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WILDLIFE

Coming face-to-face with wild mountain gorillas in their natural environment, deep in the forests of East Africa, is a truly unforgettable experience.

by Tom Blakey

Mountain gorillas can be found in the forests of the Virunga Mountains: a range of volcanoes extending about 50 miles along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Republic of the Congo.

We focus on the gorilla trekking on offer in Parc National des Volcans, in northwest Rwanda.

Wayfairer Top Tip: You can easily combine Rwanda with a safari in Kenya or Tanzania or with a beach holiday in Zanzibar. Our Gorillas, Masai Mara & Zanzibar holiday is an example of a tailor-made itinerary which we can plan, and it can be specifically adapted to suit you.

Here’s everything you need to know about our gorilla trekking in Rwanda:

Overview

Your adventure starts in Kigali and from here you’ll venture out to Kinigi, at the foothills of the Virungas, in Parc National des Volcans where you’ll begin your trek in search of a gorilla family.

When you finally find these gentle giants you’ll have the opportunity to spend up to one hour in their company, before returning to your lodge to reflect on your moving and magical encounter with the wild mountain gorillas of Rwanda.

Parc National des Volcans

Conservationist Dian Fossey spent 20 years studying mountain gorillas in Parc National des Volcans, and it’s thanks to her work that poaching was curtailed in time to save these majestic animals. Parc National des Volcans features in the film 'Gorillas in the Mist' (1988) which chronicles Dian’s work.

There are currently 10 habituated mountain gorilla families (Agashya, Amahoro, Bwenge, Hirwa, Kwitonda, Sabyinyo, Susa A, Susa B [Karasimbi], Ugenda and Umubkano) in Parc National des Volcans. Trekking groups are allocated a specific gorilla family to track and the number of people in each group is strictly limited to 8, which means that only 80 permits are available per day (see below for more information on permits).

Trekking conditions

Your professional guide and tracker will lead you into the forest’s paths in search of your allocated gorilla family. The conditions in the forest can be slippery and muddy - even in the dry season - and it can also be very humid under the forest canopy.

The trek is fairly challenging and you may find it tough as you pass through the dense undergrowth. The high altitude and the steep, slippery trails can make the trek exhausting, but it’s definitely worth the effort to spend time with mountain gorillas in the wild.

One of the key elements in determining which gorilla family you’ll trek to see is the duration and difficulty of the trek you wish to undertake. Your trek could last from 30 minutes to eight hours depending on the exact location of the specific gorilla family which you’re tracking. You don’t have to be super-fit, however it does help if you have a reasonable level of fitness, if only to enhance your overall enjoyment of the experience.

Meeting the gorillas

When you meet the gorillas you’ll have the chance to spend between 40 minutes to one hour quietly observing them in their natural habitat.

The gorillas are likely to be just a few metres away from you and they will continue to go about their daily lives - feeding and interacting with each other, under the watchful gaze of the silverback. We promise that this is something you’ll never ever forget!

You should talk in a low voice whilst you’re with the gorillas and you must try not to make any loud noises or sudden movements. Of course you’re going to be excited, but you should try to express your excitement quietly. You’re requested to keep a five metre distance from the gorillas and you must not touch them under any circumstances. Even though the gorillas are used to seeing people on a daily basis, they are wild animals and they can sometimes react unexpectedly, so it is essential that you listen to your guide’s and trackers’ instructions.

Duration

You’ll have up to one magical hour with the gorillas, however this never feels long enough and we recommend that you consider doing two treks. No two gorilla experiences are ever the same and a second trek offers the opportunity to track a different family in a different area of the park. On a second trek you’re more likely to put the camera down, relax and enjoy the experience.

Photography

Taking photographs of gorillas is challenging, due to the light conditions and the fact that the distance between you and the gorillas is unpredictable. Your time with them is limited, therefore you should ensure that you’re as prepared as possible to get the best photos.

Your choice of camera is completely up to you – we’ve seen some excellent photos which were taken with an iPhone 6s, however a DSLR that can shoot at a high ISO is recommended. As you’re required to be at least 7 metres from the gorillas a 70-200mm lens is ideal, or if you are able to use a 2.8 lens that would be even better as the light in the forest can be very poor at times. Flash photography is not allowed so make sure that you disable the flash on your camera or mobile phone before you get to your group of gorillas.

Wayfairer Top Tip: The rainy seasons around March-May and October-November can provide the best conditions for photography in gorilla country. After a rainy shower, and in between the times when it’s overcast, the air is clear of any dust which is then perfect for gorilla photography.

Your time with the gorillas is precious so you should plan your shots rather than shooting away wildly. We recommend that you find a balance between absorbing this incredible experience and taking photographs of these fascinating creatures. We would advise that you don’t spend the whole time looking through your camera lens – you should focus on the experience as well as taking your photographs.

Wayfairer Top Tip: Make sure that your batteries are fully charged and you have plenty of space on your memory cards. You should also make sure that you have waterproof bags or covers for your camera as the rainforest climate means it can rain any time of year.

When to go

You can track gorillas in Rwanda throughout the year. The best time tends to be during the dry period from June to September as the jungle is less muddy and the paths are less slippery, however you should bear in mind that it can rain any time of year.

The wettest months are April and May, however you can still track gorillas at this time. This is an excellent time for tracking chimpanzees as fruit ripens and this brings the chimps down to the lower reaches of the forest canopy. The gorillas often climb higher up the mountain during the dry season and descend during the rains.

Read our month-by-month guide to Rwanda’s weather to help decide when to go.

Gorilla Permits

Visiting mountain gorillas in Rwanda is strictly managed to protect these critically endangered animals in their natural habitat and to maintain their survival. A permit is required to trek with gorillas in Parc National des Volcans, but don’t worry we’ll purchase the permits for you when you book your holiday with us.

The permits currently cost US$1500 per person (as of May 2017). With only 80 permits available each day we recommend that you plan your trip well in advance – especially if you want to see gorillas during the busy months.

Age restrictions

You must be 15 years of age to track gorillas.

If you’d like to come face-to-face with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, please call Luxury Travel Specialists on 0203 143 4293 or send an online enquiry to start your journey.

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