Where: Volcanoes National Park, near Musanze, Rwanda.
When: Anytime of the year, although booking in advance is required.
Plan: We used Uber Luxe Safaris to manage all the logistics including transport, trek permits and Covid-19 requirements.
Stay: We stayed at One&Only Gorillas Nest near to Musanze.
Experience: You will trek for 1-2 hours to locate your assigned gorilla family. Each group spends 1 hour with that family - an incredible bucket list experience.
Cost: Each trek costs USD1500pp inclusive of permits & guides. Porters also available if required at additional cost.
Know: The likelihood of locating gorillas in Rwanda is extremely high (close to 100%). The industry is extremely professional & has played a major conservation role in saving the species from extinction.
Since watching “Gorilla’s In The Mist” when I was a young child, I have always dreamed of seeing mountain gorillas in the wild. An endangered species that humans have poached to the brink of extinction, despite them sharing so many of our own characteristics, seeing mountain gorillas has become one of the ultimate bucket list experiences and the industry now both protects the animals and supports the local communities where they live.
The mountain gorillas live in an area that borders Rwanda, Uganda and The Congo. The accessibility is most developed and professionally supported for tourists in Rwanda - providing the best access and conservation program that reinvests the tourism revenue back into supporting the population of gorillas.
Volcanoes National Park is around a 4 hour drive from the capital city of Kigali. International flights from many cities, including Dubai arrive at Kigali and we flew with the national carrier, Rwandair, which is an amazing airline and also provides internal domestic flights to other destinations within Rwanda. The planes are modern & clean, and the fares from Dubai were beyond reasonable.
We used a local tour operator, Uber Luxe Safaris, to handle all our on ground logistics for our entire stay in Rwanda. They facilitated everything from PCR testing, airport pickup & internal transport, to arranging our gorilla trekking permits. There are some logistics involved in experiences like the gorilla trekking and to ensure a smooth process a provider like Uber Luxe Safaris makes everything much easier.Add text here...
The town of Musanze is on the doorstep of Volcanoes National Park and is where most of the accomodation options for gorilla trekking exist. At the top of the list is the newly opened One&Only Gorilla’s Nest - a luxury property that offers the ultimate in service & experience. There are a range of options from private bungalows to luxurious suites. The restored Jack Hannah cottage is also on the property and now serves as a whisky & cigar bar for guests.
There are other accommodation options in Musanze, offering a range of styles and budgets.
I would recommend spending a minimum of 2 nights in Musanze and doing the trek on the middle day.Add text here...
You will need to apply for permits to enter Volcanoes National Park and participate in a gorilla trek. The daily program is very professionally organised, with only one group allowed to spend time with any gorilla family each day.
In the busy season, spaces for permits get booked well in advance. Due to Covid, it is not as busy, but pre-covid peak season could sell out, so booking early is essential.
The most efficient process is to have a logistics operator such as Uber Luxe Safari facilitate your trekking - they know all process and guides, so can handle any minor issues.
The treks cost USD1500 per person, so it is important that everything runs smoothly.
We arrived at Gorillas Nest the day before our trek and received our first briefing at the property from a member of their team. We went through all the essential information in terms of what to expect, what to wear and the do’s & don’ts of being around gorillas.
We also went through some of the history of gorillas, how they were decimated by poaching and how their numbers have been steadily increasing with the conservation work. Incredibly, by empowering local communities, the Rwandan government has been able to reform poachers to the extent that they now work as porters in the trekking industry.
It is crucial to understand that these are wild animals and particularly the dominant males are extremely strong - so understanding their basic behaviour and to avoid provoking them is very important. The guides understand the noises the gorillas make when they are happy and when they are becoming upset. The most important advice is to simply follow exactly what the guides tell you to do!
Gorillas Nest provide guests with leather Safari hats, backpacks, binoculars, drink bottles and gators (very important as it is usually muddy). I would strongly recommend sturdy hiking boots and long pants. Long sleeves are also a good idea. The area the gorillas live can have thick vegetation that you need to trek through and the stinging nettle can be uncomfortable. Avoid bright colours or white clothing, and plan to wear more natural colours like greens, greys and browns.
You can carry everything in your backpack or if needed, a porter can also assist you. You can take camera gear, but in reality I would suggest 1 camera body and a maximum of 1-2 lenses. Be aware that once you reach the gorillas, you need to leave your backpack and just carry your camera in your hand. A guide will stay and watch the backpacks.
You will leave your hotel early in the morning and return around or after lunch. Gorillas Nest provided a full breakfast before we left, a packed lunch and unlimited snacks/treats to take with us.
On the morning of your trek, you will arrive at the Conservation Centre with all the other groups who will be trekking that day. Every group is assigned to a guide and a gorilla family. Groups are restricted to 8 persons (reduced to 6 during Covid pandemic) and only 1 group will have interaction with any gorilla family each day. This is done to control the level of human-gorilla interaction.
The guides will assign groups to gorilla families based on proximity to the Conservation Centre, difficulty to reach the gorillas and estimated fitness of the group. The closest gorilla family will not be assigned any group, so that in the event a group cannot locate their gorillas, they will return and trek to the nearest family of gorillas. This attempts to maximise the chance that everyone will experience time with gorillas.
How confident should you be of seeing gorillas? This is one of the most common questions. Due to the system and organisation in Rwanda, your likelihood of locating gorillas is very high. Whilst they can never say it is 100%, it is significantly higher than countries like Uganda. In Rwanda, it is estimated 99% of groups will locate there gorilla family.
When you arrive, there is a detailed briefing from your guide. He will explain all the safety considerations for you and the gorillas. There is no question that these are large, strong, wild animals. The guides are extremely experienced in understanding gorilla behaviour - the underlying message from the briefing is to always listen to the guides instructions and do exactly as they say. Even if the gorillas come so close that they touch you, the guides will continue to communicate with you and the animals.
The briefing goes through the history of gorillas in Rwanda, including the period in which poaching threatened their existence. One of the most incredible parts of the experience was learning how the government reformed poachers to the extent that they now work as porters in the trekking industry. This was done by empowering them with employment, responsibility and providing funding to the local communities they come from. An extensive educational campaign about the importance of conservation, transformed what was a quick source of illegal money, to what is now a sustainable long term industry supporting thousands in local communities. There has not been a gorilla poached in Rwanda for decades and the local population are extremely protective of these animals.
At the time of writing (December 2021), there were still a number of procedures in place relating to Covid-19. Our negative PCR results were required prior to entering the national park. Masks are needed to be worn at the conservation centre and anywhere close to the gorillas - they could be taken off during the trek towards the gorillas. Group numbers were limited to 6, instead of 8. There is some concern that Coronavirus, like many respiratory viruses of humans, could be transmitted to the gorillas due to the close relationship of our DNA. Even prior to Covid-19, there were restrictions on people joining the treks if they had any symptoms of respoiurtory infection.
Once your PCR results are checked, your permits verified and your briefing complete, your group will drive from the Conservation Centre to the nearest entry point of the national park yo where your gorilla family is. From there, it is all on foot. How far and how challenging the trek is, depends largely on where your gorilla family is located and how much they move while you are trying to find them. Our trek went from an estimated 1 hour hike, to over 2 hours through dense forest trying to keep up with the gorillas as they moved from one place to another. The terrain can be quite challenging, especially if it is wet. The treks should not be described as “easy” or “beginner” and guests shouldn’t expect to be driven to see the animals. This is genuinely an adventure activity. There are guides and porters to assist anyone who needs it, including carrying backpacks or physically assisting those requiring support. If you know ahead of time that you are going to have difficulties hiking, this is something you should make your guides aware of the day before so that they can try to assign you to a group that is easier to reach.
Once you reach the gorillas, the one hour feels like 10 minutes! You can’t take your backpacks, food etc - these will be left with a porter while you spend time with the gorillas. So make sure everything you need in terms of camera equipment is ready to be carried in your hands.
As mentioned, expect to wear face masks due to Covid-19 precautions and these are required once you get close to the gorilla family.
The thing that I personally found so amazing was just how close you are to these animals in their natural habitat. There is an incredible “human-like” curiosity about the way they look at you. For the most part, they go about their day without concern that you are there and you truly feel like a “fly on the wall”. It is almost impossible to describe the actual experience of spending time amongst a family of gorillas and I would never do it justice. Ultimately it is something I would recommend everyone doing at least once.
The guides are constantly monitoring the behaviour and sounds of the gorillas. They predict or react to any movement and give quick instructions to move in such a way to avoid interactions. Some gorilla experiences will be relatively static in open spaces, others, like ours, will be in more dense vegetation with the gorillas constantly moving, feeding, playing. It is critical to stress that experiences like these are nothing like a zoo - you are entirely in their world! They can move when and where they wish and everybody's experience will be totally unique.
For photography it can be challenging as the gorillas are often moving or obscured by vegetation. My advice would be to try as much as possible to find a good spot where you can remain relatively still and focus on a small number of gorillas at any time. It is difficult not to get overwhelmed and the hour goes by really quickly. Sometimes you need to also just put the camera down and appreciate the experience!
I received many questions about being scared with the gorillas so close. Despite being very close, at no time did we feel threatened or in danger. The guides are fantastic and constantly making sure both guests and gorillas are protected. Many of the photos also appear closer due to zoom lenses. In general you will be roughly 10-20m away from the gorillas.
You can also do treks for other primate species in Volcanoes National Park, including the Golden Monkeys. We were fortunate enough that on our way back, we came across a large family of golden monkeys walking across the path and then jumping through the trees.
The experience itself is very difficult to summarise in words - it truly is something that needs to be done to fully appreciate. Whilst it is not a cheap exercise by any means, it is certainly worth it! It is also worth mentioning that money from the trekking is used extensively in the conservation projects and supporting the local communities.
The industry that has been created around the mountain gorillas is quite incredible and largely responsible for their continued survival. We spent a lot of time (especially during our trek) speaking with guides about the industry. Many porters that work for treks are actually reformed poachers. To stop local people from poaching gorillas for overseas buyers, the government empowered the locals by providing them consistent employment in tourism. Additionally, by working in the industry, money from the treks goes back into their local communities and the local people see the enormous benefit that the mountain gorillas bring. They are now extremely proud and passionate about protecting the gorillas and Rwanda hasn't seen any poaching of mountain gorillas for over 20 years! This has resulted in a steady increase in the wild population and it is considered one of the success stories of protecting a species from extinction!
Learning the history of mountain gorillas and how close they came to extinction, gives you a renewed appreciation for the experience pop being able to sit and watch them in the wild. It is a credit to the people of Rwanda that they are able to successfully turn around what was previously an enormous problem and create an industry that benefits both the people and the animals.
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