Photo courtesy of Abercrombie and Kent
"There is no bigger thrill you can have than coming face-to-face with a Gorilla in the wild."
According to National Geographic, environmentalists in 1981 estimated that there were only 254 mountain gorillas left in the world. However, the small population is slowly rising thanks to intense international conservation efforts. The biggest threat to gorillas is habitat destruction, so efforts to demonstrate how lucrative tourism can be to these surrounding communities is essential to the animal's survival. Many of the porters now used on treks are former poachers who see this new, sustainable form of tourism as a better path forward.
There are just over 700 gorillas remaining in the world, and these are found in only three countries: Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda and Rwanda are the only two locations where visitors can see gorillas, and while the experiences are different, both are truly life changing.
Rwanda seems to be the "must-visit" destination of the year. About half of the world's endangered mountain gorillas reside in Volcanoes National Park. This spectacular park is located just three hours from the airport, making it easy to include as an add-on to another destination in Africa. Visitors will drive to the National Park headquarters to join a gorilla-trekking group. With help from the park guide, visitors traverse the dense forest until they come face-to-face with a local gorilla family. Observe them as they play, forage and rest in the shade of the trees.
Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda has been a bit of a novelty because of the infrastructure and limited amount of permits available, but this is about to change. Volcanoes National Park will soon be studded with top properties: Magashi Camp in Akagera National Park overlooking Lake Rwanyakazinga will open in December 2018; One & Only Gorilla Nest will also debut by the end of 2018; and luxury safari company Singita will launch Kwitonda Lodge in 2019.
Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, which was decimated after the genocide two decades ago, was recently named the safest city in Africa. Modern restaurants and hotels are making the friendly urban center a draw for travelers in the know, especially The Retreat at Heaven, the city’s first luxury boutique hotel.
With the incredible increase in interest in Rwanda came a surge in prices for permits: a one-day, per person gorilla permit is now $1,500. But in Uganda, permits have remained the same price ($600 in high season, $450 for rainy season - April, May and November), so it is possible to book a gorilla safari with a tighter budget. Just remember these permits are incredibly limited, so booking far in advance is essential.
Photo courtesy of Ambercrombie and Kent
Uganda holds the other half of the world's last remaining mountain gorilla population. The silverbacks live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area is about four times larger than Rwanda with 32 gorilla families, 12 of which have been habituated.
Given the larger size of the country and the location of the Impenetrable Forest, it requires a bit more travel to get to these gorillas. Abercrombie and Kent structures their programs to stop at Queen Elizabeth National Park on the way to the Impenetrable Forest. This region is the main migration corridor between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is home to a wide array of wildlife, including tree-climbing lions. A&K also has one of the only camps located within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. From this home base you set off on daily gorilla treks. It is a completely different experience than any wildlife adventure you could imagine.
Trek through the park’s dense vegetation, traveling up and down its steep slopes in search of the resident mountain gorillas. Your guides use their experience, knowledge of the gorillas’ habits and information from the previous day to locate them. Once the gorillas are spotted, you can observe the subtle social interactions and remarkable behaviors that closely resemble our own.
Just 10 minutes from Entebbe International Airport, several new hotels in Entebbe and Kampala offer upscale experiences for travelers overnighting before or after their Uganda safaris.
Photo credit: Angela Pierson, Virtuoso advisor
The growth in gorilla trekking is a good sign for the species, but means that this undiscovered, unique experience will quickly change. Consider adding a trek to a visit to Africa, as the experience now is still so authentic and you can find a place to go at any time of the year.