I have been lucky enough to track the gorillas a couple of times and I think gorilla trekking is still one of the best wildlife experiences I have had. There is something very special about getting so close to these incredible, intelligent creatures. Spending an hour with them is fascinating, exciting, and humbling all at the same time!
I think one of the things that makes the experience so special, is that you are out of the car. You have to walk. You have to work hard to find them. It can take anything from 1- 6 hours of trekking through muddy, steep, slippery rain forest, clambering over logs and wading through streams to find them. Whilst most people of moderate fitness can achieve this, it does require some effort, but it’s exactly this – the effort it takes to get there – that makes the experience even more worthwhile.
There’s no getting away from it. Trekking can be tough, and you really need to make sure you are prepared for it and have the right kit. So, here are some of my tips:
Fit to trek
- You need to be confident in your fitness, so definitely do some walking and fitness training before you come. It’s not like climbing Kilimanjaro, but it’s not an easy stroll, so to maximise your enjoyment, I would do some walking and resistance training for a few months before you leave.
- You will be trekking at altitude of up to 3000 meters. Altitude can affect anyone, no matter how fit they are, so be prepared for it to be tougher than normal. Most importantly walk slowly and steadily. If you try to go fast, then you will feel the effects of altitude much more.
- If you’re worried about your fitness then I would opt for Rwanda over Uganda, as a general rule. It is easier to find the gorillas in Rwanda – trekking here tends to be slightly easier and takes less time.
- If you have difficulty walking, then it is still possible to see the gorillas. We can organise a Sudan chair, so you can be carried there, and extra porters to assist. Not the most comfortable ride, but perfectly possible.
- Make sure you have good walking boots with ankle support. The ground is uneven and steep, so they’re useful if you want to avoid twisting ankles – as well as getting creepy crawlies in your shoes! Most importantly make sure they’re worn in and not brand new. The last thing you want is blisters, preventing from you doing your second trek – we always recommend you book two treks, as each day can offer very different experiences.
- I would always hire a porter. They are a godsend, helping you through the thick undergrowth, over fallen trees and through rivers, whilst you grapple with holding on to your camera and other kit. The normal fee is about $20 USD. This money goes direct to the porter and his family, and the villages take turns in being porters, so it helps the local community too.
- Thick gloves – gardening or ski gloves are perfect – are very important to wear, to protect you from the thorns and biting things!
- Light weight cagoule – it is the rainforest so can rain at any time.
- Lightweight trekking trousers that dry quickly are very useful, and or waterproof trousers to add extra protection. I would include a dry bag or plastic bag, just to give extra waterproofing for your camera / phone, if it is raining.
- Small waterproof ruck sack to carry camera, water, packed lunch and any other essentials.
- Wear lightweight quick drying layers, as it can be very cold at the start but you soon warm up! Lightweight, long sleeve top to protect from scratches and a lightweight sweatshirt or fleece for when it’s cold.
- Gaiters, very useful to protect your trousers getting too wet and or creepy crawlies getting in your shoes!
- As with all trips – sunhat, mosquito repellent, and sun cream!
Capturing the experience
- Flash photography is not allowed in the vicinity of the mountain gorilla or the chimpanzee, so fast film is useful (400-1600 ASA). The mountain gorillas and chimpanzees are most usually found in the forests. Dark tree cover may obscure the light so bear this in mind when you’re setting up your camera.
- Bring spare batteries and memory cards- as not easy to purchase in Uganda or Rwanda. A power bank can be very useful back up to have.
- Be prepared for your lens misting up. It will go, but it takes time. Fortunately, your subject is not constantly on the move, so fear not: you have time.
Types of treks
- We normally suggest 3 nights in Gorilla trekking lodges, with 2 permits, to maximise your sightings. If you are keen hikers then I would suggest staying a few days longer. There are some superb hiking trails in these areas, especially in the Virunga chain of Volcanoes in Rwanda.
- It’s more expensive, but if you are particularly interested in conservation and the study of gorilla, for your second trek, you could opt to go on a habituation trek. This is a private experience, just you, rangers and researchers. You get to spend 4 hours with them instead of 1 hour. The downside is, that it may take longer to find them, and because they are not fully habituated, they may be more skittish, so viewing may not be as good. However, if you are interested in a more in-depth experience and understanding of habituation process, it is definitely worth doing!
So, there’s a long list of advice. Main thing: take the time to enjoy the experience, which inevitably means putting the camera down for a bit, and simply absorbing. It really is the most incredible of experiences.
If you would like to know more about gorilla trekking or would like to experience it for yourself, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’d love to chat. Note that Fiona’s advice is for treks to see the mountain gorilla. Trekking the lower lying western lowland gorilla in the Republic of Congo is in many ways a different – though equally wonderful – experience, and does not require the same sort of high-altitude preparation as described above.