This was one of the crowning highlights of our entire world trip. We knew we wanted to do an African Safari with an overland tour group but when we learned more about the Gorilla Trekking option we decided to go with the longer tour package with optional gorilla trek. Here are a few of the main takeaways from our experience.
Baby gorillas are the cutest thing ever. I want one (or several). They are very curious and playful and can sometimes approach you. You’re not allowed to touch them; so Lauren just had to stand very still when one jumped up to try and grab the zipper on her jacket!
Gorillas are a protected species and it appears that their numbers are beginning to increase. Though trekking to see the gorillas is an expensive endeavor, tourism money goes directly to conservation efforts to help protect these beautiful creatures from poaching and from contracting diseases. Only 8 tourists are allowed to visit each gorilla family per day in order to minimize any disturbances to their natural habitat.
You can hear the silverbacks beat their chests somewhere in the jungle while hiking in. It can be a little scary but also builds the anticipation for finally reaching them!
You usually don’t have to trek long or far. The trackers are sent out hours before the tour groups arrive to try and locate the families then relay their position back to the tour guides. I think most groups find them within an hour. Our trackers had not found our gorilla family by the time we set out so we wound up trekking for around 3 hours trying to find them.
It sounds like it’s almost guaranteed to see the gorillas. Our tour guide did tell us that on one very rare occasion a group was out for around 12 hours searching for their gorilla family before they found them.
Talking with our guide, the gorillas that are visited are “habituated”, meaning that they’re so familiar with having people around they are deemed safe to be around. The really wild ones, which could occasionally be heard, can be dangerous and should be avoided. Knowing they were habituated made it a little less special to me.
The silverbacks were smaller than what I had imagined. I’m not sure if it was television that skewed my perception but I imaged that even on all fours they would tower over me. Still, I’m sure new underpants would be in order if one charged at me.
Africa is hella-expensive, and especially the gorilla trekking. The gorilla trekking permits alone were almost $700 USD per person for 1-hour of time spent with them. I wish I was earning gorilla money wages!
Unfortunately, one of the things I remember most about Gorilla trekking is the family of 4 that joined us and 2 of our friends from our overland tour. There was a mother, father, son (around 16 years old) and a daughter (around 14 years old?) — I’m going to refer to them as JFF (Jerk-face Family). All of JFF were decked out with super fancy DSLR cameras with big expensive lenses. They would constantly push themselves to the front of the group and not allow our group of 4 to get into a good position to take photos. Note that you’re hiking through very thick jungle and are generally single file so being at the front was a big advantage to get the best views of the gorillas. At times all 4 of JFF were taking virtually the same shot with all 4 of their fancy cameras, whereas 1 of us in the group had a DSLR and the other 3 had just our cell phones trying to get a decent photo. So a note to the wise… have a discussion with your group before setting out on the trek to insure that everyone gets an equal opportunity at the front row.
This could be seen as good or bad – we had 2 armed guards with our tour. 1 in the front of the group with an AK47 and one in the rear with an AK47. We were told they were for our protection from wild animals, like a charging elephant, and that they would first fire warning shots to try and scare the animal away before trying to kill it to protect us.
There were almost as many “staff” with us as there were tourists: 2 armed guards, 2 trackers, 1 tour guide, 1 “bush cutter”, 1 optional porter (for JFF). So by my count, we had 8 tourists and 7 staff on our expedition. The tourists can easily be outnumbered if more pay for porters.
There were three silverbacks in the family that we visited. The dominant male silverback, “Coconut”, actually had a lame right arm, which you can see in this video. Our guide said he was born with it. I always thought the strongest male became dominant, so that assumption was either wrong or Coconut is a one-armed powerhouse.
This is a true jungle trek. It’s intense. There are virtually no pathways or trails and the tour guides are in front with machetes hacking away for you to get through. It’s very hilly with uneven ground and you may have to get pretty wet and muddy (we did!). You can hire a porter(s) to carry your bags for you and to even assist you (ie. Push/pull you up the mountain).
Where and How:
We booked our 23-day overland Africa safari tour through Absolute Africa. They’re one of the cheapest options out there. They organized our gorilla permits and logistics as one of the optional excursions of this tour; we just forked over tons of money and wound up at gorillas (easy peasy). We saw the gorillas at the Bwindi Nation Park in Uganda. From what we read you can also see them in Rwanda and the Congo. Rwanda gorilla permits were something like triple the cost of Uganda, so that was a no-go. The Congo I recall being much cheaper…but we didn’t want to go to the Congo at the time (for safety reasons!). Read this story about 2 tourists being captured for ransom in Congo and their park ranger killed during the attack — https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/05/13/british-tourists-kidnapped-democratic-republic-congo-released/. This happened just a few months before we were on our gorilla trek. Crazy.
Honestly, there is more good than bad and I hope this post doesn’t dissuade anyone from going to see the gorillas. They’re amazing creatures and something we’ll never forget. Just remember to try and coordinate with your tour group to take turns and be courteous about who gets the front spots… and you probably don’t want to cheap out and do it in Congo at the moment!
Check out the gallery of our photos below to see more awesome pictures and videos from this incredible experience.