Mountain Gorillas are some of the most impressive and beautiful creatures on earth. Unfortunately they are also under threat of extinction, having been hunted by poachers and affected by deforestation. There are only a few places where you can experience these animals up close in the wild and Uganda is one of those places.
Where are the mountain gorillas in Uganda?
There are two places to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda – the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Although we also visited Mgahinga to do our Golden Monkey habituation experience, we did our gorilla habituation experience in Bwindi.
What is gorilla habituation tracking?
Habituation is the process of getting animals used to the presence of humans so that they do not run away when we are close. The idea is for them to continue their normal daily activities but to be comfortable enough with people watching them up close.
In Uganda, habituation programs have been created for several primate species such as gorillas, chimpanzees and golden monkeys. Habituation is a lengthy process, taking several years to fully habituate a group. We’ve written more here about the lessons we learned from our habituation treks to see the Chimpanzees and the Golden Monkeys, as well as the gorillas.
The process of gorilla habituation tracking
When habituating a gorilla family, rangers must visit the family in the jungle daily and spend time with them, gradually getting closer to them. Initially the gorillas are very shy and keep their distance. But with time they become used to the presence of the rangers. Rangers imitate the gorilla’s calls and even simulate eating the same leaves as they do. Rangers talk amongst themselves and use their machetes on the surrounding vines so that the gorillas become used to those noises.
Habituation visits must be done daily, regardless of the presence of tourists. If not, the gorillas gradually become more fearful of humans again.
What is a gorilla tracking habituation experience?
A habituation experience is designed to show tourists how habituation tracking works. When you undertake a habituation experience you will begin first thing in the morning and hike with the trackers and your guide out into the jungle in search of the gorillas.
You first find your way to the point where the gorillas were left the previous day. You then watch as the trackers follow the gorillas’ trail to where they made their nests for the night. Finally you follow the trackers further along the gorillas’ trail until you come across the family.
How does habituation tracking differ from normal gorilla trekking?
If you do the standard gorilla trekking experience, you will leave a lot later in the morning because you do not need to go through the process of finding the gorillas. The trackers will have gone out at first light and found where the gorillas are and your guide will lead you straight to them. This means less trekking but it also means that you don’t get to see the gorilla’s nests or gain an appreciation of how the gorilla tracking is done.
The other significant difference is that the habituation experience lets you spend more time with the gorillas. In the ideal scenario you will have up to four hours with them, verses one hour with the trekking experience. Note however that that four hours starts when the trackers find the gorilla’s nests from the previous night. That means that it includes the time spent locating the gorillas afterwards.
Given that you are spending a lot longer with the gorillas, the habituation experience also costs significantly more (two and a half times more in fact!).
So is the gorilla habituation tracking experience worth it?
I have to be honest and admit that we probably didn’t do enough research on the difference between the trekking and the habituation experiences before booking. It didn’t help that our tour itinerary made it sound like the difference was mainly the amount of time that you spent with the gorillas. In fact that was the key reason we booked habituation. We figured that as we were unlikely to repeat the experience, we should maximise the time we spent with the gorillas.
What we absolutely didn’t appreciate is that gorillas under habituation are a lot more shy than gorillas in a completely habituated family. Fortunately we were taken to see a family where the silverback and one of the females had moved across from a fully habituated family. Because those two gorillas were unconcerned with our presence, it helped some of the other gorillas relax and accept us being there.
What did we see during our trek?
However this did mean that some of the gorillas stayed away from us. The family we visited had eight gorillas in it, one silverback, five females. plus male and female infants. Of these, the silverback and the habituated female were totally comfortable with us being there.
One other female came close to us but gave some warning grunts when she wanted to pass by. The other three females stayed well out of sight the entire time, as did the female baby. The male baby was comfortable with us being reasonably close to him but he was still quite shy and would beat his chest to try to show us how strong he was (so cute!). That level of shyness was something we hadn’t expected when booking. But at least some of the gorillas were comfortable being around us, unlike our experience with the Chimpanzee and Golden Monkey trekking.
How close to the gorillas did we get?
Still, we were able to get very close to the gorillas and watch them go about their daily activities. Supposedly you should keep a six metre distance between you and the gorillas and generally speaking we did. But sometimes it was hard to avoid.
Often the more habituated gorillas would come walking towards you and there was little time or room to move aside. However the guides were very good at telling you how much space to leave and when to leave the gorillas alone. They would also grunt at the gorillas to let them know we were friends.
When we arrived in the morning, the gorillas were up in the trees feeding on leaves. But they quickly came down to the ground to feed from lower branches. It was quite surreal watching the massive silverback come sliding down a tree trunk.
We watched them move around, feeding on various plants. Then around noon they all headed under a pile of thickets to rest for an hour or so. The two babies snuggled up to the silverback which was very cute to see.
One of the female gorillas managed to lose the family and we heard her crying out to try and locate the silverback. He left her hanging for a bit before he grunted a reply to let her know where he was!
Watch The Video of Our Habituation Experience
We made a short video that shows how our habituation tracking experience went.
Is the gorilla habituation experience ethical?
Any interaction with wild animals will obviously have an impact on their behaviour. In the case of gorillas it makes them less scared of man. This does make it easier for poachers to get close enough to them to attack. But on the other hand the habituation experience injects money into the local community, which makes them more likely to support eco tourism over poaching.
Because wild or partially habituated gorillas do not interact as much with the tourists, you could argue that the habituation experience has less of an impact on the gorillas and is therefore more ethical. For example it is common for fully habituated gorillas to come up and touch tourists and even steal their cameras and chew on them!
I’d be tempted to suggest that once gorillas get to that point, it’s time to back off and leave the family alone for a while so that they don’t become too used to humans. Apparently it doesn’t take too long when left alone for the gorillas to become less comfortable around us.
Understanding the Competing Incentives
As with many things, there is a grey area here with competing incentives. The Ugandan government wants to protect the gorillas from poaching and deforestation. One way to do that is to use the gorilla experiences to inject money into the local community, to get them on board with protecting the gorillas. They do this by providing jobs for guides, trackers, guards and porters.
However when tourists spend a lot of money, they want to get close to the gorillas, which also has an impact on the family. Still, the tourism impact on the gorillas is significantly less than poaching or deforestation, so it seems like a reasonable compromise for now.
What is too much habituation?
Perhaps the government should restrict access to families that have become too habituated. We heard of one family with a young male that was so unafraid of people that he bailed a female tourist up against a tree out of curiosity. We also heard plenty of stories of young gorillas stealing cameras or coming up and touching tourists.
One of our guides on a different tour told us how a young male gorilla pressed his finger onto a ranger’s gumboot out of pure curiosity. But the gorilla was so strong that his finger went straight through the boot’s rubber onto the ranger’s foot! The ranger grimaced but was unable to yell out in pain lest it cause a scene and get the gorillas angry.
Once these sorts of incidents occur, maybe the family should be left alone for a while. It’s better that they retain their natural wariness around humans and it’s safer for tourists. Gorillas are extremely powerful and can unintentionally injure you.
Is Gorilla Trekking in Uganda Safe?
This is a hard question to answer. We certainly never felt any concern whatsoever for our safety during our trek. Our guides knew exactly what they were doing and told us whenever we needed to back away a bit. You could tell that they understood the mood of the gorillas and how they were reacting to us being there.
In fact the guides seem more concerned about other animals in the forest. The main reason that they carry rifles is in case you come across a charging elephant or buffalo. These animals are much more skittish than the gorillas because they are not used to being around people. That being said, it’s still pretty unlikely that you’ll have to run from an angry elephant.
The most likely risks to your safety will be self inflicted. That is, you’re more likely to get hurt tripping over in the forest or pushing yourself to exhaustion. The paths can be slippery and the forest can get hot and humid. Make sure you understand your limits.
Is the gorilla habituation experience the best gorilla trekking option to do?
We had a less than stellar habituation experience with the chimpanzees in Kibali, where essentially we could only watch them from a large distance up in the trees. It really wasn’t worth the price of the permit.
Given that the gorilla experience was a lot more expensive, we were naturally apprehensive about how it would turn out. But in the end we really enjoyed our experience. We found the gorillas quite quickly, we saw how they were tracked and we spent enough time with them to get photos, without bothering them too much.
However it could have gone quite differently. We could have been sent to visit a different family that was less habituated and we could have seen a lot less of the gorillas. In that scenario we would have felt like the large premium that we paid was wasted.
That being said, we met people who had a less than stellar experience on the standard trekking package. Although they did get to see the gorillas, some of them spent a lot of time following the family and very little time with them. One tourist spent several hours following a family up and down steep terrain because another dominant male gorilla was chasing the gorillas. In the end he only had twenty minutes to properly observe them.
Multi-day Gorilla Trekking
Another approach that some tour operators offer is multiple trekking experiences on consecutive days. That way if you don’t have a great experience on one day, you might have better luck on the other. If we had our time again we might consider this option because the price of two of the standard trekking permits is still cheaper than the habituation permit.
We met one couple who did three treks, two in Bwindi and one in Mgahinga. Their first trek was a real struggle in the rain but their last two treks were fantastic. Doing multiple treks paid off for them but they were pretty worn out by the end!
The Tipping Experience
While we really enjoyed most of our gorilla experience, the ending left a lot to be desired. We arrived back at our starting point and had a little ceremony to receive our certificates. But at the same time we had to hand over our tips. We’d been given some guidance on tipping but it wasn’t very clear.
Whether it’s the habituation or the trekking experience, there are a lot of people involved. There’s the head guide, a couple of trackers, a couple of armed guards and any porters that you need to carry your gear. At the end you have to tip them all and pay your porter (their cost is not included in the permit fee).
We don’t have a problem with tipping for service but having to dole out tips to everyone who participated while they stand there and watch is just really awkward. We prefer to tip for exemplary service, not because we feel obliged to.
Fixing the Tipping Experience
Ideally we would have only tipped the guide and the lead tracker because they genuinely spent a lot of time helping us to see the gorillas and to get good photos. We also would have tipped our porter because she went out of her way to help Cindy on the trail. Everyone else should just get paid for doing their job.
Encouraging the tipping of every team member just for doing what’s asked of them is bad practice, particularly when you are paying so much for the experience to begin with.
An acceptable alternative would be to provide a tip box at the end and split the tips between the team. This is done in many of the lodges in Uganda.
What should you pack and wear for gorilla trekking?
Here’s what gear you’ll need for either the habituation or standard trekking experiences:
You’ll need a good pair of hiking boots. These days a lot of hikers are leaning towards wearing lower cut boots rather than full height ones. The main thing is that they should give your feet some support as well as grip on the trail. Ideally they should be made of waterproof material such as Goretex; it can get quite wet in the jungle. Otherwise consider using a spray-on waterproofing solution.
On our hike we had nice weather in the morning but on the way back home we had enough rain to make the clay road we were walking on very muddy. If we didn’t have good boots we probably would have ended up on our backsides (I almost did anyway!).
Note that many lodges will clean your boots for you overnight, often for free. This is very handy, especially if like us you are flying out the next day!
Good hiking socks
Prevent blisters by wearing a good pair of hiking socks. If you don’t have gaiters, you can also tuck your trousers into these socks to prevent the dreaded red ants from entering your shoes.
These are good for keeping your feet dry and keeping the ants out. However they are not essential; we didn’t have any and we were fine.
You’ll want to wear a pair of lightweight, breathable trousers. It doesn’t really matter what colour they are. The gorillas don’t care. They need to be tough enough to not tear if caught on nettles.
If possible, avoid wearing skin tight pants in case you have to walk through patches of stinging nettles. We didn’t have to deal with these in our gorilla habituation experience but other sectors in the park have them.
On our Golden Monkey habituation experience we did have to walk through a field of very large stinging nettles and it wasn’t a lot of fun for Cindy who was wearing tight pants!
Long sleeve top
If you have one, a long sleeve top protects against nettles and other prickly plants.
Light weight jacket
It can be quite cool in the early morning at altitude, so a light weight jacket such as a polar fleece is handy early on, until you warm up.
Rain Jacket or Poncho
The weather in the mountains is very changeable. It’s quite likely that you’ll get rained on at some point, even in the dry season. We had great weather for most of the day but it showered on the way back. You could be unlucky and get a real drenching, so take a decent rain coat with you.
A poncho is another good alternative. Our porter had a large one that covered both herself and our backpack which was quite handy!
Waterproof bag cover
You’ll probably be carrying some expensive camera gear to capture your time with the gorillas. Make sure it’s protected from the rain by either bringing along a plastic bag to put it in, or purchasing a cover for your backpack.
Plenty of Water
Bring at least two litres of water each. You will get hot and thirsty.
Your lodge should be able to make you a packed lunch. You’ll need the energy! Our lodge made us such a huge lunch that we didn’t need any other snacks.
Remember that you can’t eat near the gorillas. Your guides will tell you when it’s appropriate to eat lunch.
A Walking Stick
You should be offered these for free at the start of the trek. They are useful for keeping your balance on uneven terrain. We took one each and they were handy when out in the open areas but a little bit of a pain once we entered the dense bush. They’re not essential but if you’re not that steady on your feet you should probably use one.
This goes without saying but make sure you have a camera with a decent zoom. Also make sure you know how to use it as you won’t have time to learn on the spot.
Flash photography is not allowed as it startles the gorillas, so make sure you know how to keep your flash from coming on.
Ideally bring both a still camera and one that you can take videos with, even if it’s just a smartphone.
Do you need a porter and is it ethical to get one?
Lots of people forgo getting a porter to carry their luggage and then regret it. If you’re not that fit you should definitely get one porter per backpack. The porters are super fit, so load all your gear into your backpack and hand it over. Seriously, they don’t break a sweat, even with their jumpers on!
In our case, I probably could have carried our backpack for the day as our hike wasn’t that strenuous. But once we reached the gorillas, it was nice to be able to leave the backpack on the ground with our porter and follow the gorillas around without it. That alone made it worth having a porter. Our porter also went out of her way to help Cindy in a few places where it was a little slippery.
Hiring a porter is totally ethical because it provides them with a lot more money than they can make elsewhere. In fact there is such a demand for being a porter within the community that they have a roster where each porter can only work once or twice a month.
Once you get to Uganda you will notice that most Ugandans are super fit, especially in the mountains. They often have to walk up and down steep and winding roads daily, carrying water cans or other heavy items on their heads. As I mentioned earlier, they won’t break a sweat carrying your bags!
How hard is gorilla trekking in Uganda?
It’s really difficult to say how hard your trekking will be. For starters, there are multiple sectors in the park, each with their unique terrain. We were lucky that our family lived in a sector that wasn’t too hilly but we met others who covered a lot of vertical height during their trek.
Once you find the gorillas they probably won’t move very fast so you can relax for a while, although that’s not always the case.
There are people of all ages who do the trek, so you will probably be fine if you have a moderate fitness level. We are reasonably fit (although definitely not athletes!) and although we felt it the next day, we didn’t struggle with the walk.
Make your guides aware of any health conditions that you have and consult your doctor for their advice before booking your trek.
It’s especially important to pace yourself and take your time when trekking. You will normally be put into a group based roughly on your age group, which doesn’t always mean that you will be equally matched in fitness. But the the group travels at the pace of the slowest member and don’t stress if that’s you.
The African Helicopter
If for any reason you can’t make it all of the way on foot, you can call for the African Helicopter. This is actually just a stretcher with two porters to carry you out. In fact you can also be carried both ways. It costs around $US150 each way. Sometimes amidst all the excitement of seeing the gorillas, people don’t realise how exhausted they are, and then struggle on the return journey. The stretcher is always there if needed.
Is there an age limit for gorilla trekking?
Generally speaking, a child must be over 15 years of age to do gorilla trekking in Uganda and this is strictly enforced. It may be waived very occasionally, such as if the child is very physically fit for their age, or if their parents are willing to sign an indemnity waiver and will be trekking with them.
Apart from the physical fitness issues, children may lack the maturity to be around gorillas safely. They also are more likely to have communicable diseases that could be transferred to the gorillas.
I’m not aware of any upper limits on age. For example, plenty of people in their seventies seem to do the trekking.
Which national park should you trek in?
As I mentioned earlier, there are two national parks in Uganda where you can go gorilla trekking. They are the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park which is down south near the border with Rwanda and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park which is about two hours further north.
Bwindi is a lot larger than Mgahinga and has almost half the total population of mountain gorillas in it. Being smaller, Mgahinga has only one habituated gorilla family that you can visit. You can also only do the habituation experience at Bwindi.
The gorilla family in Mgahinga has been known to cross the border into the DR Congo or Rwanda, although this is now rare. But they also have a smaller home range making them often easier to find.
If you don’t like bumpy roads, Mgahinga might be a better option for you, as the road to Bwindi will give you a free “African Massage”. However it was in the process of being widened and by the time you read this it might even have been sealed.
Trekking in Bwindi
We did our trek in Bwindi and then drove down to Mgahinga the next morning to do our Golden Monkeys habituation experience. If you want to see both of these primates, it might be worth doing your trek in Mgahinga. On the other hand, Bwindi has chimpanzees while Mgahinga doesn’t, so that might sway things for you as well!
The drive up the winding road to Bwindi was itself breathtaking and definitely one of the highlights of our trip. The whole area is just beautifully lush and green.
Note that Bwindi is quite large and its gorilla families are spread out across different regions. For this reason it’s best to book a package through a reputable tour operator rather than book accomodation on your own. Apparently a common error is to book a lodge that is too far from the home range of the gorilla family you are visiting.
Also, although you can self drive to Bwindi, given the current condition of the road it’s better to have a tour operator provide you with a driver who is familiar with the area. There are plenty of good companies that offer gorilla trekking tours within Uganda or Rwanda.
The Children at Bwindi
As you drive up the mountain there are dozens of young children who will stand along the roadside to wave at you as you pass by. Most of them are just happy to see you and will often do a traditional dance that they’ve been taught to perform for tourists at their schools. It’s really sweet and wonderful to see, especially the very young ones who look at you in amazement, with wide open eyes.
However, some of the kids will demand that you give them lollies and some of the more precocious boys have started to throw stones at your car if you don’t. Please don’t encourage this by giving them anything because apparently this behaviour has spread recently and the community is trying to clamp down on it.
How much does gorilla trekking or habituation cost?
Gorilla permits for standard gorilla trekking cost $US600 (USD700 after July 2020), while a gorilla permit for the habituation experience in Bwindi costs $US1500.
Accommodation In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Use the search box below to find accommodation in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park:
Uganda has lots more to offer
Primate trekking is just one of the many safari opportunities within Uganda. You can use SafariBookings to discover some great tours. We used it to find and contact tour operators when planning our African itinerary and it was really helpful.