Coming face-to-face with a family of mountain gorillas is an exhilarating experience. As the largest of the primates, a silverback gorilla can stand as tall as 1.8 metres, and can weight up to 180 kilogrammes. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that a gorilla trek can be a very nerve-wracking experience, but the local guides and rangers who accommodate you are truly fantastic at what they do. They have visited the gorilla families for decades and consequently, have become part of their family to some extent.
Mountain gorillas habituate in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In East Africa, the set up is more established and the gorilla trekking, logistics and overall experience is faultless in both Uganda and Rwanda. In this guide, we have included a breakdown about experiences in both countries.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, located in the south-western part of Uganda, is home to approximately 400 mountain gorillas. Bwindi is on the edge of the African Rift Valley and shares the same ecosystem as the Virunga Mountains, which cover the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. The park itself was gazetted as a national park in 1991, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
Uganda is home to eleven habituated gorilla families – one in Mgahinga National Park and the other ten in Bwindi National Park. Each gorilla group varies in terms of its size, social structure and family dynamics, age distribution, and geographical location or territory. The rangers visit the gorillas every day so they are habituated and used to the presence of humans. These daily visits also mean that rangers can monitor the behaviour and health of the gorillas.
In November 2020, Bwindi was fortunate to witness two gorilla births. The first was in the Mukiza group in the Ruhija sector, to the east of the Bwindi National Park. The mother, called Twijukye, gave birth on 11th October, raising the Mukiza family composition to fifteen members. The second gorilla was born a month later on 11th November, in the Rushegura group in Buhoma sector. Soon after, trackers were privileged and honoured to see the mother, Munyana, feeding and grooming her newborn.
Logistics and price
Access into the National Park is via plane (Kihihi airstrip) or by road. If Bwindi is included in a Uganda itinerary, it is usually the final stop, after Queen Elizabeth National Park in the north. The cost of a Uganda gorilla permit is currently USD $750 per person per trek. This includes the pre-trek briefing, the trek itself and then, when you find the gorilla group, a full one hour to spend in their company. The trekking group size is a maximum of six people, excluding the ranger and any porters.
Located in the northwest of Rwanda is the Volcanoes National Park – home to approximately 750 mountain gorillas in Africa’s oldest park. In the larger picture, the Volcanoes Park, along with protected forests and national parks in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo make up the Virunga Mountains. This is a chain of volcanoes with altitudinal ranges of 3,500 – 4,510 metres.
Rwanda currently has 12 habituated gorilla families that can be visited in the Volcanoes National Park. These include the Sabyinyo Group (16 members), the Amahoro Group (18 members), the Susa Group (18 members), the Umabano Group (12 members), the Agashya Group (21 members), the Hirwa Group (18 members), the Kwitonda Group (29 members), the Isabukuru Group (14 members), the Mafunzo Group (12 members), the Igisha Group (25 members), the Karisimbi Group (10 members), and the Isimbi Group (16 members). Each group has at least one silverback gorilla. The biggest silverback (named Guhonda) is in the Sabyinyo Group.
The Kwita Izina
Since 2005, the government of Rwanda have held an annual ceremony called the Kwita Izina. In Rwanda, naming a child has always been regarded a huge part of the Rwandan culture and tradition. In 2005, the Rwanda tourism board, conservation partners and local communities came together to bring the tradition to the mountain gorillas too. The old naming century’s tradition was modelled on the species to get the national band known as Kwita Izina.
Logistics and price
The gorillas of Rwanda can be trekked and seen on a daily basis, permitting you have the right permits, gear and guiding. To minimize the disturbance of the gorillas, only eight people are allowed to visit one family daily, and when you find the gorillas, you are limited to one hour with them. The permits are currently USD $1,500 per person per trek, and you must be over the age of 15 years old to trek the gorillas. On the morning of your gorilla trek, you will have a briefing at the Volcanoes Park headquarters where you will discuss safety measures, rules of the trek, and of course, meet your wonderful gorilla guide.
Our top picks of gorilla accommodation
Although the gorilla trek is the main event, the success of your trip to either Uganda or Rwanda can also be a result of where you stay. There are some incredible lodges and camps in Bwindi Forest and the Volcanoes National Park, each offering a unique and memorable experience. Here are a few of our top picks for accommodation for your gorilla trek.
Sanctuary Gorilla Camp, Uganda
As part of the Sanctuary collection (with sister properties in other East African countries like Kenya and Tanzania), Sanctuary Gorilla Camp is a perfect blend of luxury and rustic décor, with authentic safari features like sundowner drinks and a camp fire in the evening. Each room, which is a canvassed structure, features an ensuite bathroom with a free-standing bath, a comfortable four-poster bed with a mosquito net, and a private veranda with a seating area overlooking the forest.
Buhoma Lodge, Uganda
Buhoma is a great lodge without the huge price tag. The lodge is part of the Wild Frontiers portfolio so circuit discounts are offered if you stay in its sister properties, such as Baker’s Lodge in Murchison and Ishasha Camp in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The accommodation is unique as it is all elevated, positioned on wooden platforms and walkways. This gives it a very ‘treehouse’ vibe, with views out to Bwindi’s dense forest on offer. The main area and rooms are built from local materials and the staff are always ready to assist you.
Bwindi Lodge, Uganda
As part of the Volcanoes portfolio, Bwindi Lodge is one of our personal favourites in all of Uganda. The main communal area is the most impressive – there is a modern cosy fireplace, comfortable sofas and glass windows that look out to the dense, green forest. Behind the main area are 9 bandas with spacious ensuite bathrooms, a private outdoor veranda and a personal butler service. As well as the gorilla trek experience, you can engage in community projects like the Tea Project or visit the award-winning Bwindi Bar, basically a cafe to train disadvantaged youths in the hospitality sector.
Bisate Lodge, Rwanda
Bisate is one of the most unique properties in all of Rwanda, if not Africa. It is the first Wilderness properties to open in Rwanda, and what a reputation it now has! Six opulent ensuite forest villas have an enviable position adjacent to the forested Virunga Mountains and within a short driving distance to the Volcanoes Park headquarters. Staying here offers you a luxurious and eco-sensitive experience, with panoramic views across to the dramatic Bisoke and Karisimbi volcanoes The accommodation itself replicates the traditional housing in Rwanda – with domed makuti thatched roofs and vibrant colours to compliment the breathtaking surroundings.
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Rwanda
This lodge, owned by the impressive Governors Camp Collection, is Rwanda’s first ever community-owned lodge. The lodge sits in the foothills of the mighty Virunga Mountains and, as it is close to the park headquarters, is in the perfect location for gorilla tracking. The lodge is comprised of six cottages, two suites and one family cottage. These are spacious rooms, built from stone and featuring Rwandan terracotta tile roofs. While the rooms are contemporary, they also showcase a fusion of colonial décor, local furnishings and Rwandese tradition.
Graham Carter is the Director of Unforgettable Travel Company. Unforgettable Travel Company is a leading tour operator that designs immersive and unforgettable trips across the world, following its slogan of Why Do Ordinary.