So you will not be surprised to learn that one of my top three wildlife experiences has to be gorilla trekking. There are two species of gorilla - Gorilla gorilla (Western gorilla) and Gorilla beringei (Eastern gorilla) and there are several subspecies too.
The gorilla families that most visitors meet on safari are the mountain gorillas (a subspecies of the Eastern gorilla) located in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and either Magahinga National Park or Bwindi in Uganda.
All locations are simply stunning with different vegetation and scenery and though the species is the same, every sighting that I have been on is different. It is truly one of the most incredible things to walk slowly, with your ranger of course, into a family and sit observing them for that one precious hour.
The silverback male keeps a close eye on his family, whilst eating almost constantly or he sits and watches you watching his family. All the while making sure the family are safe and within his sight, as the mothers sit around, also eating – they do this a lot, occasionally getting up and moving to a youngster to groom them.
On one memorable trek, I saw two quite small juveniles playing and messing about on a small tree, chasing each other up and down, trying to get to the ‘top of the castle’, they were just like human children – screeching and making a terrible noise and bullying each other to show who was the dominate/stronger one.
All of a sudden, a branch broke, the babies fell with a screech to the forest floor and one mother went to them, picked one up (not gently) and dragged him back to the mothers meeting whilst chastising him for being, well, a right scallywag. Nothing like a good telling off in front of the foreign visitors to restore the quiet of the forest. As gorillas and humans share 98.3% of their DNA, there are many similarities and behaviour.
Another country to visit gorillas is the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) where you can see the western lowland gorilla. They are slightly smaller than the mountain gorilla yet no less impressive and still very large. They have a shorter hair – where they live is hot and humid so no need for a warm hairy coat! And the top of their head has a dusting of reddish hair – which is quite on trend at the moment…….
This is a different experience entirely than mountain gorilla trekking. On separate days we walked and observed two families, Jupiter and Neptune, with their silverbacks keeping watch. We followed them through tunnels made through the thick marantaceae and into swamp forests as they searched for fruits, leaves and seeds and also the bark of some trees for vital vitamins.
One search found the entire gorilla family in an enormous tree, with the silverback somehow making it almost to the top so that he could have the best fruit. Any gorillas remaining on lower levels or the ground found themselves dodging the half-eaten fruit that was being rained down.
All gorillas make themselves cosy beds each evening, in the Congo they flatten the marantaceae into a huge soft and rather bouncy bed of leaves. In the evenings as the gorillas bedded down for a night’s sleep, we went out on a night walk, looking for colourful moths and nocturnal primates and frogs.
Walking in the forest at night was extraordinary. We were able to see a whole set of nocturnal animals emerge for their 12 hours of foraging. By day we had trekked gorillas and cooled off in forest streams and a highlight one night was seeing a pouched rat the size of a large rabbit which looks like a giant gerbil!
Simply cannot wait for my next trek!
Light rain jacket – gorillas live in tropical rainforests so there’s a good chance of rain almost the year-round. Pack a light-weight rain jacket that you can roll up in your bag and bring out if necessary.
Long pants, thick long socks and shirts – It’s best not to expose too much skin during the jungle trek and remember to tuck your pants/trousers into your socks – you really don’t want safari creepy crawlies up there.
Boots – These are essential in Rwanda and Uganda. A good quality pair of hiking boots with a deep tread for better grip will serve you well. They can be a little bit more expensive, but you will find these a god send so don’t risk it with a cheap pair of trainers. However in the Congo a pair of trainers (on a one way vacation!) is ideal as you will be wading in water and therefore do NOT want to be wearing heavy or leather boots.
Gloves – In Rwanda and Uganda, during the trek you might be grabbing trees, branches and vines, and your hands can get a bit scratched and generally beaten up if you’re not careful. Pack a tough old pair of gardening gloves. They won’t look great, but you’ll be glad you brought them. You do not need gloves in the Congo.
Water – Avoid buying plastic water bottles, they’re terrible for the environment. Bring a reusable canteen (preferably with a purifying filter built in) or a pack of filtration tablets. You’ll need to drink a lot during the trek.
Energy snacks – The trek to the mountain gorillas (Rwanda/Uganda) isn’t impossible, but it is uphill and therefore tough. Energy snacks like nuts, dried fruit, chocolate or power bars are a great idea. Just remember to take any rubbish with you as you go. In Congo you don't need energy snacks - the terrain is flat and they feed you so well in the camps that you will need to work off the calories!
If you would like to come face-to-face with Africa’s gorillas, discover more on our complete gorilla hub page.