Unforgettable Gorilla Trekking Experience in Africa

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Unforgettable Gorilla Trekking Experience in Africa

There are only three countries where these magnificent and highly endangered great apes still survive—Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—and it is most expensive to see them in Rwanda. None live in captivity in zoos; about 490 mountain gorillas inhabit the Virunga Massif ecosystem shared by Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, the DRC’s Virunga National Park, and Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park. Another 300 or so live on a separate mountain in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. So how does the Rwandan trekking experience compare to Uganda’s (gorilla permit $500) and the DRC’s ($400)? Here’s my two cents: The gorilla trekking system is similar in all three countries, which cooperate in their conservation efforts and devote those high fees, in principle, to monitoring and protecting the species made famous by Dian Fossey’s memoir, Gorillas in the Mist, and movies like Kings after being advocated for freedom in their mist. To avoid harassing the shy animals, just eight travelers per day (accompanied by park rangers and trackers) are permitted to hike in search of each gorilla family habituated to human observers. Rwanda offers the most permits, with up to ten gorilla families allotted for tourism (at most, 80 permits would be given out each day); Uganda, up to eight families; the DRC, five families. (The number of families accessible to travelers changes each year depending on how governments balance the need for tourist income and the need for research.) To reduce the chance of gorillas catching human diseases, the DRC sometimes limits the size of trekking groups to six people. Because gorillas are followed on a daily basis, a sighting in all the locations is virtually guaranteed. You need to be fit, because your path may take you up muddy, steep mountain slopes for several hours. Sometimes gorillas feed on lower slopes, or even raid farmer’s fields outside park boundaries; you might encounter them, as I did in both in the DRC and the Bwindi, on flat ground within 45 minutes of the trailhead. Once gorillas are located, travelers are limited to one hour of observation and photography, and they must try to keep at least 23 feet from each animal (gorillas, of course, don’t know about the distance rule!). Because foliage can be dense, clear views are not always possible. Gorilla mothers and babies might be high up a tree feeding or playing. Like human dads trying to escape the kids and grab some shut eye, the huge, charismatic silverbacks that everyone wants to photograph inconveniently like to nap inside dense thickets. Although it’s a crapshoot in what kind of vegetation and in what lighting conditions you will find gorillas on a given day, Rwanda offers the best prospects for unobstructed photographs because the upper slopes of Volcanoes Park have open meadows and stands of bamboo forest where leafy vegetation is not so thick. Rwanda’s park, two hours by car and on good roads from the capital Kigali, is also the closest to an international airport, so the higher cost of the trekking permit is offset by lower local transportation costs. The Bwindi, by contrast, is ten hours by road from Entebbe, or a two-hour charter flight (Mgahinga Park currently has no habituated gorillas for observation.) The Virunga National Park can be reached by a half-day road trip from Kigali, but you might encounter delays at the border securing a DRC tourist visa. In terms of accommodation, each country offers great places to stay. Rwanda’s Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge or Virunga safari lodge and Uganda’s Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge or Volcanoes safari lodge or Mahogany springs and all these are up market lodges but also the mid-range and budget lodges/camps offer standard comfortable hospitality to travelers interested to visit the mountain gorillas on the budget level of economy. The DRC continues to struggle with political instability, militia and bush meat poacher infiltration of parks, and official corruption. Authorities, however, have embarked on an ambitious conservation recovery plan, and some camps have been opened up in the garden of the Virunga Park headquarters that offers luxury accommodation to visitors. Entrance fees will contribute to the mountain gorillas’ survival. Contact us for your unforgettable gorilla trekking expedition in Africa.

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