Trekking to see the gorilla in the wild is very different depending on the species and location of gorilla that you are tracking, but it is always worth it!
Knowing that one is merely a few feet away from these magnificent, gentle beasts, who are so accepting of your presence is a truly humbling experience, one that you never forget. It’s fascinating to observe a creature which in essence, is so like ourselves in so many respects!
Gorilla mother and baby in the Bwindi forest – courtesy Bwindi Lodge, Volcanoes safaris
To me, every gorilla safari is simply the best – there is no wrong choice here! But it is important to match your individual requirements and preferences to the right safari to ensure you have the experience you are hoping for. Below are some differences (and similarities) between trekking mountain gorillas and lowland gorillas, and between the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda…
There are only estimated to be around 1000 mountain gorillas left in Africa, which is a minuscule number. They live in only two locations; Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and on the Virunga range of extinct volcanoes.
View of the Virunga volcanoes from Virunga Lodge, Rwanda - courtesy of Sinamatella
This habitat spreads over three national parks around the borders of Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park), Uganda (Mgahinga National Park) and the DRC (Virunga National Park).
The plight of the mountain gorillas has been in the public awareness since the 1980s and therefore Rwanda and Uganda have a well-developed tourism industry. There are plenty of options for accommodation, as well as other activities to experience while there, such as chimpanzee trekking or cultural visits to local tribes.
Performance by the Batwa tribe – courtesy of Virunga Lodge and Black Bean Productions
The western lowland gorillas reside in the lowland rain forests of central Africa, with habituated groups that can be trekked in the Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic.
They are much more in number, but there are fewer opportunities to track them, and the best place to see them is in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo. Here it is best to spend 7 to 10 days in Odzala in which you undertake a range of activities alongside gorilla tracking. This is a much more intimate experience with the only other visitors that you will see are the very few that are also staying in your lodge.
Walking through the bai from Lango camp, Congo - courtesy of Odzala Discovery Camps
In Rwanda and Uganda, you wake early and head to the park headquarters for briefing. Depending on which national park you are visiting, there are around five or six groups of eight people, each led by guides, park rangers and trackers. Each group tracks one family of gorillas.
The journey begins right from the beginning! One invariably starts off walking through the African villages and small-holdings which is uplifting - the scenery is absolutely beautiful and the children run with you, practising their English or simply pleased to have different company!
Then you walk through - in the case of Uganda - primary forest, until such time that you find your gorilla family. The walks can take anything from around an hour to around four or five hours - depending upon which gorilla group you have and where they are.
Trekking through the forest in Rwanda - courtesy of Bisate Lodge, Wilderness Safaris
In Rwanda, you trek through bamboo forest instead. In both of these the terrain is steep as you are climbing through the forest on the mountain sides. You are able to have porters to assist you with your bags and camera equipment.
In the Congo the gorilla trekking is combined with other days spent in the bais (savannah clearings) where forest elephant and forest buffalo can be seen too. This is an Africa of old, where the experience is utterly magical, with no other tourists.
The maximum group in the Congo is four, so all-round, this is a far more intimate, personal and pristine experience. The trekking tends to be an hour or so away from your lodge, you do not have to travel to a headquarters first as your lodge is already immersed in the forest.
Deck at Ngaga camp – courtesy of Odzala Dicovery Camps
The walks are all pretty flat – good news for those who might struggle with the steeper inclines on treks in Uganda and Rwanda. However the overall experience (such as the transfer between camps) is much more adventurous than those one may have in Rwanda or Uganda.
On my last experience trekking mountain gorillas, the guide spoke to us of when he worked with Dian Fossey and he communicated with the gorillas in a language that they understood.
He made comforting, reassuring noises that put them at rest and you watched as they interacted with one another, enjoying the bond that existed between the mothers and their babies. Being herbivores, they have a gentle aura around them, despite their colossal size.
In Rwanda, should your gorillas move to a clearing of the bamboo forest, then the photography tends to be easier as the light is good. You cannot use a flash when taking images of gorillas, and the light is low in the forest.
Arboreal Western lowland gorilla – courtesy of Odzala Discovery Camps
The main difference between this and tracking the lowland gorilla in the Congo is, in my opinion, is the behaviour of the gorillas. The western lowland gorillas in the Congo are arboreal – and therefore spend much of their time bouncing through the trees, sometimes travelling so you move to keep up with them.
This makes the experience far more immersive as they are always active and this offers an engaging overall experience. However, if taking photographs is the prime reason for your trek, then the more passive mountain gorillas might be best for you (who are mostly ground-dwelling).
Additionally you are able to spend time with an expert primatologist Magda who has been researching gorillas here in the Congo for over 17 years, for a really detailed understanding of the gorilla’s behaviour and family interactions, something that is a complete privilege.
Mother and baby western lowland gorilla in Odzala-Kokoua National Park – courtesy of Odzala Discovery Camps
Most of the year is favourable for mountain gorilla trekking with the exception of April and May which are the rainy months in East Africa. Having said that, you are in rain forests and therefore, it doesn't make a huge amount of difference except that it is easier to trek in the dry season.
Similarly trekking in the Congo can be done year-round, however June to September and December to February are the driest periods, (though rainfall does still occur during these times).
For 2018-19 in the Republic of Congo, the permits are $350.00 per viewing.
For Uganda they are around $600 and for Rwanda the permits cost $1500 per viewing.
Mother and baby mountain gorillas - courtesy of Bisate Lodge, Rwanda and Crookes & Jackson
Whilst some travellers may be slightly surprised at the cost of tracking permits, the reality is that this money actually goes directly into the anti-poaching and conservation work and to date, the results show that the gorilla numbers are steadily increasing - albeit very slowly. This is wonderful news! The treks are worth every penny - and more!
In fact, we would always recommend that one treks twice, as the first time around, one can hardly believe what you are seeing, and most people are desperately trying to film the one hour experience on camera and video, with the end result being that one misses so much! This is why, the second time around, one can simply stop and relax and watch and witness your extraordinary group.
Kayaking safaris from Mboko Camp, Congo – courtesy of Odzala Discovery Camps
Having undertaken gorilla safaris in all these countries, my personal favourite is in the Congo, as for me, the interactive and more immediate experience was far more thrilling. I also love the combination of seeing wildlife in the two other regions of Odzala when not gorilla trekking.
But if you have the time, I would suggest perhaps visiting both the mountain gorilla in Rwanda and the western lowland gorillas in the Congo, for the best overall experience. This would take at least 10 days and there are flights from Kigali to Brazzaville.
Exterior of Bisate lodge in Rwanda – courtesy of Wilderness safaris
Soon one can add another country to this experience; the Central African Republic. Here you can track western lowland gorillas and you also have the greatest concentration of elephant in one place, all day round, as the forest elephants all visit Sangha Bai to collect minerals and water. On my trip we counted 109 elephants – all different families – coming together and it was a phenomenal experience!