I went Gorilla trekking at Bwindi impenetrable forest national park on the 8th of May 2021. This was still during covid period meaning there were significantly less tourists than pre-covid times. Saying that, I think it made my experience so much better. Here is everything I learnt and loved about my experience Gorilla Trekking in Uganda.
When to Book Gorilla Trekking In Uganda
The Ugandan Wildlife Authority limits the amount of gorilla trekking visitors to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park to 72 people each day. If you look at pre-covid recommendations, it is recommended that you book 6 months in advance to be able to get a permit. I booked 2 days in advance and there was lots of space! As a result of covid, the permits were discounted (and will stay discounted until 30th June 2021). If you think you are too last minute to go no harm in asking if there are free spots!
How to Book Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
To be able to get a permit you need to apply for one via the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. This requires contacting them directly and in some cases picking up the permits in Kampala. The simpler (though slightly more expensive) option is to book through a safari company. This is easier if you are staying away from the park as it will include transfer. I personally booked through insight safaris and was really impressed by them. There are safari company recommendations on the Bwindi National Park website. Your passport details are required for the permit so do not be alarmed if the safari company requests this information.
How to get Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
The best way to get to the gorillas is by road. If you have booked with a tour operator they will pick you up from your accommodation and take you to the visitors centre. There are 4 different locations that you can start your Gorilla trek from so make sure if you are driving yourself you go to the correct location according to your permit.
What to expect when you arrive at the visitors centre
You must be at the visitors centre for 8am sharp, registration starts at 7.30am. When you arrive at the visitors centre, you will be met by the rangers of the day. As this was during covid, my temperature was taken and masks were expected to be worn. You must show your passport to check-in and your permit will be checked.
When everyone has checked in, you will be given a briefing. I was actually the only visitor on the day I turned up! The rangers waited until 8.10am until they started the briefing so make sure you turn up on time. The rangers will explain all of the rules and which family you will visit. I learnt from my previous research, they will split you into groups with the fitter people going to the families a long walk away and the people preferring to walk less to the closer families. As it was just me, we went to the closest family!
They will explain that if you are sick you should not visit the gorillas for risk of transmission of disease and if you do not see the families you are entitled to a new permit or a refund.
Hiring a Porter
At the briefing your guide will explain about hiring a porter. This will cost approx. 15 USD per day. They will carry your bag as well as helping you on rough ground if needed. I usually wouldn’t get a porter for a hike as I carry my own stuff but this time I did as the money goes directly back into the community. The porters are not salaried so depend solely on tourists paying them and they are all members of local communities. If you are travelling during or soon after covid, remember that the livelihoods of many people has disappeared for over a year so tip generously if you can.
The walk to Gorillas and how to find them
The walk to the gorillas could be long or short. Gorillas are wild animals that roam freely so will not be close to the visitors centre even if you ask nicely. By chance they could be really near or not, it is a chance of the day! If you have walked for 4 hours without seeing the gorillas, the guides will turn back and go to the visitors centre. However, the guides almost always know where they are…how you wonder?
So each day there are 2 rangers that stay with each gorilla family and observe them all day. They are there not for tourists but to observe the gorilla’s behaviour, make sure they are healthy and feedback this information to researchers. These rangers leave the gorillas each evening and then return to the same spot early the next morning. They then find the gorillas using tracks/faeces. The tourist guides then communicate with the observing rangers to find the family. You know you are getting close when you start to hear human shouts coming from the middle of the undergrowth.
There are paths that the rangers will follow but there will come a point where you must leave the path to follow the gorillas. The name of the national park ‘impenetrable’ comes into play at this point. The forest is very dense so the rangers lead with a machete to create a path. It’s all part of the experience!
Who will be with you when visiting the Gorillas:
When you set off, you of course will not be alone. You will be accompanied by your fellow visitor group (in my case, this was me, myself and I). There is a head guide who will perform your briefing. The Head Guide that was with me had been working in the park with the gorillas for 29 years – talk about experienced!
As well as this, there will be 2 rangers who are armed (so be prepped for this if you don’t like firearms). The guns are not to kill the animals but so scare them off if necessary. There are Elephants that roam in Bwindi Forest and elephants can get very aggressive towards tourists. The guns are to fire in the air to frighten them off. If you have chosen to have a porter, they will stay next to you to help you out. You will then meet the rangers that stay with the gorillas when you arrive.
What happens when you are with the Gorillas?
When you arrive to the gorilla family, the ranger will give you an extra briefing of how to behave now the gorillas are close. When you are near the gorillas, the main rule is to follow the ranger’s guidance at all times. They know these animals very well and can predict their movements better than you can. You will be allowed up to a distance of 7m to avoid any contamination of human diseases, they will show you where to stand and go. Unless you have opted for the full day experience, you will be limited to 1 hour with the gorillas. This time limit is to stop the gorillas being too disrupted. While you are with the gorillas you are not allowed to eat or drink so make sure you top yourself up with fuel beforehand, no one wants to be hangry when there are gorillas around!
What to do if a Gorilla approaches you
The gorillas may approach you or move past you. There are very used to humans and have learnt that we are not a threat (positive thing right?). Even if they are very close, resist the urge to touch them. You do not know if you are the carrier of a virus that could be fine for you but deadly to them. And on that note, I visited during covid-19 times so masks were mandatory whilst in the proximity of the gorillas. I wouldn’t be surprised if this rule stays for a while to protect the gorillas.
Of course, the main thing to do when in the company of the gorillas is to enjoy them! They are such amazing creatures so enjoy observing them and seeing their behaviours. When I was there, they ate, chilled and farted A LOT! The rangers also understand their calls to each other for example they knew when one of them was communicating that they had found a particularly delicious plant.
Gorilla Photo Time
If it isn’t on Instagram it didn’t happen right? Aha just kidding but you definitely want to document this once in a life time experience! First rule is no flash photography at all, so turn that off. I used my 75-300mm lens because I thought that the gorillas would be really far away but actually they were closer than expected but I got some great zoomy shots. Unless you are a camera wizard, you probably won’t have enough time to change lenses. If you have a spare camera body I would say take that with a different lens on. I used my phone to get videos/pictures when the gorillas were close. My guide even took some shots on my phone while I was using my camera, what a babe!
What to wear Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Definitely wear long sleeves. I was in 2 minds to wear shorts and I am very glad I wore long trousers. There are safari ants in Bwindi forest – they are not your friend. Definitely tuck your trousers into your socks as they can climb up your shoes into your trousers. And believe me ants in your pants is not a phrase that you want to live!
As it was rainy season, I wore a rain jacket and it actually rained the last 10 minutes of my trek. When we were trekking off the path, I used the long sleeves of my rain jacket to move plants/trees out of my path. Another option would be to wear gloves to stop your hands getting pricked by thorns.
Hiking shoes are a must. I went in rainy season so the ground was slippery underfoot. The ground is also very uneven so proper hiking shoes are really needed.
What to bring Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Do not forget your passport! You will need your passport to prove that you have the correct permit. You do not want to get up early, go all the way there and realise you don’t have your passport.
Bring enough food/water for a full day trekking. The maximum you will be walking will be 4 hours to the gorillas, 1 hour with the gorillas and then up to 4 hours back. So you could be out for 9 hours so bring more than enough water and food for that. Better to have too much than too little I think. And of course a camera/phone for all of your beautiful shots.
Is Gorilla Trekking in Uganda Safe?
Gorilla Trekking in general is a very safe activity. The gorillas are very used to humans and are not aggressive towards them. As with all hiking activities, there is a risk associated with it. If you have an accident and for whatever reason cannot finish the hike, there is something called an ‘African helicopter’ that is available if required. Porters will come from the village with a stretcher and carry you back. It is 350USD if you need this service so make sure you are able to pay just in case.