Gorilla Trekking on a Budget

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Gorillas trekking on a budget

Gorilla Trekking on a Budget

‘Oh my god, one just grabbed my leg!’

We’re pretty much obsessed with seeing beautiful and rare wildlife. While in China we volunteered with giant pandas, in Malaysia we visited orang-utans in the wild, tracked Komodo dragons in Indonesia and trekked through the Japanese Alps to reach snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs.

It should come as no surprise then that seeing the mountain gorillas in the wild was one of the experiences we were looking forward to the most when we left Canada nearly three years ago.

Although we had heard that this experience was going to be crazy expensive because of pricey park trekking permits, we were convinced we could find a way to see them without decimating our bank account.

Thankfully, we were right.

Gorilla trekking on a budget is possible, here’s how…

The Mountain Gorilla

Gorillas are one of our closest relatives. Not only do we share 98% of the same genes but scientists argue that we have even more in common with them than previously thought. Their hearing and sensory perception are closer to humans than chimpanzees; who share 99% of their genetic make up with us. Additionally, scientists have recently found that gorillas have the physical ability to manipulate their vocal cords.

Male mountain gorillas or silverbacks as they’re called when the reach adulthood, weigh in at about 430 lbs (195 kg), about twice as much as the average female. The heaviest male silverback ever recorded tipped the scales at 586 lbs (266 kg)!

There are roughly 900 wild mountain gorillas left in the misty mountains of the Virunga Volcanic chain; a range shared between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DMRC), Rwanda and Uganda.

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The incomparable mountain gorilla

Which Country Is Best to Trek With Gorillas

Although you can see mountain gorillas throughout the Virunga Mountain Chain, there are definite pros and cons to gorilla trekking in each of the three countries that border this beautiful part of the world.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Pros: Cheapest permits

Cons:

  • Unstable political system
  • Visa procurement can be difficult for some nationalities

For more information: Virunga Tourism

For an in-depth look at the current challenges facing Virunga National Park in DMRC, make sure to check out the heartbreakingly beautiful Oscar nominated documentary, Virunga.

Rwanda

Pros:

  • Rwanda is part of the newly implemented East African Visa (along with Kenya and Uganda, as of the date of writing)
  • Stable political environment
  • Quick access, you can get to the Parc National des Volcans in one day from Kigali, in other words you can reduce your expenses by only needing 2 days/1 night on tour

Cons: Cost of permit is the highest of the three countries

For more information: Rwanda Tourism

Uganda

Pros:

  • Stable political environment
  • Many tour operators
  • Cheaper permits than Rwanda
  • Government now offering discounted trekking permits during off-season months

Cons:

  • Expensive high season permits
  • Bwindi Impenetrable Rain Forest is a full days’ drive from Kampala meaning you will need to spend 3 days/2 nights on tour

For more information: Uganda Tourism

Cost of Permits

Congo: $400 USD

Rwanda: $750 USD 

Uganda: $600 USD ($350 USD off-season pricing {April, May, November})

Best Time of Year to Go

Anytime of year is a great time to visit the mountain gorillas! Thankfully even in the “rainy” months of April, May and November, the rainforest floor is somewhat protected by a nearly 10 m thick canopy of branches above. We went in September and it still poured rain in the afternoon, but don’t worry, you’ll be properly distracted.

Where and Who We Went With

We opted for gorilla trekking in Uganda. We didn’t even consider the DMRC after reading about some of the recent problems with rebel military groups like M23 in Virunga National Park. We decided against Rwanda for only one reason and that was money. $750 USD vs. $600 USD per person was a no brainer for us especially considering the fact that the Canadian dollar was weak at the time of booking.

After extensively researching tour companies out of Kampala we decided on Wal-Mark Safaris who impressed us with their pricing, responsiveness, references, and value offered.

gorilla trekking africa

Teenage gorilla surveying the rainforest 

Our Tour

On our first day we were picked up at sunrise from our hostel by our guide and driver for the trip. We spent the full day driving through the lush Ugandan countryside stopping for coffee at the Equator. Around dinner time we arrived into our accommodations for the next two nights, Buhoma Community Rest Camp just inside the main gates of Bwindi Impenetrable Rain Forest.

While relaxing that evening with a couple Ugandan beers in hand, the staff entertained us with stories of gorillas wandering into the camp. 

After a quick breakfast we walked next door to the Ranger Post where the start of the trek would begin. We first watched a short video on the mountain gorilla followed by a more in-depth description by the rangers on gorilla behaviour and how to keep safe around them. The rangers, led by David, were all extremely passionate and knowledgeable guides.

Just after 8:00am we were split into smaller groups and briefed about the family of gorillas we would be tracking. We learned that our group was especially lucky because the family we’d be visiting had just had a baby a few weeks prior to our arrival.

Even though we had been briefed on the fact that we could be trekking for up to 7 hours through thick jungle to find our gorilla family, it took less than 30 minutes before our guide was alerted by his scouts that they had found them!

With our guides out in front clearing the way with machetes it didn’t take long for us to come up on our first gorilla.

Trekking in Bwindi National Park

Alyse and our ranger/guide David

Alyse and I both felt tears welling up in our eyes as the first gorilla climbed down the tree in front of us.

The way he moved, the way he looked, they way he stared at me with a gentle human-like expression made me feel a connection that I hadn’t had since working with the pandas

Our guides led us across a creek in order to get closer to the family. As we reached the top the riverbed, one of the women in our group standing beside me let out a little shriek and then laughed as she said, “Oh my god, one just grabbed my leg!” As I looked down one of the infant gorillas moved quickly between us and disappeared into the rainforest.

We pushed on through the thick bush and came to a clearing where we came upon one of the most breathtaking sites I’ve ever seen. There stood a massive silverback keeping a watchful eye on us. King Kong only a few metres away from us!

Silverback Uganda

The king of the mountain

After the silverback saw that all his family were safely within view, he climbed up a massive tree like he was scaling the Empire State Building.

It was just after the gentle giant disappeared that we noticed that the new month old baby resting on her mother’s belly. The way the mother stroked her head in such a proud and loving way was so human-like, it took my breath away.

It was one of the greatest wildlife encounters of our lives. One that may never be topped.

Gorilla mom and her baby Uganda

Gorilla Trekking on a Budget Uganda

There is no greater love than that between mother and child

For the rest of the hour we watched the family of gorillas going about their normal day-to-day routines of grooming, eating, playing and sleeping. We couldn’t get enough.

As if the silverback knew that our hour together had finished, he climbed down the tree, called out to his family that it was time to move on and then vanished into the thick jungle of Bwindi Rainforest.

After our time with the gorilla family was over, Alyse (who had been a little more apprehensive about the cost of the permits) turned to me and said, “So worth it. We gotta do that again!”

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Our Best Gorilla Trekking Budget Tips

1) Travel to Uganda and Rwanda in the off-season (April, May, November) when prices for the permits drop to $350 USD per person

2) If you are overlanding across Africa or have access to your own vehicle, you may be able to save a bit of money compared to going with a tour company. However, it’s important to note that renting a vehicle (with insurance) in Kampala as a foreigner can end up costing you even more than going with a budget tour.

3) Tour prices are often negotiable, especially in the off-season.

Planning Your Trip

We hope you enjoyed this post on gorilla trekking on a budget and that it helps you better plan your upcoming adventure to Central Africa!

We highly recommend Wal-Mark Safaris, we liked them so much that we are now partnering with them. They provide fantastic value to both budget and luxury travellers who want to trek with gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda. If you’re interested in going with Wal-Mark Safaris please send us a message with Gorilla Trekking in the subject line and we’ll refer you for a 10% discount off your tour price! 

Have you seen the mountain gorillas before? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

Cheers and thanks for reading,

Ross & Alyse

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Ross

Lover of travel, photography, nature, movies, and nachos. If you love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings we'll probably become best friends.
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