Travel Notebook

Gorilla Trekking Q&A with David Sugden

What is gorilla trekking?

Gorilla trekking is probably one of the most fantastic close-up wildlife encounters in the world, almost exclusively available in the Parc des Volcans in Rwanda, the Bwindi Impenetrable forest in Uganda and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The experience of being with these magnificent animals while they play, eat, socialize, nest and even sleep is truly magical and definitely unforgettable.

Is gorilla trekking safe?

It took many years and incredible patience on the part of wildlife researchers and conservationists to understand the behavior of the mountain Gorillas and, in doing so, they were able to establish personal rules and guidelines that they would need to follow when close to the Gorillas whilst getting their research done. In order to protect the Gorillas from humans, and vice versa, safety precautions and rules have been set in place to ensure the safety and security of visitors. Before visitors can begin their trek into the forest to meet up with their assigned Gorilla group, it is mandatory that they spend time with their ranger/guide during his very thorough briefing of the rules, and understand the acceptable behavior required around the Gorilla family once they have been located. The ranger/guide is a master at reading the mood of the Gorilla family and he will constantly be letting his group of visitors know how to stay safe among the Gorillas at all times during the visit. It is almost as though the Ranger/Guide can communicate with the Silverback during the visit.

It is important for safety reasons that trekkers have a reasonable fitness level in order to hike up to and back from the Gorillas. It is also only prudent that trekkers be honest about their fitness; that way a request can be put in with the park warden for a visit to a Gorilla family group that is located in an area where fitness is not a factor. I also recommend that everyone should have a porter to carry his or her daypack and also as an extra helping hand when needed.

Close contact with Mountain Gorillas is considered safe, in comparison with other wild animals. The tip here is to follow the rules.

What is the best time of year to go gorilla trekking?

The best time of the year to go Gorilla trekking is during the dry season months of June to mid-September and December to February in Rwanda.

In Uganda, the dry months are mid-December to early February and June to September .

March, April, May and November are the wettest months and best for those who do not mind braving the weather and prefer to travel out of season in order to take advantage of the drop in prices for accommodation and permits in Uganda (Rwanda does not offer a break for permits in the wet season).

What equipment should one take on a trek?

Most visitors will want to trek at least twice to visit with the Gorillas, so I would recommend the following :

  • Two good pairs of waterproof trousers or jeans, with a pair of chaps to keep the dew off the trousers
  • 2-3 pairs of hiking socks
  • Comfortable hiking boots
  • A sun hat – it can get hot in the dry season and keeping your head covered is a must!
  • A lightweight fleece
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Walking sticks (nearly always available at the hotel/lodge or the porters will have them)

Do not overpack as laundry is good and very quick at most of the accommodations (double-check this before you leave home).

Africa House Safaris Gorilla Trekking
David donning the right gear before heading off to find some gorillas.

What are the main differences between gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda?

The main difference between Gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda is the cost, pure and simple. Rwanda cost $1,500 per permit, per day compared to Uganda at $600 per permit, per day. As a result of this, visitor numbers to Uganda have increased tremendously and with it have come new lodges/hotels, and good internal air connections between Entebbe and Bwindi. Uganda has gone the extra mile and made arrangements with a Tanzanian air operator to operate in Uganda and fly passengers to the Serengeti, which during the season is perfect for those visitors who would like to combine the Gorilla experience with the Wildebeest migration experience.

How does one navigate the necessary permits for gorilla trekking?

Gorilla trekking permits are in high demand right now, both in Uganda and in Rwanda. The only way to be absolutely sure of getting a permit or two is to book early!

How long should a trek last?

There is no set time limit for a Gorilla trek. The Gorillas live in their territories on different volcanoes in the Parc des Volcans and at varying altitudes. One of the most difficult groups to trek is Group Susa, located at the top of the volcano … this group takes nearly eight hours to experience from start to finish. The park authorities generally do not allow first-timers to make this visit on their first day and will consider any requests to visit the Susa group on the second day only after proving their fitness level with a trek on the first day.

There are treks that are fairly close to the park wall and these make for an easy visit with a roundtrip visit of approximately two hours. There are medium treks that would visit the Gorilla groups halfway up the volcanoes, say, and a visit here could be done in a rewarding four hours!

It all boils down to the fitness level of the individual. An honest assessment shared with the driver/guide allow one the prefect hiking conditions that suit the fitness level.

All that said, it is possible to get a stretcher and a team of porters to carry any guest up to the Gorilla family. We have arranged this many times for guests if that is the means necessary to achieve this lifetime goal.

What other animals might I encounter on a gorilla trek?

In all my years of visiting the Great Apes in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo, I have never come across any buffalo, elephant or other large wildlife! I have seen other primates such as Golden Monkeys.

What is your most memorable gorilla encounter?

The most memorable Gorilla encounter was with Sabyinyo, the largest of the Silverbacks in Rwanda. At the end of our visit with him and his fabulous family, he followed us down the trail, on his knuckles, and it was just the most awesome sight to be walking alongside him, if only for a few strides! He was huge and gentle all at the same time.

Karen spots one!

What age do you think is appropriate for children accompanying parents on a gorilla trek?

The age limit is 15 in Rwanda only because they cannot run the risk of having young children carrying illnesses that could jeopardize the lives of the Gorillas.

Is it necessary to hire a porter for the trek?

It is not necessary, but it is highly recommended. The porters are young and very fit, live in the communities close to the park and are always grateful for the $10 and the opportunity of work. They are surprisingly strong, which when required can make the difference for the guest, between seeing the Gorillas and not being able to climb that extra yardage.

Thank you to David Sugden of Africa House Safaris for taking the time to answer our questions about Gorilla trekking. David Sugden is the creative force behind Africa House. Born and raised on a ranch in the shadow of Mount Kenya, David is East African through and through. He founded the company back in 2003 with the dream of sharing his beloved homeland with guests through a different kind of travel experience – one that is individual, immersive and authentic. Since then, David has become the go-to person for high-quality, luxury safaris for a diverse assortment of people, from solo travelers to families with children. Every trip is different, every experience unique – but whatever the itinerary, David’s passion, flair, charm and friendly disposition ensure that it’s a trip of a lifetime.

David has been at the heart of East African safari travel for over 30 years. Before establishing Africa House, he was Head of Operations for legendary safari outfitters Abercrombie & Kent for 17 years. He has been a pioneering figure in developing travel to lesser-known parts of the region, organizing treks to Rwanda, Uganda and the Eastern Congo. While expanding travel horizons, David also helped bring the threat facing mountain gorillas to the world’s attention – and environmental, social and ethical principles guide his approach to tourism today more than ever.

Having guests and agent partners around the world, David often hops between continents to talk to travel representatives face-to-face. If you are an agency in the UK, US or elsewhere and you would like to make a personal connection, why not get in touch and David may be able to visit you in person. He loves sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge – and of course, the chance to tempt new guests to enjoy an extraordinary safari experience.