Rwanda is home to around 480 mountain gorillas, more than half of the world’s entire population (the rest live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda). In Volcanoes National Park, the Rwandan part of the Virungas, ten gorilla groups are now habituated for gorilla safaris, more than anywhere else in the world.
Look into the eyes of a large silverback gorilla and he’ll look back with a thinking, intelligent gaze, mindful that you’re another individual. Any apprehensions or nerves you might have had during your trek will melt away the minute you see your gorilla family. Gorilla trekking safaris offer a magical encounter that transcends any other ‘wildlife’ experience we know.
Whilst a gorilla trekking safari is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you, the staff at Volcanoes National Park have been doing this for several years and run a very smooth operation, hence treks to the mountain gorillas are well-organised and clearly structured.
What it’s like on a gorilla trekking safari
On the day of your gorilla trekking, you’ll set off very early in the morning to track to the apes from the edge of the forest. Your driver/guide will take you from your lodge to the park headquarters in Kinigi village. The guides here speak excellent English and are very good. They will be taking you to a specific group of ‘habituated’ mountain gorillas, which they know well and are used to human visitors.
You’ll be divided into parties of 8 and after a briefing on safety and gorilla trekking etiquette, you’ll be driven to the start of the trail to reach your mountain gorilla group. Your guide will then lead you along generally clear paths up into the forest, in radio communication with the trackers that stay with the group so that they can be located. The altitude is over 2,500m, so although the pace is unhurried, the hike is tiring and can be steep in parts, taking from 30 minutes to a few hours. Don’t be surprised if you feel a bit breathless at this altitude – this is perfectly normal.
Most trekkers are a little apprehensive – a large silverback male gorilla can weigh up to 200kg, or three times the weight of the average man, but the apprehension usually vanishes when you see the group. Often the gorillas will be spread around a small area of dense vegetation. They’ll continue with their feeding and interactions, nonchalant about their visitors, though watching you with interest. Occasionally one, often a playful youngster, will approach you with curiosity – sometimes coming so close that you’ll have to move away.