by Chris Walker Bush
November 29, 2015

Seeing the enigmatic mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is a life-changing experience; something that you’ll forever remember.

Lead by a highly trained guide, you’ll trek through dense rainforest in search of a gorilla family to observe. As you see the young gorillas race about playing, the females cooing over their babies, and the brash posturing of a silverback, you’ll begin to understand the enduring fascination with these almost human creatures.

It truly is a bucket list worthy experience.

Before you embark on your once-in-a-lifetime gorilla trek, there are a few things you should know. Unlike a game drive, you’re much closer to the action when on a gorilla trek. Read on to learn the important things you should know before paying a visit to these gentle giants.

About Mountain Gorillas

gorilla trekking

A subspecies of the Eastern gorilla (the other being the lowland gorilla), the mountain gorilla is the largest primate in the world, and also one of the most endangered. Poaching and habitat destruction has led to a situation in which there are only 840 mountain gorillas remaining in the wild, with the majority of these residing in Rwanda and Uganda.

Unlike the smaller primates that spend a great deal of their lives in trees, mountain gorillas are ground-dwellers who prefer to live in open canopy forests where light reaches the forest floor. They are herbivores whose diet consists of roots, leaves, vines, stems, and bamboo.

Despite being capable of bipedal movement, gorillas are predominantly knuckle walkers who move about on all fours. Females choose their breeding partners based on their ability to protect them, and groups of gorillas range in size from anywhere between a mated pair to up to thirty individuals. On average, ‘families’ of gorillas are comprised of nine gorillas.

Male mountain gorillas stand approximately six feet tall and can weigh up to 200 kilograms, while females are smaller at under five feet in height and weighing around 100kgs. Despite their size, mountain gorillas do not range widely, and tend to keep to a relatively small area of their habitat.

Best Time to Visit

Gorillas Rwanda Park

While it is possible to go gorilla trekking throughout the year, the dry season tends to be the best time to enjoy a gorilla trek. Not only does the wet season tend to make for more difficult hiking conditions, but the rain also encourages the gorillas to seek shelter – making them harder for you to observe.

Depending on the country you are in, wet season falls during different months.

  • Rwanda: The short wet season is from October to November, while the long wet season stretches from mid-March through to June.
  • Uganda: The wet seasons are March – May and September – November.
  • Congo: North of the equator, the wet season is April to October. South of the equator, wet season stretches from November to March.

Fitness & Health

It is not possible to predict ahead of time just how long you’ll be hiking before you encounter a gorilla family. Some people spend as little as 40 minutes hiking before they come across gorillas, while others can spend up to seven hours.

For this reason, it is recommended that all gorilla trekkers be in good physical and mental condition.

As gorillas are susceptible for human borne illnesses, you are not permitted to participate in a gorilla trek if you are sick.

Rules & Codes of Conduct

As gorillas are wild animals and an endangered species, there are a number of rules that must be followed when tracking them and observing them.

  • At all times, you must obey all instructions given by your guide. Your guide knows the gorillas very well, and will direct you as to where it is safe to stand.
  • Keep a minimum distance of 7 metres between you and the gorillas at all times.
  • If the dominant male gorilla (silverback) approaches you or charges aggressively, it is very important that you not back away. Remain where you are, low downward, and adopt a submissive, crouched posture.
  • Never make any sudden moves or loud noises.
  • If approached by a young gorilla, never touch it! Your touching a young gorilla might create a confrontation between your group and the dominant male.
  • If a gorilla stares at you, do not hold eye contact. Look away and down.
  • Never use a flash when photographing gorillas. Try to limit the number of photos you take.
  • You must be in good health when tracking gorillas. Gorillas are susceptible to human borne respiratory infections and you put them at risk if you visit them while ill.
  • Each gorilla family can be visited just once per day by groups of no more than eight people. Your time with the gorilla family is limited to a single hour.
  • Smoking, drinking, or eating are not permitted within 200 metres of a gorilla family.
  • Littering is strictly prohibited.
  • Children under the age of fifteen are not able to join a gorilla trekking safari.

While gorillas are not aggressive in the way that predators are, they are still wild animals capable of hurting people if they feel threatened. It is imperative that you follow all instructions your guide gives you.

As these are wild animals, we cannot guarantee that you will see them. While most groups do encounter a family group, we cannot give refunds if you do not spot the animals. The fee charged goes to the park for the ongoing conservation efforts.

What to Wear

The hike through the rainforest to reach the gorillas can be strenuous, so it is important to dress appropriately and comfortably for the trek.

Due to the rugged nature of the land you’ll be passing through, it is advisable that you wear a long sleeved shirt, trousers, and a good pair of lightweight hiking boots to protect against scratches. You may also wish to wear protective gloves, although these are not necessary.

As temperatures can vary greatly during the day, it is also advisable to bring along a light jumper and a light, breathable rain jacket or poncho.

You’ll also wish to bring along a small backpack in which to store your extra clothing, water, lunch, and your photography equipment.

While on your gorilla trek, you should wear neutral coloured clothing that is comfortable.

What to Bring

In addition to the aforementioned warm clothing and rain protection, there are a number of other handy things we recommend you bring along with you on your gorilla safari.

The below packing list is much the same as what you would bring along for a traditional game drive safari.

  • · A backpack;
  • · A warm sweater or light fleece;
  • · A windbreaker or waterproof jacket;
  • · Walking shoes or boots;
  • · A long sleeve dress shirt and trousers;
  • · Sunglasses;
  • · Hat;
  • · Sunscreen and lip balm;
  • · Insect repellant;
  • · Camera;
  • · Binoculars;
  • · Batteries and/or charger for your camera;
  • · A flashlight or headlamp;
  • · Guide books;
  • · Phone and charger.

You may also wish to bring your own first aid kit. While all of our Shadows of Africa vehicles have their own on board first aid kit, it never hurts to be prepared.

  • · Anti-malarial medication;
  • · Painkillers;
  • · Antihistamines for allergies and insect bites;
  • · Cold and flu medication;
  • · Anti-Diarrheal medication;
  • · Medicines for rehydration after diarrhea or sunstroke;
  • · Insect repellant;
  • · Sunscreen and lip balm;
  • · Eye drops;
  • · Moisturiser for treating sunburn;
  • · Antiseptic lotion;
  • · Rubbing alcohol;
  • · Bandages and plasters;
  • · Scissors;
  • · Tweezers.

You may also wish to bring along water purification tablets and any medications you take for any existing medical conditions.

Don’t let the above list daunt you. Many of these items are only necessary in extreme cases, but it’s better to have something and not need it than it is to need something and not have it!

What to Expect When Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla Mother

As the gorillas you’ll be tracking are wild animals, it’s accurate to say that no two gorilla trekking expeditions are the same.

One group might get lucky enough to find their group almost immediately, while another may trek an entire day and come up empty-handed. Thankfully, visitors get to observe the gorillas more often than not.

Due to the unpredictable nature of the gorilla tracking experience, it is important that all participants be of good physical health and come adequately prepared to tackle a hike of varied length and difficulty.

Porters are available for a small fee. A porter can carry a single bag for you, making your travels a little easier.

After meeting with your guide, you will travel on foot to the place where your gorilla family was last seen. The tracker will then examine the evidence in the area to discern in which direction the family might have moved.

As you move along, the tracker will examine footprints, scat, and other clues to get a clearer picture of where the gorilla family has moved. As gorillas are capable of venturing to areas virtually inaccessible by humans, the hike can sometimes get quite difficult – moving over rough ground, dealing with thorny or stinging undergrowth, or climbing up steep hills.

Your guide will move at a moderate pace, as it is his job to get you to the gorillas with enough time to spend an hour with them and still make it back to the park gate before dark. While you will occasionally stop to rest and you’re welcome to pause to take photos, you should be prepared to move at a good pace throughout the day.

When you draw near to your gorilla family, you’ll likely smell them long before you hear or see them. Your guide will move ahead making soothing sounds to ensure the gorillas that you are friendly, and will then direct you where best to stand. Following his instructions is important, as it is his job to ensure the gorillas do not feel threatened and act accordingly. He will position you so that you can be seen by the silverback.

While observing the gorillas, it is important to maintain at least 7 metres of separation between you and the gorillas. If you are approached, it is important not to touch the gorillas. It is also important not to hold eye contact, use flash photography, or make loud noises.

On occasion, a male gorilla may charge towards the group beating his chest, hurling vegetation about, and acting aggressive. It is crucial that if this happens, you do not back away. Instead, remain where you are, lower your eyes to look at the ground, and adopt a submissive posture. This behavior is rarely an actual sign of aggression against humans, and is instead a display of dominance.

Your time with the gorillas is limited to one hour. This time limit has been carefully chosen to ensure the gorillas do not get too stressed. As used to visitors as the family groups are becoming, they often end the visits themselves after an hour by vacating the area.

If you find yourself unable to complete the gorilla tracking for whatever reason, your guide will advise you as to whether you should return to camp with your porter or whether it is better to remain where you are and await their return.

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