Two years ago Andrew and I had the most incredible opportunity to trek with mountain gorillas in beautiful Uganda. It was hands down one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life. However when I tell people about my experience, the first reaction I usually get is fear. Weren’t you scared? Aren’t gorillas dangerous? Will they approach you?
I was so excited in the months leading up to my trip and it wasn’t until the morning of our trek that the nerves really kicked in. It may have been the adrenaline but it dawned on me that I was going to go and stand a few feet away from a creature that could easily break me in half. But once I got up there and spotted my first gorilla, the nerves just disappeared and I was left in total awe.
If you’re planning to walk with these giants, here’s an idea of what to expect, hiking tips, and things to consider when planning your trek.
Booking your trek
Going to see gorillas require some logistical planning so I highly recommend booking with a tour operator. They can arrange the mandatory permits, transportation, and book accommodations. You’ll need a driver who can take you to the orientation point, drive you to the point of your trek, and pick you up when you’re done. Again, I recommend a tour operator to organize this all for you.
A permit needs to be purchased. During peak season, you’ll want to get this at least nine months in advance. A permit costs $600USD during peak season or around $300USD during low season but you do get a risk of rain. It’s pricey but they only offer a limited number of permits a day to limit the amount of people that can go. The revenue from permits also go to preserving the conservation of the park, so your tourism dollars help keep the gorillas in their natural habitat.
What to wear
The most important thing is: be prepared for anything. Your trek might take a few hours or the whole day and you don’t know what the weather is going to be like.
Layering is key here. When we first arrived to the orientation site, it was early morning and still pretty chilly. By the time we reached the gorillas, I was sweating buckets from the heat and strenuous hike. I’d suggest wearing a breathable t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, and a light jacket.
There may be some steep uphills and downhills so invest in a pair of good hiking boots with traction. Bring a daypack with you to carry your lunch, camera, and any items of clothing you take off. One thing that I didn’t bring that I would 100% absolutely recommend are gaiters! We saw plenty of fire ants on the hike and they swarm together in long lines. If you get in their way, they’ll crawl up your boots, up the leg of your pants, and you’ll be doing what the rangers call the “fire dance”. You can also use thick high socks and stuff your pants in.
DAY OF THE TREK
Our day started off with an early breakfast at our lodge. They also offered walking sticks for the trek and provided a lunch pack for us to take. We also brought a 2L bottle of water on top of the water bottles that were already included with our lunch. Staying hydrated is important!
Our driver drove us to the orientation site where other people were waiting. He presented our trekking permits to the rangers and they assigned us to a group according to our fitness level. The groups are formed based on where each of the families have been located that day; older trekkers and those with mobility issues will go on the more accessible route and those that are fit to hike will trek the gorillas that are higher up on the mountain. As two seemingly healthy 20-something year olds, Andrew and I were placed in a group with a young German couple that were fully decked out in gear and five middle-aged women who were going on their 10th(!!) gorilla trek.
Our ranger came and introduced himself and the assistant rangers that would be joining us on the trek. He briefed us on what to expect and laid down some rules: no touching the gorillas, stay a minimum distance away from them at all times, don’t make direct eye contact, and back away if they come towards you.
He showed us headshots of the gorillas we would be searching for, which kind of felt like we were about to make a big crime bust.
Something I highly, highly suggest is to get a porter! They’ll carry your bags, help you during those steep climbs, alert you to any ditches, and pull away branches that are obstructing the trail. Plus, you’re providing work for someone and supporting the local economy which is always a plus. Their services cost $15-$20USD and you get them for your entire trek. At some point after the briefing your ranger will ask if anyone would like one and there’s a “porter manager” who’ll select from a pool of porters standing by.
Once we had our porters, our driver drove the four of us to the base of the mountain to start our trek.
ON THE TREK
Trackers head out an hour prior to track down the gorillas and report sightings via radio. Our climb was pretty steep and even though I’d consider myself pretty fit, I was feeling pretty winded halfway through. So you could imagine my enthusiasm when our trackers radioed in that the gorillas were at the very top of the mountain. Our group took quick breaks anytime someone wanted to stop and they had the slowest person go first to set the pace, so you never felt like you had to push yourself more than you can handle. Luckily I had the help of my porter who I basically held hands with the entire time.
You’re trying to locate wild animals who are constantly on the move so there’s no guarantee how long you’ll be out there for. It took our group two hours to find our gorilla family but another group practically drove right up to theirs, so it’s hard to estimate timing.
HANGING OUT WITH GORILLAS
We eventually came across the trackers who were waiting nearby where the gorillas were spotted. We were told to leave our bags behind but to take our cameras for photos. I walked around the corner and was immediately surrounded by TWELVE wild gorillas. It was so surreal. Most of them barely took notice to the humans getting all up in their space but there was a juvenile there that was loving us! He was running around all over the place, pulled on Andrew’s pants, and slapped a woman on her butt (haha!). You can freely walk around and the ranger invited us to go off the trail to keep following them.
Running into a snake was honestly my only fear that day. I never once felt unsafe while with the gorillas and the rangers were keeping a close eye. The group of women who had gone on multiple treks said it was the first time they’ve ever seen a gorilla touch someone. As long as you follow the rules, you shouldn’t have any problems.
You’re given one hour with the gorillas. Once our hour was up, we made our way down and stopped at a nice viewpoint for lunch. There was tons of food and water to go around so we distributed it out to the porters and all sat down for a much needed break.
Gorilla trekking is a once in a lifetime opportunity and should be on any adventurer’s bucket list. Have you gone gorilla trekking before or planning a trek in the future?