Gorilla tracking is for many travelers – myself included – the number 1 reason to travel to Uganda. Seeing the gigantic black mountain gorillas in their own habitat, following in the footsteps of Dian Fossy, is truly a childhood dream come true! In this article I tell about my experience with the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. In addition, I give practical tips on how to arrange a gorilla tracking, what to wear, what to take with you, etc.
In this article
- Mountain gorillas Uganda
- Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (NP)
- Mountain Gorilla Groups @ Bwindi
- GORILLA TRACKING: MY EXPERIENCE
- From Kisoro to Bwindi Impenetrable NP
- Rushaga Visitor Information Centre
- Gorilla tracking
- Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
- Mountain rainforest
- On the way back
- End of gorilla tracking
- How difficult is a gorilla tracking?
- ARRANGING GORILLA TRACKING: UWA
- What does a gorilla tracking cost?
- Entrance to Bwindi Impenetrable NP
- Accommodation tips Bwindi Impenetrable NP
- Map gorilla tracking
- When is the best time to do a gorilla tracking?
- What clothes do you wear for a gorilla tracking?
- What gear do you take with you during a gorilla tracking?
- Uganda – Rwanda – Congo
Mountain gorillas Uganda
Mountain gorillas are the largest monkey species in the world. Their DNA is approximately 98% similar to humans. Mountain gorillas live in groups of about 5 to a maximum of 40 members, led by a dominant silverback male (from 12 years old). The female gorilla is sexually mature around the age of 8. Sex for lust is rare among gorillas.
Deforestation, disease and illegal poaching result in the fact that the gorilla is an endangered species. Infanticide also occurs among gorillas. A quarter of mountain gorillas do not reach their 1st birthday. Sometimes gorillas also fall prey to a leopard or die from habitation after a fierce fight between males.
There are several types of gorillas: mountain gorillas, western lowland gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas, and Cross River gorillas. You sometimes see lowland gorillas in a zoo, such as the Apenheul in The Netherlands. Mountain gorillas can only survive in the wild. Today we distinguish two types of mountain gorillas: the Bwindi gorilla and the Virunga gorilla. Although they live quite close to each other, they differ somewhat in DNA, size and behavior.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (NP)
Both the local Lukiga word Bwindi and the English word Impenetrable mean one telling thing: impassable When Bwindi Impenetrable became a national park in the early 1990s, the Batwa pygmy people, who had lived here for centuries with the mountain gorillas, were forced to leave the forest. They still live on the edge of the national park, in rather poor conditions. The day after the gorilla tracking we visited a Batwa village near Kisoro.
In 1994, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to the mountain gorillas, the area of 331 km2 is home to ten other primate species and more than a hundred other mammals (boars, antelopes, etc.), snakes, birds, etc. You will find more than two hundred tree species and butterfly species here. The highest point of Bwindi Impenetrable NP is Mount Rwamunyonyi at over 2600m. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of the few forests that survived the ice age and is therefore much older than many other forests in Africa, about 25,000 years old.
Mountain Gorilla Groups @ Bwindi
In total, about 1,100 mountain gorillas live spread over the mountainous area in the border region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda and Rwanda. Bwindi Impenetrable NP, located on the edge of Uganda’s Albertine Rift Valley, is home to approximately 325 mountain gorillas. The rest of live along the ridge of a dormant volcano, the Virunga Mountains. This area includes Mgahinga Gorilla NP (Uganda), Volcanoes NP (Rwanda) and Virunga NP (DRC).
Bwindi Impenetrable NP is home to 17 gorilla groups, divided into 4 sectors (regions):
- Buhoma sector: Habinyanja, Katwe, Mubare, Rushegura
- Nkuringo sector: Bushaho, Christmas, Nkuringo
- Ruhija sector: Bitukura, Kyaguliro, Mukiza, Oruzogo
- Rushaga sector: Bikingi, Bushigye, Bweza, Kahungye, Kutu, Mishaya, Mucunguzi, Nshongi, Rwigi
GORILLA TRACKING: MY EXPERIENCE
On the way from Queen Elizabeth National Park to Kisoro it started to rain cats and dogs. And that went on for eight hours. Oh no, that will be mud and wet feet tomorrow, the day of our gorilla tracking! That morning before leaving for Kisoro we had walked in the warm sun. But here in the mountains of southwest Uganda it felt pretty chilly.
We stayed three nights in Kisoro, the largest town north of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Maybe I slept in the same room as the famous American primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey. In the sixties she also stayed in the Travelers Rest Hotel, a classic! There we sat by the fireplace; thick sweater on, socks, long pants, a cup of hot tea in hand and a cute dog at the feet.
Weeks in advance I had read myself well, bought new stuff and laid everything out the night before the gorilla tracking. Still, I slept restlessly that night. Mixture of nerves and excitement I guess. Did I have everything with me? How heavy would it be? Would we really see the gorillas? At least I shouldn’t overslept, because then they might leave without me tomorrow morning!
From Kisoro to Bwindi Impenetrable NP
From Kisoro it is an almost two hour drive to the Rushaga Visitor Information Center of Bwindi Impenetrable NP. We leave around 6 am, before sunrise. This is by far the worst road we have had during our Uganda tour. You really need a 4×4 and an experienced driver with guts for this.
On the way we passed a couple of travelers on the back of the motorcycle. The route through the mountains is beautiful. For the best view, I recommend sitting behind the driver on this ride. African massage baby! A bumpy ride with breakfast on your lap is a challenge.
As everywhere in Uganda, today we meet many cute waving children, often on their way to school on foot. A young man is washing himself in the river we cross. On the way back, a bicycle is cleared of mud at the same place. The fields are full of banana trees.
The winding roads lead us past a number of tea fields, beautifully green. Here and there a simple house of mud, wood or brick. The sun rises slowly over the crater lake. The irrigated farmlands remind me of the rice fields in Indonesia and Thailand.
When I look out the window, I see a number of mountain peaks just above the morning fog. Now I understand where the movie title Gorillas in the Mist (1988) comes from!
Rushaga Visitor Information Centre
Once we arrive at the Rushaga Visitor Information Center of Bwindi Impenetrable NP, we put on our gaiters. These are a kind of chaps (horse riding), which protect the bottom half of your pants against sharp branches, mud and wetness. It is just before eight in the morning, fortunately it is dry and sunny today.
We take a seat in a small covered grandstand. A group of about 25 women sings and dances to welcome us. Ugandan music touches me. Suddenly you realize: I’m here in Uganda, we’re about to do the gorilla tracking! This is what I’ve been looking forward to all these years.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) then explains the rules that apply during gorilla tracking. For example, wearing a face mask is currently mandatory for mountain gorillas. It is not allowed to visit the mountain gorillas if you are sick or have a cold. You cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow and turned away from the gorillas. If you need to relieve yourself on the way, you should bury it 30 cm deep.
Wooden walking sticks are distributed to those who do not have them with them. We gather at our gorilla tracking group, the Mishaya group. The Mishaya gorilla group lives in the Rushaga sector of the Bwindi Impenetrable NP. This is one of the ten mountain gorilla groups here that are (somewhat) used to humans.
The UWA ranger, security guard and police officer introduce themselves to us. The AK47 serves to chase away any aggressive forest elephants. After a last toilet visit we drive in our 4×4 to the starting point of the gorilla tracking a little further on.
At the beginning of the hiking trail we meet our so-called porters. These local young ladies and gentlemen, mostly students, will carry your backpack for USD 20. They also give you a hand during the gorilla tracking. By hiring one you support the local population. I didn’t let myself be told that twice. Mrs B has strong but soft hands. I was so happy, without her I might not have made it.
Because of my asthma I was allowed to walk in the front of the group during the gorilla tracking, very nice. That way I could keep my own pace more. People who are not used to this kind of mountainous conditions were well taken into account. Admittedly, I had practiced at home in the dunes for a number of weekends beforehand; the reality with gorilla tracking is of course slightly different.
The first part we walk in open countryside. It’s a beautiful sunny morning. What a luck! Within fifteen minutes we are soaking in our hiking boots in a piece of land that yesterday turned into a swamp. Not surprising, after all, it rained for many hours the day before. Luckily my socks stay dry thanks to my Gore-Tex hiking boots.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Once we arrive at the jungle-like forest, we start walking uphill. This is where the toughest part of gorilla tracking begins. Thank goodness for the carrier and my cane! Fortunately, we regularly stop to catch our breath and drink a sip of water. Happy with my water backpack!
About 45 minutes after departure, the UWA ranger indicates that the spotters who have gone ahead have found our gorilla group. We can hear them calling in the distance. OMG, we’re close! Quickly put on a face mask, put away a walking stick, put on garden gloves, drink water, camera at the ready. At this point you are supposed to give your day backpack to your carrier. Eating, drinking and smoking near the gorillas is not allowed. Flashing with your camera is also not allowed.
OK, here we go! Now it gets really exciting… Gorillas here we come!
With the gorillas
After fifteen minutes of hard scrambling (and slipping) along the dense mountain wall, I see the first gorilla. A silverback male, nibbling on the leaves. Wow!
I stand about 7 meters away and try to take a nice picture. That is not easy with the many branches and leaves in between, in combination with the movements of the animal. That 7 meters is the minimum distance that you must keep during the gorilla tracking.
After about 10 minutes the silverback gorilla continues walking and we follow it at a safe distance. We come to a group of about four gorillas – including a small one. So cute! The sun shines through the trees. What impressive beasts. And how cool to see them in their own natural habitat!
The gorillas are almost constantly on the move. Eating, playing, grooming, climbing trees. Sometimes they look at us, with those beautiful brown eyes. I’m just always just too late to click haha
Formally, the Mishaya gorilla group currently consists of seven members. This number continues to change due to births, new members joining the group, and deaths. They’re just people in that regard.
The group takes its name from the silverback who has led the group since 2010, who is called Mishaya. The silverback has something that looks a bit like a cleft lip, but it’s the result of a fight.
The dense vegetation and the sloping, slippery surface make photography challenging to say the least. We are standing on uneven, compost-like ground in which you keep sinking and slipping away. Leaves, branches, lianas-like roots of plants and trees that you almost trip over, fallen tree stumps, etc.
The circumstances make it difficult to keep your balance and to stay still. In the last part of the gorilla tracking I find a tree stump that I can sit on to quietly observe the gorillas.
A few more movements of the group follow. The gorillas continue to nibble quietly. Our guides cut some branches here and there to improve the path and visibility. A four-year-old gorilla drums on its chest. What a manly monkey! The silverback continues to enjoy its own view for a long time, with its back to us. Well, that is nature, it cannot be forced. And that’s a good thing.
The hour with the mountain gorillas has flown by. That is the maximum time you can stay with the group with a regular gorilla tracking. The guide indicates that this is the time to take our last photos and videos. Just as we’re a few feet away from the group, the gorillas start moving again—in our direction. They slide down the tree and look at us. Like they wanted to say goodbye. So sweet!
On the way back
Once out of the forest and down the ridge, we say goodbye to the spotters. Now is the time to tip them. We gave UGX 10,000 per person for the spotters and UXG 15,000 per person per employee approximately. Thanks to the spotters, we were able to find the gorillas quite quickly. After saying goodbye, the spotters go back to study the gorillas further and to ensure that they do not show any abnormalities (behavior, illness, etc.). The sun is shining, a good time for a group photo with our porters (unfortunately I don’t have one).
Once further on the way back it all seems to go even faster. Although the hill up is quite a bit of work. At the top of the hill we eat our lunch. We enjoy the beautiful view of the mountainous surroundings with a mud house here and there. A few local children in dirty, torn clothes look at us curiously from a distance. Now I’m disappointed that we don’t have our yo-yos, crayons and coloring pages with us, to keep our backpack as light as possible.
End of gorilla tracking
We receive our gorilla tracking certificate from the UWA ranger. Then we walk the last part back to our 4×4 jeep. Our driver Baker is already waiting for us.
A few smart local souvenir sellers are waiting for us at the end of the walking path. I buy a nice wooden gorilla mask. I don’t know how I’m going to get it home, but I couldn’t pass this one up.
We pay the porters and say goodbye. On to Kisoro! Another two hours bumpy bump on the muddy, winding mountain roads, but what a great view!
Tired but satisfied we return to our hotel in the afternoon. Sweaty and everything covered in mud. Fortunately, there is a cleaning service for our shoes and gaiters. I order a massage for that afternoon. Two days later I still have muscle pain haha
How difficult is a gorilla tracking?
How difficult you find the gorilla tracking is very personal. This depends, among other things, on your physical condition, the weather conditions and how heavily packed you are. My 68-year-old neighbor went up the mountain faster than me during the gorilla tracking. Someone who can run, etc. can handle this fine, although you have to be lucky with how far the gorillas are. I had a group mate who lives in Switzerland and she said afterwards that she could have done a hike that day haha
Depending on the gorilla group you are assigned to, the gorilla tracking takes 2-6 hours. If you have medical problems, you can request ‘easy track’, but this is not guaranteed. I found the gorilla tracking absolutely physically challenging for myself and I was happy that we found the gorillas relatively quickly (within 1 hour). But I’m just not strong at hiking uphill and I have asthma, which doesn’t help.
ARRANGING GORILLA TRACKING: UWA
To participate in a gorilla tracking, you need a permit. The UWA headquarters (Plot. 7, Kira Road, Kamwookya, Kampala) is the only one that issues gorilla tracking permits for Uganda. In principle, both tour organizations and individual travelers can purchase gorilla tracking permits from UWA. As an individual, you can purchase a maximum of two gorilla tracking permits per month. These go on sale three months in advance on the first business day (Mon-Fri) of that month.
To apply for a gorilla tracking permit, you will need a copy of your passport, among other things. Not all payment methods are accepted, such as credit cards. If you are unable to arrange a permit yourself, inquire with tour organizations about availability. For example, when there are no more permits available directly from UWA for the date you want. There are numerous tour organizations in Uganda that are happy to arrange gorilla tracking permits for you.
Tour organizations often buy a number of permits well in advance. Tour organizations often charge a fee of USD 60-100 for a separate permit. This is to reimburse the costs for telephone reservations, booking and collecting the permit at UWA and the delivery of the permit to you, plus other necessary administrative actions regarding the gorilla tracking permits. When you book the gorilla tracking as part of an organized tour, the tour organization sometimes gives you a discount of up to half on the normal permit price.
What does a gorilla tracking cost?
If you think 1 hour with the gorillas is too short for you, consider a Gorilla Habituation (if available). During this 3-year training, the wild mountain gorillas gradually become accustomed to the presence of humans. During a Gorilla Habituation Tour in Bwindi Impenetrable NP you will stay – as part of a group of up to 4 visitors – with the gorillas for a maximum of 4 hours. Cost: USD 1,500 per person per day.
If you think 1 hour with the gorillas is too short for you, consider a Gorilla Habituation (if available). During this 3-year training, the wild mountain gorillas gradually become accustomed to the presence of humans. During a Gorilla Habituation Tour in Bwindi Impenetrable NP you will stay – as part of a group of up to 4 visitors – with the gorillas for a maximum of 4 hours. Costs USD 1,500 per person per day.
Entrance to Bwindi Impenetrable NP
Traveling to Bwindi Impenetrable NP by public transport on the morning of your gorilla tracking is not recommended. This is because the buses do not leave on time. You really don’t want to be late for this, if only because of the permit costs.
If you want to travel to Bwindi Impenetrable NP with your own transport, then a 4×4 jeep is really a must, for example a Toyota Land Cruiser. Having your own transport has the advantage that you can stop for photos whenever you want. The ride is so beautiful!
But as mentioned before, the roads between Kisoro and the starting point of the gorilla tracking in Bwindi are very bad and require a lot of guts and skills as a driver. I’m not scared by nature, but I was glad at that moment that we were driven, especially so early in the morning.
Staying near the entrance of the Rushaga Visitor Information Center saves a 2-hour drive in the morning. On the other hand, if you stay in Kisoro, you can easily take other tours from there the next day.
For access to the Bwindi Impenetrable NP, as an adult foreign non-resident you pay USD 40 park entrance fee, plus UXG 30,000 for a 4×4 car. This is often included in tours. Leave on time and don’t forget to bring your permit. If you have your own transport, make sure you have offline maps available for navigating. The minimum age to participate in a gorilla tracking is 15 years old.
Accommodation tips Bwindi Impenetrable NP
Looking for suitable accommodation near Bwindi Impenetrable NP? Book a minimum of 2 nights around the date of your gorilla tracking. Accommodation also provides your packed lunch on request.
- Gorilla Safari Lodge – directly at the south entrance (Rushaga sector)
- Rushaga Gorilla Lodge – about 15 km (9 miles) from the south entrance with swimming pool
- Travellers Rest Hotel – centrally located in Kisoro town, a classic!
Map gorilla tracking
This map includes places and spots mentioned in this article (and more). This one is ‘smartphone friendly’; you can easily use it via the Google Maps app. Click the icon at the top left to open the menu and see the categories. To adapt the map to your own preferences and interests, (de)select a category. Via Google Drive you can copy the map to your own My Google Maps account.
When is the best time to do a gorilla tracking?
Gorilla tracking is possible all year round in Bwindi Impenetrable NP. Basically June, July, August, September and December are the best months to visit Uganda and to do a gorilla tracking. There is not so much rain then, which makes gorilla tracking easier. The temperature in Bwindi Impenetrable NP then fluctuates between 10°C and 23°C during the day.
The summer months and the Christmas holidays are the peak season for both Uganda in general and specific gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable NP. This makes it extra important to arrange permits in time (3 months in advance). January and February are low season months, which also has its advantages.
What clothes do you wear for a gorilla tracking?
- Waterproof hiking boots (Gore-Tex) that are comfortable
- Long sporty pants
- Shirt with long sleeves (e.g. running shirt, possibly cardigan/sweater over it)
- Light weight rainproof jacket
- Hiking socks
- Women: sports bra
The long sleeves protect your arms against insect bites, sun and abrasions from branches. You should also put on insect repellent with DEET and sunscreen in the morning before departure. Under the trees it was not warm, in the open area it was. But how hot you feel also depends on the time of day, the weather, how hard you are physically, etc.
What gear do you take with you during a gorilla tracking?
In a comfortable daypack (approx. 20L) you take with you:
- Your phone and passport
- Packed lunch and energy bars
- At least 2 liters of water each (possibly in drinking backpack with mouthpiece)
- Fine camera with a large optical zoom (30x or more), which you can use well
- 2 fully charged camera batteries, memory card(s) with sufficient space and a clean lens cloth
- Garden gloves
- Pack of tissues
- Optional: walking stick(s), poncho, binoculars, small pack of sunscreen and deet, small towel or tennis wristband (sweat)
Uganda – Rwanda – Congo
Good to know in terms of safety, prices and border crossing:
- Uganda: Due to an Ebola outbreak, there are currently certain regions in Uganda that you are not allowed to travel in or out of (lockdown). Please check the travel advice from your country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If you are living in The Netherlands, please see the travel advice for Uganda here.
- Rwanda: Rwanda is managed with a fairly tight hand, with the result that the travel advice for Rwanda, at least from The Netherlands Foreign Affairs, has been positive for some time now. The Ebola outbreak in Uganda can make border crossing to/from Rwanda more difficult, in the form of health checks and possibly mandatory quarantine. A gorilla tracking in Rwanda is >2x as expensive (USD 1500 p.p.) as in Uganda.
- Congo (DRC): Gorilla tracking in DCR is the cheapest of the three countries. A permit there currently costs USD 400-450 p.p. However, the area in the DRC where mountain gorillas occur has been unsettled for years. There is currently, at least from The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a negative travel advice for DCR (red). Rebels are active in the east and many residents have fled to Uganda. DRC accuses Rwanda of supporting rebels in eastern Congo.
Gorilla tracking vs. chimp tracking
A few days before we did the gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable NP, we did the chimp tracking in Kibale Forest National Park. Unlike the gorilla tracking, I had little to no expectations from the chimp tracking. Chimp tracking in Kibale Forest NP costs USD 200 per person separately. This was included as standard with our tour. I like it.
With the chimp tracking we had to run quite a few times behind the ranger, trying to keep up with the chimp. This is the way to find the rest of the group. It’s running and standing still. Shortly before that, we waited for an hour at a high tree, hoping that the chimpanzee would come down.
Running after that chimpanzee wasn’t easy, by the way, with all the natural obstacles along the way. It was a bit of an obstacle run meets mud race, so to speak. Kibale NP was less mountainous than Bwindi NP.
What was really cool about the chimp tracking is that a few chimpanzees eventually sat down on a large tree trunk right in front of us. First one and then another one. They sat down and snuggled together. And I was sitting on a big log about eight feet away, watching them. The chimpanzees were very nice in an open area in the forest, which made photographing easier. I thought the chimp tracking was really cool, especially if you are in Uganda.
Have fun in Uganda!
I hope you liked/interested/useful this article. Feel free to share it on social media. If you have any questions or additional tips, feel free to ask them at the bottom of this article. Would you like to go gorilla tracking in Uganda, or have you done that before?
The attentive reader will have noticed that a number of photos in this article were taken by my travel companion Heike Newinger from Germany. She dragged her Sony A7 III on the gorilla tracking. With her permission I was allowed to add some of her best gorilla photos to this article. Thank you Heike! Follow Heike on Instagram.
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Last Updated on 11/15/2022 by Elisa Flitter Fever