An encounter with mountain gorillas is becoming one of Africa’s most popular wildlife activities and is Rwanda’s top tourist attraction. The opportunity to sit in close proximity to these critically endangered primates in their natural habitat is extraordinary. It’s an unforgettable travel experience that has brought me to Rwanda not once – but twice.
My first visit in 2009 was as a traveller who had not yet discovered an interest in photography. My return earlier this year was driven by a passion for photography and the opportunity to capture permanent souvenirs of these peaceful, gentle and captivating animals.
Both visits were as incredible as each other, but required some preparation and planning to set realistic expectations, make the most of my time with the gorillas and enjoy a rewarding and unforgettable experience.
(the tips below were valid at the time of my visit in early 2017)
What to expect:
There are currently ten habituated groups in Rwanda. There are only eight permits issued each day per group and time spent with the gorillas is limited to one hour.
The trek takes place through the bamboo-covered slopes of the Virunga Mountains in Volcanoes National Park. Although trackers head out early in the morning to locate each family, allowing them to assess each group as “easy, medium or difficult”, the gorillas may keep moving throughout the day.
The day begins at 7am with registration at the RDB Tourism and Conservation Office in Kinigi, before being split into your groups to meet your guide for a briefing. By 8am you will return to your vehicles and drive to the trailhead to begin the trek.
Each trek starts with a relatively flat walk from the trailhead car park to the bottom of the slopes, but after that it becomes unpredictable. There are no paths and stinging nettles and potential muddy ground from rains can make the trek challenging. Treks can take from 30 minutes to 5 hours with guides often paving the way through the forest with their machetes.
As you near the gorillas, your guide will ask you to leave your bags with the porters and only take your camera with you. You then have an hour with the gorillas, watching them go about their daily lives from a distance of seven metres.
After this you will return to your bags and start the trek back to your vehicles, the exhilarating hour you’ve just experienced making each challenging step more than worth it.
Tips for Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
- Even if you are a usually an independent traveller, consider using a tour operator who can book your permit, arrange accommodation, provide transport and complete the registration on the day for you. At the very least, it helps to have a local driver, as you need transport from Muzanze to Kinigi and then to the trailhead to begin your trek – and there are no public transport options.
- Book your permit in advance, particularly in the dry seasons of June-September (high season) and January-February. Permits are limited to 8 people per group per day and often book up weeks or even months in advance.
What to wear:
- Layers! The movement of the gorillas, the length of your trek and the weather on the day can be unpredictable.
- Comfortable and waterproof hiking boots or walking shoes. Much of the trek will be on uneven ground and is often muddy from rain.
- Clothes to protect you from stinging nettles: gaiters (or at least long, thick socks you can tuck your trousers into), long trousers and a long-sleeved top. Gloves (eg old gardening gloves) are also useful, as you may need to grab onto the branches during your trek.
- Pack a waterproof jacket or poncho. I was lucky to avoid rain on both of my treks, but the day before my second trek rained all day.
What to bring:
- Your passport – this is required to register at the start of the day.
- Money with you to tip your guide, porters and trackers. On my last visit, the standard rate was US$10 per person and could be paid in either USD or local currency.
- Snacks and drinks. Even if you request an easy trek, the gorillas are unpredictable and you don’t know how long you will be trekking for.
- Your camera – obviously!
- A small daypack to carry your belongings, which is left with the porters when you reach the gorillas.
On the day:
- If you have a cold or the flu, reschedule your trek for another day. This endangers the health of the gorillas with human contamination a threat to the entire group.
- As mentioned earlier, you need your own transport to get from Kinigi to the trailhead. The easiest option is to pre-book a local guide or driver.
- If you are concerned about your fitness levels and trekking ability, communicate this when you register. Although it’s not possible to request a specific group, you can request an easy, medium or difficult option. Don't panic too much about the trek - the porters and guides will help you.
- Porters are available to carry your bag and/or help you throughout the trek if you need it. Using a porter is not perceived in Rwanda as demeaning or exploitive. Rather, it provides employment for locals in the area and an income that motivates them to protect the gorillas – some of the porters are actually reformed poachers.
- Wooden walking sticks are offered at the start of the trek and worth taking even if you don’t usually need one, as the trek can be unpredictable and the porters can carry it for you if not used.
With the gorillas:
- Take your camera but leave everything else in your backpack that remains with the porters out of reach of the curious gorillas.
- Don’t make any sudden movements and keep your voice low.
- Don’t eat, drink, smoke or use the bush toilet.
- Keep within seven metres and if a gorilla move towards, move away to maintain the distance.
- If a gorilla charges you, as silverbacks often will when you first arrive, drop eye contact and crouch low to demonstrate submission.
- Above all, listen to and follow the instructions of your guides at all times. The guides and trackers often have a close bond with these gorillas, can read their behaviour and rate your own safety and that of the gorillas above anything else.
- Bring both a telephoto and wide angled lens to capture a range of compositions. I had a 100-400mm which I used for 75% of my shots and 24-105mm for the others.
- I carried two bodies to avoid changing lenses and as a backup for each other.
- Bring a rain-sleeve or waterproof cover as even if the day starts fine, rain is not uncommon
- Keep an eye on your shutter speed and don’t be afraid to increase ISO to let in more light. Sufficient light is often the biggest challenge in a rainforest environment.
- Flash is not permitted
- Put the camera down. As tempting as it is to keep shooting, don’t forget to soak up the experience itself and take a moment to just sit and watch these incredible animals.
And finally – go beyond the gorillas. The mountain gorillas bring people to Rwanda, but the country is full of natural and cultural highlights to keep you there longer. I enjoyed two weeks travelling through Kigali, Akagera National Park, Nyanza, Butare, Nyungwe Forest National Park, Lake Kivu, Volcanoes National Park and the twin lakes of Burera and Rohunda.