest access routes for visiting the mountain gorillas. Silverback’s Adventures, one of Rwanda’s professional tour-operators, organizes thrilling treks to visit these gentle giants in their misty mountain home, also known as the Virunga Mountains (a chain of volcanoes with altitudinal ranges of 3500m-4507m). Mountain Gorillas are found in the high altitude forests surrounding these volcanoes. There are currently twelve habituated gorilla families that can be visited: –
Susa group has 37 individuals (3 silverbacks)
Amahoro group has 16 individuals (1dominant male SB & 1assistant BB)
Sabyinyo group has 8 individuals (1SB)
Group 13 has 19 individuals(1 errant SB)
Umubano-8 (1 very tough SB)
Hirwa- 9 (1 ex-Susa SB) also has week old baby
Kwitonda (from Congo) – 16. (1SB 2BB) lots of fights in this family.
This is a migrant family and is not guaranteed.
SB=Silverback. BB=Blackback,young silverback.
In order to minimize behavioral disturbances to the gorillas, only 8 people are allowed to visit each of the families and for a period not exceeding 1hour. This means that only 40 people are allowed in the park daily. The limits serve to protect gorillas from the risk of exposure to human- borne diseases. In order to execute your bookings effectively, the following information is required:-
- Intended period of stay in Rwanda
- Number of participants in your group
- How many gorilla visits you intend to make
- Each gorilla permit costs US$ 1500 per person per visit.
Please note that children under 15 years of age are not allowed into the park.
The D Day for Gorilla Trekking
On the day of your gorilla trek, you’ll set off very early in the morning to track to the apes from the edge of the forest. Your driver/guide will take you from your lodge to the park headquarters in Kinigi village. The guides here speak excellent English and are very good. They will be taking you to a specific group of ‘habituated’ mountain gorillas, which they know well and are used to human visitors.
You’ll be divided into parties of 8 and after a briefing on safety and gorilla trekking etiquette; you’ll be driven to the start of the trail to reach your mountain gorilla group. Your guide will then lead you along generally clear paths up into the forest, in radio communication with the trackers that stay with the group so that they can be located. The altitude is over 2,500m, so although the pace is unhurried, the hike is tiring and can be steep in parts, taking from 30 minutes to a few hours. Don’t be surprised if you feel a bit breathless at this altitude – this is perfectly normal.
Most trekkers are a little apprehensive – a large silverback male gorilla can weigh up to 200kg, or three times the weight of the average man, but the apprehension usually vanishes when you see the group. Often the gorillas will be spread around a small area of dense vegetation. They’ll continue with their feeding and interaction, unconcerned about their visitors, though watching you with interest. Occasionally one, often a playful youngster, will approach you with curiosity – sometimes coming so close that you’ll have to move away.
Gorilla tracking etiquette
Mountain gorillas share 98% of our DNA and as such are very susceptible to catching human infections, particularly respiratory ones, but they don’t have our immune system to deal with them – a common cold could eventually prove life-threatening. Various rules for gorilla trekking are therefore in place to help protect these precious primates.
Only one group of tourists can visit the mountain gorillas each day and once you’ve found them, you’ll have just one precious hour in their company. If you have a cold, flu or other contagious infection, you shouldn’t go gorilla trekking.
You should keep a distance of 7m from the gorillas, although of course the gorillas themselves are unaware of this and will often get very close, in which case you should try to move away.
When you’re with your group, you should try not to make sudden movements and to keep your voices low so that the group remains relaxed. Although these mountain gorillas are now used to seeing people, do bear in mind that they are still wild animals and can sometimes react unexpectedly, so always heed your guide’s and trackers’ instructions.
You won’t be allowed to eat or drink when you’re with the gorillas.
What kit should you take for a gorilla trekking safari?
Paths on gorilla treks can be slippery, muddy and steep so sturdy walking boots are essential. Some people take thick gardening gloves because of the brambles and nettles en route and you should wear long trousers rather than shorts. A waterproof jacket may come in handy and take some water and a snack in case it’s a long trek. You might also find a walking stick or pole helpful.
For a small fee, porters are available at the trailheads to carry your backpacks and offer a hand during tricky parts of the hike. Even if you don’t really need them, hiring a porter is a helpful way to contribute directly to the local economy and chatting to them en route can enhance your experience both of local life and of your gorilla trek.
Photography on a gorilla trekking safari
If you’re a keen photographer, taking your own pictures of mountain gorillas is one of the most magical photo sessions you’ll ever experience. Do bear in mind that the light can be poor in the rain forest and that use of flash is not permitted. You might also need to protect your camera against heavy rain.
- Direct flights available with SN Brussels airline twice a week from Brussels to Kigali, Rwanda.
- Contact your travel agent for other connections via Nairobi, Kenya, where daily flights are available.
- Flights from Nairobi to Kigali take only one and a half hours.
VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
The Park national des Volcans is the most popular of the four national parks that protect the mountain gorillas. Situated 91 km NW of the capital Kigali, its an easy 2 hour drive on a fairly good road, through the countryside with its beautifully terraced hills that are so characteristic of rural Rwanda, to the town of Ruhengeri. You will then be driven on to the village of Kinigi, the starting point, where instructions will be given on how to behave in the presence of gorillas. The tracking then begins.
ESSENTIALS FOR THE HIKE
- Long pants (jeans/khakis) and a long sleeved shirt
- Good well-worn hiking boots
- Light raincoat
- Camera (no flash)/ personal camcorder
- plenty of drinking water
TRACKING IN BRIEF
Well trained guides lead you to the site where gorillas were encountered the previous day. They then track them to their current location. As these gentle giants’ continuous search for food requires a nomadic lifestyle, they determine the duration of the hike. Although tracking can be a bit physically demanding, the anticipation of an exciting experience ahead is invigorating and the beauty of the jungle and its inhabitants are fascinating. Observing gorillas in their natural habitat and on their terms is considered by many naturalists as the most profound natural history experience in the world. Each strictly regulated 60 minute visit passes all too quickly, and you depart leaving the gorillas to their fragile existence. You then return to camp for a well earned lunch with unforgettable memories of a rare and wondrous experience.