Spending time with mountain gorillas in the wild in Africa is a bucket-list experience for many people, and one of the most moving wildlife encounters you can have. Unlike with, say, lions or elephants, with gorillas you get a real sense of connection – they are after all some of our closest relatives.
Wanting to include gorilla trekking on your safari itinerary is the first and easiest decision. What comes next is a slightly trickier choice: which country to choose. Uganda and Rwanda both offer guided gorilla trekking and in each case, it’s a wonderful experience - although slightly different. (It’s also possible to see gorillas in the eastern DRC, but we can’t recommend that at present due to ongoing conflict there).
To help you plan your dream gorilla encounter, here’s our guide to the pros and cons of gorilla trekking in Uganda – the Pearl of Africa – and Rwanda – the land of a thousand hills. Although we should say up front that both provide unforgettable primate experiences and the choice often comes down to personal preferences.
This is the one area where there is clear blue sky between the two countries. Whereas a gorilla trekking permit costs US$600 per person in Uganda, the Rwandan authorities have recently (May 2017) raised the cost of a permit there to a rather higher US$1,500. If budget is a factor, this is something to consider. In terms of affordability, Uganda also scores with low-season discounted permits for US$450 in April, May, and November. It also offers a 4-hour gorilla encounter, whereas each experience in Rwanda is a maximum of one hour long.
Tell me about the gorillas.
Uganda has over half the world’s population of Critically Endangered mountain gorillas, and more habituated groups than Rwanda has. In recent years, the decline in numbers has been reversed by dedicated conservation efforts in both countries, but there are still fewer than 900 of these incredible creatures left on Earth. Thanks to the work of trackers and wildlife scouts, who regularly monitor all the gorillas, you have an extremely high chance of seeing gorillas in either country.
In either Uganda or Rwanda, you’ll get to see the gorillas up close and personal (while following strict protocols to protect the gorillas from human diseases) and observe their natural behavior. Watch as the massively-built silverbacks do their best to ignore the antics of fluffy, playful youngsters while other gorillas peacefully feed, or groom each other.
How do I get there?
Rwanda is a much smaller country than Uganda and has a generally excellent road network, so the journey from the capital Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park where the gorillas live is relatively quick and easy. Uganda’s roads, in contrast, can leave something to be desired and distances are longer. Internal flights from Entebbe the wonderfully named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest are an option, but these can be pricey.
In terms of the actual gorilla trekking, the terrain and how far you have to hike can vary significantly depending on the weather and the season. Gorillas move higher and lower on the mountains as part of their natural behavior (and sometimes cross borders, becoming Ugandan or Rwandan without realizing it). It’s impossible to say that the trekking is easier in one country or other; we can say however that you’ll enjoy a fascinating walk through flourishing ancient forests with abundant birds and butterflies.
Where should I stay?
Until recently, Uganda held the advantage in terms of luxury safari-style accommodation, with most of Rwanda’s lodges being located in towns and villages some distance from the Park headquarters where all treks begin. This is set to change in June 2017, however, with the much-anticipated opening of Wilderness Safaris’ Bisate Lodge. This ‘sustainable luxury’ lodge is set in the eroded cone of an extinct volcano, with guest accommodation inspired by traditional Rwandan architecture. Guests will also have the opportunity to plant a tree as part of the Bisate reforestation project.
Now I’ve seen the gorillas, what else can I do?
While gorilla trekking is an undoubted highlighted in these two central African nations, both Rwanda and Uganda offer a wealth of other experiences. Uganda is perhaps a more rounded safari destination, with many other national parks – although the recent reintroduction of lions and black rhino into Rwanda’s Akagera has helped redress the balance. Both countries offer meaningful cultural experiences, the opportunity to chill out by stunning lakes, and additional wildlife-viewing opportunities.
Here again, there is no clear winner: you could arguably have a better chimpanzee trekking experience in Uganda, while Rwanda is the place to go to see golden monkeys. Museums and memorials in Rwanda offer insights into the 1994 genocide, and spending time in this small but vibrant nation will leave you with a deep impression of how far the process of rebirth and reconciliation has advanced since then.
I still can't decide between gorilla trekking Uganda or Rwanda!
Other than the cost of the permits, and the numbers available (Uganda offers more) there really is little to choose between these two wonderful gorilla trekking destinations. If costs are a concern, Uganda might be the answer, but all things being equal you will have an unforgettable experience whether you encounter Rwandan or Ugandan gorillas. For more in-depth advice on where to go to see gorillas, contact us today.