In the summer of 2013, my wife and I had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda. For many years I have dreamt of visiting the mountain gorillas in the wild. The only place in the world to see mountain gorillas in the wild is in Volcanoes National Park. This national park actually has three names because it shared borders with three countries. It is known as Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Here is some practical information about Rwanda safaris.
How to Book Your Mountain Gorilla Trek
Before flying to Rwanda here is some information. The current cost per person is $750 for a one-day trek and it’s not 100% guaranteed that you will see the gorillas. They give you that disclaimer but it’s almost certain that you will see them. We suggest booking 3-4 months in advance because its sold out daily. This is the number one attraction in Rwanda so the second you know your going to Rwanda book your ticket.
How to Get There
Once you land in Kigali, the capital, you will have to drive two hours west to Musanze. This town is the hub of Rwanda’s gorilla trekking tourism. There are plenty of hotels, bars and restaurants. For accommodation we recommend staying at the Gorillas Nest Lodge, which is very close to the entrance of Volcanoes National Park.
Gorilla trekking takes place each day. There are 84 people allowed to visit with them on any given day (not all groups visit with the same gorilla families). Everyone gets divided into a group to see the 10 habituated gorilla groups that live in the park. Habituated means they have been in contact with humans.
There are many families that have not seen or interacted with humans, so humans can’t go see them. Wake up is at 5:45 am to be in the car by 6:30 am and after a quick coffee, 7:30 am is when your get will brief you on the family you will be visiting. If you miss the briefing when they call your group you will not be trekking and refunds are not offered!
From the briefing you will get into a car and head to the base of the mountain – they will try to take you as close to your gorilla family as possible. Depending on how far your family is from the base of the mountain you will have to hike for 1-4 hours. Luckily, our group Kwitonda was only a two-hour hike away. Kwitonda has up of 23 members including 4 silver backs. Some groups live in the lower slopes, while some like the Karisimbi group, live in the higher slopes and are harder to reach.
The trek isn’t easy and its mostly uphill. We recommend bringing bottles of water, a packed lunch (you may need it if the hike goes on for longer than ours), good hiking boots, appropriate clothing, and the best camera equipment you have because the pictures you will capture here are going to be amazing. When we finally caught sight of the Kwitonda group they were resting in heavy brush, so our guides started cutting the forest overgrowth a bit so we could get closer. The second we had a good view the clock starts! You only get 60 minutes to see the family. You are not allowed to touch a gorilla, but gorillas are allowed to touch you.
Most the family was asleep except for the babies, which were jumping around playing on top of the silverbacks and climbing trees. Then the juveniles started to wake up and eat. One of the babies came up to one the guests on the trek and tapped her leg.
Then one of the group’s silverbacks came out into a clearing to eat. A few of us in the group went to see him with one of our guides. We had 10 beautiful minutes 5 feet away from him to take pictures and just admire this beautiful and powerful animal in the wild. I got extra close with a guide next to me to capture some images, during this time the silverback finished eating and started walking towards me. My guide said to not move as he will not hurt me. The silverback walked right by my brushing my shoulder. It was a magical moment!
As the time winds down, your guides will tell you 20 minutes left, 10 minutes left and 5 minutes left. Once it’s done we slowly head back the way we came. The trek down is much faster, around half the time. There are also porters available to help you with your bags if you wish.
I have seen the big five in the Kruger National Park, I’ve dove with great whites in South Africa, and swam in freezing waters with Seals, but this was by far the most amazing wildlife experience of my life! It was worth every cent and I look forward to the day when I can do it again.
Special thanks to the RDB.