A Walk With Giants – Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

April 20, 2015

Johnny Africa shares how you can travel in Africa on a budget (and meet silverback gorillas!)

If you’ve followed my blog for a while you might have noticed that one continent is still curiously missing! Africa is very high on my list to go to, but in the meantime I invited Africa expert John of Johnny Africa to guest write about one of his favorite Africa experiences: going on an overland tour in Uganda on a quest to see gorillas in the wild. Be sure to also check out his blog for incredible photos and a wealth of information on travelling in Africa. — Marek

While living in South Africa, I went on countless safaris and saw some of the most amazing things the world has to offer. One of these things was something only a handful of people get to experience each year: a walk in the jungle with our closest relatives, the mountain gorillas.

Gorilla trekking is one of the most unforgettable experiences you can have in Africa, and I made sure it was firmly on the top of my must-do list. Gorillas are found in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. All three countries offer this hike at different prices. Gorilla treks require a bit of planning, money, and physical endurance but it is an amazing experience that will stay with you forever.

Choosing a tour

Like most things in Africa, seeing any sort of wildlife is not a cheap proposition. Most of Africa’s top sights are catered towards retirees who have had Africa on their bucket lists forever, and have ample amounts of money to spend. This certainly does not mean someone on a tight budget cannot experience it. Just don’t expect to be pampered and dined the entire time!

Passing through the Equator on my tour.

Costs for the trek:
There are two things to bear in mind when gorilla trekking: the cost of the gorilla permit, and the cost of the tour itself. The governments of all three countries requires trekkers to obtain a permit to venture into the jungle and see these creatures. There is no negotiating on this one, and the price is final. For Uganda, the cost is $600 and for Rwanda, the cost is $750.

During the rainy season (which is when I went, and it is not that rainy), the cost in Uganda was $350. The gorilla permit ONLY covers entering the hike itself, and your park ranger guides. Transportation, lodging, and food are a separate matter.

There is where the overland tour came in. These are popular group tours for budget travelers wanting to see Africa. Travel is by semi-truck and lodging is by camping. Food is provided and think of it as basic campfire food. It’s nothing luxurious but it’s cheap, and most of all, you’re traveling with other like-minded people which for me, made the trip a far more memorable experience. I did a number of these overland tours visiting many different African countries and I still talk to many of the people I traveled with.

The overland truck with Nomad Tours, my home for the week.

Cost for my trip was about $550 which also included a stop in the Queen Elizabeth National Park for a safari. There are many companies that offer these style of tours, and I chose Nomad Tours as my operator for this trip.

When I arrived in Kampala, I also inquired about gorilla trek prices from private operators, aka renting a car with a driver. The cheapest prices I could find were about:

1 person: 900$
2 people: $500 per person
3 people: $400 per person
4-5 people: $350 per person

Again, these are just prices for tours (transportation, food, lodging) and the gorilla permit is always in addition to this!

Rwanda vs Uganda vs DRC?
Gorillas are one of the main attractions for these countries so where to begin? As much as I heard how beautiful the DRC is, there is ongoing conflict in the gorilla trekking region, visas are difficult to obtain, and it just seemed to be too much of a headache so I crossed that one off. Uganda and Rwanda are both viable options, with Rwanda requiring no visas and Uganda charging $50 for foreigners. I ended up going with Uganda because of the discount the government provides during the rainy season ($600 to $350). Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is located very close to Rwanda’s main airport so those strapped on time should consider Rwanda.

How does one find the gorillas?
I know, this confused me at first too. I mean, am I really expected just to wander aimlessly through the jungle looking for these guys? Yes and no. The gorillas you are looking for are all in “families”, so the dominant silverback, females, kids etc., and they are constantly being monitored by the park rangers. When it comes your turn to trek, a few park rangers will already be out in the morning looking for them, and you will follow behind them. Why do the park rangers track them you ask? Because gorillas have become drastically endangered.

Driving to the Gorillas

We began our journey in Kampala where I met my fellow trekkers. We were 12 in total. The journey from Kampala to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (I know cool name right?), takes the whole day. The main road was washed out from the rain the previous night so we had to take a much longer route to get to the forest. This kind of stuff happens all the time in Africa, and you just learn to shrug it off, say “This is Africa”, and move on.

The drive was long, but thankfully there are other people on the truck so we all made conversation getting to know each other. Also, Uganda’s countryside is absolutely stunning. It’s the greenest country I’ve ever seen and I could always count on gazing out the window for ten minutes to pass the time by.

One big and awesome surprise Uganda has in store are their cows. The ankole cows, a breed native to Uganda and South Sudan, have the biggest horns in the world, reaching up to 1m per horn!

We stopped by towns to load up on supplies, and after some serious bumpy riding, we arrived at our campsite at 11pm (when it would have been 6pm if the main road wasn’t washed out!) We were all exhausted, and immediately went to bed. Because of our group’s size, we were split into two days of gorilla trekking as the parks prefer to keep groups smaller so not to startle the gorillas (works for me). My permit was for the second day so I spent the entire day walking around our campsite, soaking up the scenery, talking to locals, and relaxing on the lake.

The beautiful scenery from our campsite!

Finally, it was my turn. Wake up call was at 5:30am as we drove deep into the Ugandan jungles. We were greeted by the park rangers and briefed for what was to come. Our comrades from the day before ran into monsoon rains the and I saw their defeated looks so I was nervous. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful day on our trek.

A misty but beautiful morning at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

The trek can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 8 hours. They are constantly on the move looking for food. This is not a zoo after all! However long it takes to find them, that’s how long you’ll be walking. You will not leave this place without seeing gorillas! Once you find them, you get to spend 1 hour with them. You can take all the pictures you want, and although you are not allowed to touch them, they are allowed to touch you.

Hiking through the jungle!

It took us only one hour to find them, walking through the jungle as our guides hacked a trail for us. It’s impossible to put in words how amazing it was to be mere inches from these magnificent animals. They are so human-like in the way they walk, eat, and just go about their lives. The big silverbacks are massive animals and you can just somehow feel how incredibly strong they are. They can easily kill a man with a swing of an arm. The silverbacks don’t do much; they know they’re king of the land and they just chill and eat, looking at you with no fear or worry. I had a scary moment when I was about 2m away trying to photograph one of the silverbacks.

Silverback kicking back and eating.

The ranger told us not to make any sudden movements but as he said those words, I slipped and the silverback started walking towards me. I thought for sure it was the end, but he got to about half a meter from me, grunted, and walked away.

Two teenage gorillas surprised us by giving us a show of them play fighting each other.

The young gorillas are the more entertaining. One of the baby gorillas snuck up on us and smacked me on the leg, and then proceeded to eat right in front of us. Two teenage gorillas started play fighting in front of us, almost like they knew we were there and wanted to show off for us. The rest of the family we visited were just going about their daily routines, which mostly consists of eating, while we were frantically trying to snap up photos and videos.

Don’t be shy, make sure to get some selfies in the process.

In the end, take all the pictures you want, it probably won’t be enough. The best memories stay in your head because nothing will fully capture those moments with the mountain gorillas. Gorilla trekking in Uganda was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my time traveling the world, and if the opportunity came again, I wouldn’t think twice about it.

Some celebratory drinks with the group after a successful hike!

Check out the Johnny Africa blog for more travel reports from all over Africa.

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