Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
So you have finally arrived in Ruhengeri, you are almost there. More than likely you have travelled half way around the world to get to this spot in North Western Rwanda. You have this little twinge of anticipation as you think about tomorrow. You settle in to where you are spending the night and bump into other travellers who tell you of exotic tales of how cuddly they were, how they spent so long gorilla trekking but it was sooo worth it, how a baby hit them on the leg or a silverback thumped his chest. After all these stories the time passes so slowly until night.
My group of 3 musketeers, well it wasn’t mine but I was the biggest, arrived in Ruhengeri at around lunch. This was after some debacle at the Uganda/Rwanda border where after much trepidation and sitting on the grass eating mangoes we eventually got across legally passing the one soldier holding the cattle gate. After hearing the wonderful stories that other tourists had, our main mission was to change money and buy tracksuit bottoms. I didn’t have this little item because of some unfortunate robbing in Uganda. $5 in the local market for what I’m sure was a second or third hand bottoms did the trick and would hopefully keep my legs free from nettle stings, or so I thought. The bank wouldn’t change any of our money and the 2 legitimate banks in Ruhengeri we went into referred us to ‘Derek’. Derek was a guy in a tracksuit across the street that did his business in an abandoned office (not his). He easily must have had $2,000 US on him in various currencies. But the exchange rate was reasonable so it was all good.
To kill the evening in Ruhengeri you can take taxis or scooters and they will bring you to various places around the town that were used as massacring spots or mass graves in the terrible atrocities that took place over 100days in the 1994 genocide. I won’t go into it as I am here to talk about the cute gorillas. The scooters are a great means of transport and are properly regulated and even provide helmets for passengers. This is in very stark contrast to the chaotic system in Uganda.
Trekking with Gorillas
Our day with Our gorillas finally arrived. We were up early with our butterflies and had a taxi booked to Kinigi where the gorilla trekking centre is based in Volcanoes National Park. After forking out big money you definitely don’t want to miss it. The big silverback statue at the gate takes on new meaning when you can picture a real one in your head. The free tea and coffee were devoured as we were treated to a great show of traditional dancing and music before the official talk. There are approximately 70 tourists with us as we scouted out which ones we should go with. Now a few important points that should definitely be taken into account (more information at the end):
- Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is not cheap, not cheap at all. A permit costs US $750 (changed from $500 in 2012) for one day for one hour with the gorillas. Probably one of the most expensive hours you will ever pay for! This does include the guide and trackers.
- There are several families of gorillas, all with names, which move everyday which are well tracked by the guides but some are closer to the road than others, some involve a lot of trekking, some don’t. Some involve a lot of driving at the beginning, some don’t. You can see which ever group you want as long as there isn’t too many tourists on the one trip, if there is then somebody must go with another guide to another family.
- Lastly, you must have your own transport to get from the Volcanoes National Park Head Quarters to the start of the trek which can be on very rough roads and a 4WD is necessary. This costs approx US $100 per day. Now obviously all 70 tourists don’t need 70 vehicles so you can arrive and just hope people have space……like we did!
So as people were finding their guide going to the gorilla families we picked the Susa family for no reason other than they had the most number of gorillas, 25 in all. They were the longest trek of all of them but it was 2.5hrs each way was the estimate which isn’t a ridiculous length. As we approached we looked every individual up and down and tried so suss out (pardon the pun) what groups they were in and how many vehicles we had. It turned out there were 3 jeeps between the 8 of us so perfect as the two of could easily fit. Our dastardly plan worked!! As we were about to set off with our new friends the German couple the driver demanded extra payment (US $50 above the agreed rate) as he knew he now had us by the balls. It turns out that he didn’t plan for to try and reason and when that didn’t work we just jumped in the other two jeeps and we were off leaving the villain behind. The anticipation grew the longer we spent climbing in the jeep, we must be nearly there. It must be close. The longer we spend in the jeep the less walking we have to do. Still climbing, still rocking off the windows on the rocky roads. For the whole journey we were experts on gorillas even though all I knew the day before was that I saw King Kong and used to beat my chest when I was small!
We stopped in the middle of nowhere below misty towering volcanoes and the trekking began up the side of a mountain firstly on farmland, then through beautiful bamboo forests and finally on the other side where the jungle really started. The trekking and altitude (about 2500mtrs, 7500ft) was taking its toll on some people as they were of an older generation. One of the Japanese guys with us was a very fit 75yr old gorilla expert and even got to name a baby gorilla which is a very big honour as only 15 or so are born each year. As we progressed further up the mountain the undergrowth got thicker and thicker and it was basically like walking through a ditch the whole time! The gorillas move to eat each day so there is no worn trail to them. At one stage all our hearts raced as we came across a big area of flattened undergrowth covered in gorilla dung. This was where they had eaten and slept before. We must be close. But we weren’t. It took another hour and plenty of nettle stings through my cheapass tracksuit before we were told to ‘sush’! We were finally there. We were going to see real life gorillas and they wouldn’t be behind glass. Everybody was so excited we were like a pack of puppys. We were told to leave everything except cameras and follow the guide. We could hear movement but could see nothing. Then there was a low ‘ohhh’ an ‘ahh’, a ‘wow’ from the front. As I edged closer trying to peek I could make out something black 30yrds in front of us and was fiddling with my camera when the rustling beside me made me a little angry as a tourist was trying to break the single file. I turned to give him my dirty look only to find there was a female gorilla sitting no more than 4yrds away all this time munching on some leaves. Oh my God, OMG, Oh my GAWD!! An actual real life gorilla. And here I am within touching distance and it hasn’t killed me!
More sushing from the guide and he then ordered us to move, not asked. He was right of course because he moved us to a spot right in front of 10 of them including the alpha Silverback. When you are there, only 4mtrs away you really can’t believe that you are this close. It is not like you see other animals and you can make out their outline or tell that they were brown, maybe. You get so close to the gorillas you can tell what colour their eyes are! Brown and reddish in the light so you know. We now were looking at 3% of the entire world’s population of mountain gorillas. There are only 880 mountain gorillas left in the wild and they are all found at the confluence of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo and 3% of them were right where we were standing. It’s hard to comprehend. In human terms that like looking at 90million people!
They pay no attention to you. They are used to humans now and don’t see people as a threat so just ignore you. They are so cute, so furry and they act almost exactly like humans. Well some humans at least. They pick their nose, they make facial expressions, they play with each other, they use their fingers like us. They have funny little pot-bellies just like some humans! We watched a new baby struggling to find his feet, a teenager trying to climb a small tree which collapsed under his weight but mainly there was more grooming and relaxing than any mad excitement. They had finished eating their ‘gorilla salad’ where they take leaves from several different plants and then roll them up and eat them together and were now relaxing before moving again. They eat over 140 different types of plants and males can eat around 30kg (70lbs) per day. This proximity meant it was easy to get great close up pictures. The main silverback gorilla was a very big guy indeed and had an impressive porter belly as well as an impressive conical head and biceps. Not the sort of guy you would want to meet down a dark alley! Silverback usually weigh over 220kg (490lbs) and can be 1.9mtrs (6ft 3”) when fully standing and are named after the silver hair on their backs that arrives when they mature. News to me was that there were other silverbacks in the group and it is not just a one man band.
Then after hundreds of pictures from every angle imaginable in the moments with the gorillas we were given the signal to leave. I don’t think my heart sank as much since I lost an under-12 football final! We had overstayed our 1hr with the gorillas and for everybody there it was like trying to drag children away from their favourite movie. We just wouldn’t go. Knowing it was such a privilege to be there and in reality it would be the last time you did it as we now had to make our long way back down the Virunga volcanoes.
Despite the cost, the nettle stings, the slipping and sliding, the long trek and uncooperative drivers. It was soooo worth it!
Need to Know, About Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
Yes it is expensive but yes it is one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities
- Currency – €1 = 920 Rwandan Francs, US$1 = 670RWF
- Date – You can see gorillas any time of the year but there are pro’s and cons depending on the season. From Feb to May it is rainy season which most tourists avoid but this also means the gorillas have food lower down the mountain so the trek is not as long. At the same time the slopes are slippy during this time.
- General Location – Mountain gorillas inhabit the Virunga Volcanoes that straddle Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and can move between countries. These three countries have Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda), Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Virunga National Park in the DRC. Bwindi National Park (Uganda) is further north and not directly connected to the other three.
- Exact Location: In Rwanda the nearest town is Ruhengeri which is 11km (7miles) from the Volcanoes National Park HQ in Kinigi village (in the Musanze District) just outside the Volcanoes National Park. To start your gorilla tour you must go to this office. This is where the trekking starts. See below for transport details.
- Permits: Now the most important, complicated and expensive part of the trekking. You MUST have a permit to do the gorilla trekking and you MUST have it booked beforehand. There are only approximately 70people per day allowed to do the tours so you cannot turn up at the office and buy a ticket that morning. They are not always sold out so if you have prior info from RDB (address below) then that is different. Tickets for the Rwandan permits cost a whopping US$750. They are cheaper (US$500) in Uganda and DRC. Most people head to Bwindi when in Uganda because Mgahinga can be unreliable for gorillas. Before heading to DRC make sure to check the security situation as it starts very quickly especially in mountainous areas. I will talk more about the Rwandan side here because that is where I was.
- Again, in Rwanda permits cost US$750 and are only valid for one specific day so if somebody is offering it to you for US$500 then be very wary. The tickets are official given out by the Rwandan Development Board (RDB) www.rdb.rw/tourism-and-conservation/gorilla-trekking.html and they can tell you by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) what dates are free. You can pay by bank transfer or by visa if you collect them yourself in Kigali. Obviously if you are going on a tour this may be done for you.
- What to Bring – Camera, make sure to bring your camera! Also some long legged trousers/tracksuit bottoms. There are lots of nettles and plants so shorts are not an option. Warm clothes, remember you are up at nearly 3000mtrs so it can get cold even in the summer. Rain gear, they weren’t called ‘gorillas in the mist’ for nothing! When trekking you are more than likely going to get a little dirty so don’t bring your Sunday best up the mountain. As you will be gone most of the day, make sure to bring water and some food with you in a small backpack.
- Walking sticks, rain coats can be rented at Volcanoes National Park HQ.
- Language – Kinyarwanda, English and French are official languages. Most locals though only speak Kinyarwandan. English is widely spoken on the tours. All tour companies have guides that speak several different languages
- Getting There – A bus takes approx 2hrs from the Nyabugogo Bus Station in Kigali to Ruhengeri for 1,700RWF(www.virungatravel.com/express.php) and leave every 15-30min.
- To get from Ruhengeri to Kinigi you must either sit on the back of a scooter or get a taxi the 11km. A motorcycle costs about 2000RWF for a 15min ride
- Rwanda Versus Uganda, Where to do Gorilla Trekking: I am going to exclude Mgahinga (where gorillas are unreliable) and DRC where it may be dangerous and just focus on Bwindi Impenetrable versus Volcanoes National Park. I am also stating now that I am not made of money and didn’t do the trekking in Uganda.
- The obvious difference is the price. $750 versus $500. They were the same until June 2012 when Rwanda increased theirs. The other main difference is the accessibility of the parks. You could be from Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park in 2.5hrs on paved road whereas from Kampala to Bwindi Impenetrable is an 8hr drive and some of that is on bad roads. Conceivably you could fly out of Kigali the evening of the gorilla trekking which is something that is definitely not possible in Uganda. More than likely, this will take 3 days in Uganda between getting there, doing the trek and getting back. If you fly from Kampala (Entebbe) to Kihihi or Kisoro then you are basically cancelling out the savings of the permit.
- If you are taking an organised tour including the gorilla trekking then they will more than likely cost the same, about $1250 for 3 days in Uganda but the same price for 2 days in Rwanda. Uganda though has more to offer in general with places like Kibale National Park with the chimpanzee’s and Queen Elizabeth National Park that is like any safari park. These are things that Rwanda cannot offer.