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How to plan a gorilla safari

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Posted on April 12, 2009 at 11:22 am

Here’s a simple guideline on planning a gorilla safari, whether you’re a first timer or seasoned African traveller – some tips on where, when and how to get “gorilla’d” out!

Over the years we’ve tracked gorillas, chimps and other primates in an assortment of places and conditions. There’ve been tough and easy treks in Rwanda and Uganda, adventurous tracking in Gabon, special rewards in Congo and CAR. Usually combined with chimp treks in neighbouring regions - some of the most scenic chimp trails imaginable in Tanzania’s Mahale Mountains, some of the easiest in Kibale, Uganda.

All varied and always rewarding experiences but the gorilla treks are different in so many ways and unlike any other trips in southern or East Africa - they’re truly unique, humbling and unforgettable.

The different types of gorillas and where they occur

Western lowland gorilla

Western lowland gorilla - Gabon

There’re 3 subspecies of gorilla - two lowland gorillas and the mountain gorilla. The Western Lowland gorilla is found in a range of forests covering Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Central Africa Republic (CAR), Nigeria and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They’re endangered through this big range but in August 2008 researchers reported a much larger than expected population of around 125000 in the northern Congo alone – good news for this subspecies! Western lowland gorillas are best seen in Gabon, CAR and Cameroon.

The Eastern Lowland gorilla is much rarer and restricted to the lowland and Albertine Rift forests of Eastern DRC.  This population is under threat from poaching and armed conflict in this part of Africa.  It’s estimated that only a few thousand individuals remain.

Mountain gorillas are the largest of the primates and rarest of the three gorilla subspecies.These critically endangered giants of which only around 900 remain are restricted to small pockets of moist tropical or subtropical forests in the mountains and volcanoes along the borders of south west Uganda, North West Rwanda and eastern DRC. The habituated mountain gorilla groups of Rwanda and Uganda are the most rewarding.

Where to go to see mountain gorillas

The two main areas for mountain gorillas are Bwindi in Uganda and the Virungas in Rwanda:

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is 330 km square, set in south-western Uganda.  This mountainous region includes lowland forest with rare Afromontane vegetation on the peaks.  This ancient forest is around 25000 years old - one of the few “refugia” that survived the last ice age.  Bwindi is home to about 320 gorilla individuals including 4 habituated groups.  Trekking can be tough here but the success rate is as good as 100%.

The Virunga Mountains are about 450 km square and is an ecologically homogenous area covering three contiguous National Parks in Uganda, Rwanda and DRC called the Virunga Trinational Conservation Area.  This combined area has about 386 individuals including 5 habituated groups in Rwanda and 4 habituated groups in DRC.

The parks are Mgahinga National Park in Uganda (it looks like this group of gorillas have moved to Rwanda for now), Parc National des Volcans (PNV) in Rwanda and Parc des Virunga in DRC. The Virunga Volcano National Park is mainly known by its French name “Parc National des Volcans” or PNV, and is the home of the Rwandan gorillas.

Gorilla ranges in Central and East Africa

Gorilla ranges in Central and East Africa - Gabon, Cameroon, CAR, Congo, DRC, Rwanda and Uganda

PNV is where “Gorillas in the Mist” was filmed, the area in which primatologist Dian Fossey carried out all of her research.  Gorillas are arguably easier to trek in Rwanda, tending to remain lower in the foothills and they’re generally more habituated.

For lowland gorillas Langoue Bai in Ivindo National Park in Gabon used to be our favoured central African haunt and Loango National Park has been a well tried but marginally successful destination for us.  Nowadays the best places are Dzanga Sangha Reserve (Central African Republic) and Nouabale Ndoki National Park (Republic of Congo).  The logistics for CAR and Congo can be tricky and costly and so the only way to do these trips sensibly is to join a small group.

When to go gorilla trekking

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda is done year round …but…

  • The busy “high season” from May to September when permits and accommodation are at a premium or in short supply.  Plan in advance!
  • The “wet seasons” occur in March/April and October/November when trekking conditions can be wet and tougher going.  Not necessarily a bad time with more permits and accommodation options available!
  • Weather-wise these gorilla habitats are all set near the equator so we have a year round warm climate.  Despite this the higher altitudes in Bwindi and the Virungas mean that morning and night time temperatures can be chilly, the days are usually warm to hot and humid.
  • From experience we’ve had dry periods in what’s meant to be the wettest times, conversely wet when it should have been dry - expect soft rain and bring wet weather gear at any time of year (we supply a recommended kit list).
  • June to August are usually the driest months, theoretically easiest treks; March to May the wettest, potentially the hardest treks.
  • If “easy treks” are preferable then your chances are better in Rwanda in the dry season.
  • If you’re in for the experience and not phased about short vs long or easy vs hard treks then visit October to June – the gorillas will never disappoint.

If you’re planning on other destinations as well then give extra thought to timing… Uganda in itself is a truly “authentic” safari destination - less sophisticated than Tanzania or Kenya and its chimps, birds and wider range of special-interest attractions (from butterflies to bats to orchids) makes it a perfect match for first timers and seasoned African visitors alike.  Plan on a week at least, ideally 10 days and more.  We have private trips available anytime or small group departures on set dates through the season.

Tanzania and/or Kenya are obvious combinations to view the annual wildebeest migration… also at any time of year.

If lowland gorillas are on the cards then we usually plan trips to CAR/Congo/Gabon between October and March.

The best option for gorilla trekking is to get permits in both Uganda and Rwanda – our best standard trip is done over 12 days…privately or as part of a group at any time of year.  Find out more about our suggested primate safaris …

Gorilla permits and places to stay

Gorilla permits in Uganda and Rwanda are strictly limited to 8 persons per habituated group per day.  Each permit allows one hour’s worth of interaction with the gorillas.  These permits are purchased in advance from either the Uganda Wildlife Authority or the Rwanda Tourism Board and are released to ground handlers on a quota basis up to 2 years in advance. mountain_gorilla_volcanoes   There’s enough demand to ensure that every permit is pre-sold.

Currently priced at $500-$750 each and 100% non-refundable if cancelled. The reason for this is because even though there might be loads of demand for permits, suitable accommodation might not suit the clients and the permits could end up not being resold.

Accommodation is in the hands of private owners ranging from first class to backpacker standard bandas.  With restrictions on gorilla permits, capacity also tends to be fairly limited especially at the upper end of the scale.

If you’re specifically interested in high standard accommodation in the regular holiday season from June to September then book in advance, and if you’ve left it just too late for this season then rather book early for next year. If you’re OK with a campsite or banda, and if you have time on your hands then your chances of picking up a last minute cancelled permit could be good in which case advance planning isn’t so important.

In summary… how to plan a gorilla safari

  • Go to Rwanda or Uganda for mountain gorillas.  We have small group trips on set dates through the year, private departures at anytime on request.
  • Rwanda is more accessible and the trekking can be easier.
  • Uganda is more varied and deserves more time to include the lions of Ishasha and chimps of Kibale at very least…there’s lots more to see and do.
  • “Dry season” from June to September is “regular holiday season” too – book well in advance.
  • Lowland gorillas are best in Central African Republic and Congo – join our set date trips.
A typical gorilla encounter lasts for one hour - usually very intense, time whizzes by!

A typical gorilla encounter lasts for one hour - usually very intense, time whizzes by!

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