Unquestionably one of THE top “bucket list” wildlife experiences, gorilla trekking is truly life enriching. For enquiring minds, the allure of tracking our evolutionary cousins, in their natural habitat, is undeniable. In order to make the choice of where to travel easier, we have put together a brief comparison between the 3 countries where gorillas can be safely trekked; Uganda, Rwanda and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville).
Gorilla taxonomy is split into 2 species: Western gorilla comprised of two subspecies (Western lowland gorilla and Cross River gorilla) and Eastern gorilla again comprised of two subspecies (mountain gorilla and Eastern lowland gorilla). The 2 subspecies of gorilla which can be easily visited in Africa are the endangered mountain gorilla (just over 1060 living in the wild) in Rwanda and Uganda; and the more numerous but critically endangered Western lowland gorilla (global population of around 100 000) found in the Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
In both Uganda and Rwanda the trek takes place with a maximum of 8 guests per gorilla family, for a maximum of one hour. In Congo it is 4 guests in a group, for a maximum of one hour. Although trekking for mountain gorilla in Uganda and Rwanda is different from a habitat perspective and some of the wildlife encountered, the gorilla encounters are very similar. Trekking for Western lowland gorilla in Congo is however a very different experience, and most certainly more challenging from a viewing and photographic perspective – this is because they tend to rest under cover so they can usually only be observed when feeding or active (mountain gorilla rest in open clearings). Seeing them clearly through the marantaceae (a shrubby plant), even from close is more difficult.
WHERE TO TREK FOR MOUNTAIN GORILLA (Gorilla beringei beringei)
If you have little time, or are adding gorilla trekking to a larger safari, head to Rwanda – Volcans National Park is an easy driving distance from the airport or can be accessed by a short helicopter flight. This is where Dian Fossey (the famous “Gorillas in the Mist” American zoologist) was based, and the place where gorilla conservation began. The spectacular Virunga Volcanoes provide a magical backdrop while viewing the gorillas. Permits are the most expensive at USD 1500, however with the recent increase in permit costs, the communities’ revenue share also increased from 5% to 10% – this goes towards building schools and hospitals, providing access to clean water, and other projects. With the likes of Singita, Wilderness Safaris and the One&Only there are now superb options for the luxury traveller.
If you have more time, Uganda is a good choice as it is a country with an excellent safari circuit and wonderful chimpanzee viewing. The gorilla tracking permits are cheaper than Rwanda, but the distance from the airport to the gorillas is further and involves a small charter plane flight (the arduous 10 hour drive is not advisable). Trekking takes place in the Rwenzori Mountains with Bwindi Impenetrable Forest being the most famous departure point. Uganda has 10 national parks in addition to Bwindi, the most popular being Queen Elizabeth National Park, known for its quality savannah big game viewing as well as excellent birding.
Why we love Rwanda and Uganda
Gorilla trekking which tops many explorers’ bucket lists
Chimpanzees seen in their natural habitat
An unsurpassed diversity of primates
Big game including large herds of African elephant and Cape buffalo, rafts of hippopotamus, lion, leopard, Ugandan kob, topi, zebra, giant forest hog and much more
Excellent birding with the most productive montane forest birding in Africa with 23 Albertine Rift endemics and specials including shoebill and green-breasted pitta.
WHERE TO TREK FOR WESTERN LOWLAND GORILLA (Gorilla gorilla gorilla):
Republic of Congo (Brazzaville)
If you want to see the Western lowland gorillas, and are looking for a little more adventure, and a visit to a pristine tropical rainforest, head to the Republic of Congo. Go gorilla trekking in the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the North-West of the country, near the border with Gabon. This is not to be confused with the DRC (the “not so” Democratic Republic of Congo), which is a different country. Fortunately, the government of the Republic of the Congo has put in place conservation efforts to conserve species such as chimpanzees, forest elephants, and gorillas from poaching and deforestation. Supporting Congo’s national parks such as Odzala-Kokoua helps to ensure that they remain a safe place.
Why we love Congo (Brazzaville)
Western lowland gorilla trekking
Experience one of the last remaining truly wild places in Africa
Help support the conservation of this pristine region
See a host of other primates
This rainforest habitat is the second largest only to the Amazon
Forest species such as forest elephant, forest buffalo and red river hog
BISATE LODGE- RWANDA
This premier Wilderness Safaris camp is located in the natural amphitheatre of an eroded volcanic cone, with dramatic views of the peaks of the Bisoke and Karisimbi volcanoes rearing up through the Afro-alpine forests of nearby Volcanoes National Park. Bisate’s vision of reforestation and rehabilitation means that each guest contributes to biodiversity conservation and local community upliftment – making a far-reaching positive impact on an iconic endangered species: the mountain gorilla.
SINGITA KWITONDA LODGE AND KATAZA HOUSE - RWANDA
Set on 178 acres (72 hectares) on the edge of Volcanoes National Park, Kwitonda Lodge boasts eight luxurious suites, while Kataza House, an exclusive-use villa, features four spacious suites. Arguably one of the most sustainable lodges on the continent. Singita Volcanoes National Park honours Rwanda’s people and fertile land by touching lightly on the land, while contributing significantly to conservation, community partnerships and ecotourism.
GORILLA FOREST CAMP-UGANDA
An old favorite of ours – Gorilla Forest Camp, “GFC”, was the first luxury camp in Bwindi; it was agreed by the then president and Geoffrey Kent that GFC would bring guests who would pay for Gorilla permits in order to help fund a new national park to protect the Gorillas. As the only concessionaire luxury camp within Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp is the perfect base from which to track mountain gorilla. In fact Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp often receives regular visits from the gorillas themselves. The ten private luxury tents are ecologically respectful, contemporary-yet-classic in style, and blend in sensitively with the dramatic African mountain landscape.
NGAGA DISCOVERY CAMP - REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Ngaga Camp overlooks a beautiful open glade within primary forest above a forest stream. The Camp is situated within the overlapping home ranges of several groups of Western lowland gorillas, two of which are habituated. From the six elevated guest rooms, wraparound walkways allow you to peer directly into the forest canopy. The Camp is constructed from natural materials using traditional techniques.
A note on the other two sub species, since we are wildlife nerds
Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) – this is a subspecies of the Western gorilla and is critically endangered, they are found in Cameroon and Nigeria, the population is around 200 – 300 individuals.
Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) – this subspecies of Eastern gorilla, also known as Grauer’s gorilla, is found in the lowland tropical rainforests of the Eastern DRC. Because of violence in the region the population numbers are unknown. Kahuzi-Biega National Park is home to the largest population of protected Eastern lowland gorillas, and although park staff are re-establishing control, rebels and poachers have invaded the park.
Photo credits: Lodge photos by suppliers.