Mountain gorilla trekking is currently the most demanded Primate Trekking Adventure. Mountain gorillas are primates that live in the forested mountains of East and central Africa.
They live in families ranging from 1 up to 20 or more. These just like normal families comprise of male gorillas, females, juveniles, and some times infants in case there is a birth in a family
Each family is headed by a dominant male gorilla called Silverback. This name is derived from the physical appearance of a fully adult gorilla whose back is covered by a silver lining.
The diet of mountain gorillas mainly comprises of plant vegetation, bamboo shoots and wild fruits. With this diet, mountain gorillas fully grow well and are energetic with a fully grown adult weighing about 200 kilograms.
Mountain gorillas are outstanding wildlife species because they have over 95% DNA similar to humans. On the entire planet, they live in only three countries that include Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They live in two particular ecosystems that are the Virunga massif and the Bwindi impenetrable forest and the adjacent Sarambwe Reserve
The Virunga Massif
The Virunga massif is a chain of Volcanic mountains along the Uganda Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo border. They are eight volcanic mountains in total and include; Mount Nyamuragira, Mount Mikeno and Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mount Karisimbi, Mount Bisoke along the Rwanda and DRC border, Mount Muhabura and Mount Gahinga on the Uganda and Rwanda border and Mount Sabyinyo on the Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC border. Of the 8, Mount Nyamuragira and Mount Nyiragongo in DRC are the most active with Mount Nyiragongo having last erupted in 2020. This has a lava lake on its summit and it is clearly seen early morning or at night.
Mountain gorillas in the Virunga massif live in mountain ranges of an altitude of 2000 to 2500 meters above sea level. They mostly roam between the lower layers of the mountain in the forested montane vegetation and bamboo forests. The total mountain gorilla population in the Virunga massif is estimated at around 600 with some habituated while others are wild. Mountain gorilla habituation is a process in which mountain gorillas are accustomed to human beings’ presence. Being wild animals despite the DNA similarity with humans, mountain gorillas are very protective of their families and can charge and attack humans if they feel threatened and it not habituated. The habituation process, therefore, helps on making them used to human beings’ presence.
There are three gorilla parks in the Virunga massif where mountain gorilla trekking takes place. They include Volcanoes national park in Rwanda, Virunga national park in DRC, and Mgahinga Gorilla Park in Uganda. Of the three Rwanda’s Volcanoes national park has the highest mountain gorilla population and has a total of 20 gorilla families. 12 of these are fully habituated and are open to tourists interested in mountain gorilla trekking. The 8 are still under habituation and they will eventually be opened to tourists.
Uganda’s Mgahinga gorilla park has one gorilla family called Nyakagezi and Virunga national park in DRC has 10 habituated gorilla families. Virunga national park is however currently closed because of the insecurity issues in the country.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Bwindi Impenetrable forest is located in south western Uganda. The forest stretches over a land area of 331 square kilometres comprising of montane and lowland forests. It is home to mountain gorillas and many other wildlife species and it was from this basis that the forested park was listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO. The elevation of Bwindi ranges from 1,190 to 2,607 metres above sea level and it is the range in which mountain gorillas are found.
The forest was gazetted into a national park in 1991 and it is home to over 450 mountain gorillas. Bwindi has four major sectors that include the Buhoma sector in the northern part of the park, Ruhija Sector in the eastern part of the park and Rushaga sector and Nkuringo in the southern part of the park. There are 22 habituated gorilla families in Bwindi with 6 in the Buhoma Sector, 4 in Ruhija sector, 8 in Rushaga and 4 in Nkuringo. With this the park stands as the best mountain gorilla trekking destination.
It takes about a 9 to 10 hours drive from Kampala Uganda’s capital city to Bwindi. There are also two airstrips serving the park with Kihihi airstrip in the northern part of the park and Kisoro airstrip in the southern part of the park. Bwindi can also be accessed by road from Kigali Rwanda’s Capital city in a 4 to 5 hours drive.
The Sarambwe reserve is located in Eastern DRC covering a land area of 9 square kilometres. It is an extension of Bwindi and there are mountain gorillas here as well but the reserve is not open for tourism.
Bwindi Impenetrable forest is located in south western Uganda.
The forest stretches over a land area of 331 square kilometers comprising of montane and lowland forests. It is home to mountain gorillas and many other wildlife species
The mountain gorilla trekking experience is doable any time of the year. The best time however for easily hiking and photography with minimum rainfall disturbances is in the dry season from June to September.
The Mountain Gorilla Trekking experience
This starts with a briefing at the different national park headquarters. The briefing involves being told about the do’s and don’ts while in the forest and in the presence of the gorillas. This is done to ensure safety for both the tourists and gorillas. Among the rules include keeping at least a 7 meters distance away from the gorillas, not using flash photography, not making noise in the forest and in the presence of the gorillas, always sticking with the group and rangers to avoid straying away among others.
It is only 8 tourists who are allowed to track a mountain gorilla per day. After the briefing the 8 people are led to the forest guided by national park rangers with two and the front and two at the back. These move with riffles to fire and scare away other big mammals in the forests like elephants and buffaloes incase of any encounter with them. The hiking in the forest takes a 2 to 6 hours or more depending on the movement of the gorillas. Once you get to the gorillas, you are allowed to stay in their presence for an hour getting to know about them and taking photos. Once the one hour elapses you are guided back to the park headquarters. Here you are awarded your certificates of participation and then be driven to your prospective lodges and destinations depending on schedule.
Best Time for Mountain Gorilla Trekking
The mountain gorilla trekking experience is doable any time of the year. The best time however for easily hiking and photography with minimum rainfall disturbances is in the dry season from June to September. This also doubles as the peak tourist season as the number of tourists visiting the gorilla parks is usually high. End of December to Early March is a shoulder season with minimal rainfall and can also be a great time for mountain gorilla trekking and photography.
The wet months of April, May and November are still great times for gorillas trekking and overall wildlife adventures in the gorilla parks. Here mountain gorillas do not go far to look for plant vegetation to feed on. The rainfall favours growth of plenty of these some times gorillas can easily be got to after a shorter time of hiking. These months from November to May are a time when migratory birds from as far as Europe are in the area. Gorilla trekking around this time therefore enables you see a variety of wildlife including the migratory and native bird species.
Where to Stay
There are a number of accommodation facilities around the different gorilla trekking destinations. Since on the day of the gorilla trekking you are required to be at the park by 7:00 am, it advisable to book the most appropriate accommodation options in the park or sectors premises to avoid any inconveniences. Notable accommodation facilities around Virunga national park include Bisate Lodge, Kwitonda lodge, Da Vinci Lodge, Le Bamboo Lodge, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge among others. The northern sector of Bwindi (Buhoma) has lodges like Bwindi Lodge, Mahogany Springs, Buhoma lodge, Ride4awoman, Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp among others. Mgahinga gorilla park has Gahinga Lodge and the major hotels and lodges in Kisoro including lake Mulehe Safari Lodge, Traveler’s’ Rest and others.
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