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.
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.