Gorilla safari travel guide

Gorilla safari travel guide


MEET THE GODFATHERS OF THEM ALL

Gorillas are like the godfathers really. The largest and most powerful of the great apes, you are only granted an hour’s sitting with them. That is the law of the gorilla wildlife viewing world, mostly Uganda and Rwanda, where primate permits are like gold dust. Godfathers don’t mix with any old hangers on either, with permits costing as much as $750. Family is everything to them too, as they congregate in family groups of five to ten, the silver backed gorilla being the don. Unlike other wildlife watching you get very close to gorillas, allowing you to see their human-like behaviour. Not surprising, given that they share 98.3% of their genetic code with us, making them our closest cousins after chimpanzees and bonobos. Which is why even just an hour with gorillas has such an impact - a time when the line between animal and human is briefly blurred, leaving you with a profound understanding of what it means to be a part of the primate family.
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Is a gorilla safari for you?


RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL RECOMMENDS

Go and see gorillas in the wild if…

  • ...you want a wildlife experience like none other. It’s up close and personal.
  • ...a family wildlife experience of a lifetime is what you are after. Albeit for older children, as you need to be 15 to get a permit.
  • ...you enjoy sharing the knowledge and expertise of highly trained, conservation aware local guides.
  • ...you are organised. You need to book gorilla trekking holidays well in advance, as the number of permits are highly restricted.
Don’t go and watch gorillas in the wild if…

  • ...watching wildlife from the comfort of a vehicle is your thing . Gorilla watching is for trekkers only.
  • ...you have mobility issues. Walking three hours is usually the norm over steep, slippery terrain.
  • ...you are after the tropics. Remember Gorillas in the Mist? The clue is in the name.
  • ...you want to stare at gorillas all day. An hour a day is your limit. By law.
Sir David Attenborough, Life on Earth: “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that they see the world in much the same way as we do. We live in the same sort of social groups with largely permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are. So if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature's world, it must be with the gorilla.”

Gorilla safaris


WHAT DOES THIS HOLIDAY ENTAIL?

Most importantly, you need to book a gorilla safari holiday, or gorilla trekking/tracking as it is often referred to, as far in advance as possible, due to the high demand for limited permits that give you access to the gorilla watching habitats. We would recommend a year to 18 months to guarantee a date that suits you if you are planning to travel during the most popular months. The good news is that you can see gorillas all year round, so you are not limited by the seasons. It is also worth noting that if you are hoping to travel as a family, the minimum age for a gorilla permit is 15. Another tip is that, if you don’t mind rain showers, permits in Uganda can be discounted during the monsoon period to as little as $350 (although this is decided each year - but 2015 and 1016 have discounts confirmed), compared with the normal $600 – or $750 in Rwanda. Tour operators will not always shout about this, but responsible ones will, and ensure to pass on this discount to you when you buy your holiday. So be sure to discuss this with them before you book.
There are only eight permits issued per gorilla group, per day, which allow you to see one family of gorillas for an hour. There are nine habituated gorilla families in Bwindi (in Uganda), for example, so there are a total of 72 permits here. Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park has 80 permits for its 10 habituated groups. This is the law in both Rwanda and Uganda, where the majority of gorilla safaris take place and where, thankfully, seeing gorillas in the wild is driven by conservation not capitalism as research proves that gorillas should not be exposed to humans for more than one hour a day to minimise distress and limit their exposure to diseases - even a common cold can prove serious for a gorilla. This system of small, tightly controlled numbers of visitors paying big fees, part of which go back to conservation, is considered a great success on the world map of wildlife tourism, where tourists aren’t outnumbering animals. You can buy a second permit for another day of your holiday, however, and most tour operators recommend this. The first visit is often so overwhelming, and tourists are rushing to take photos, that by the second trip, you are more chilled and just sit back and take in the awesomeness of it all.

Gorilla trekking starts at 7am, so you will stay in a local lodge the night before. You will be allocated into groups of maximum eight people, sometimes six, according to how far you want or feel able to trek. But it is important to know that you will be trekking and that there is some physical exertion involved. This is not a jeep safari holiday, but nor is it like trekking in Nepal. Depending on which family of gorillas you are allocated, you could be trekking from an hour to eight hours, so do consult carefully with your guides.

So, how do the park rangers know where the gorillas will be every day? Every morning, at sunrise, and like clockwork, gorillas go in search of a nest for the day. They settle here to eat, rest, and play for the day, and park rangers track these movements from sunrise too. They then radio the nesting location back to base, and you are guided by other rangers to one of the gorilla families. These could vary from one hour to five hours’ hike away, so you can choose accordingly.

Before you head off on your trek, you will be offered the use of a porter to carry your daypack. You might not think that you need it, but this is a vital source of income to men and women from local communities. They are also great company and will enhance your trip, so don’t hesitate in supporting this fantastic service.



Once you find the gorilla family, you are briefed to keep silent and submissive. These gentle giants allow you to infiltrate their world, and you can watch them communicate with each other, mother to child, father to mother, using barks, screeches and grunts, as they move around on all fours using the wonderful to witness "knuckle walking" technique. Whatever they do, be prepared for sixty seriously stimulating minutes.

Note that that the gorillas which can be tracked in Rwanda’s and Uganda’s national parks have gone through an habituation process over a period of up to two years sometimes whereby, slowly but surely, each family is exposed to human presence, so that they are not freaked out when a group of tourists arrives. This is a very carefully managed process, and it is not in any way a training procedure. It is a gentle habituation process that is supported by the conservation funds raised through the permits. Some tour operators offer the chance to join the experts on a day of habituation, which gives you a longer time with the gorillas, and an even wilder experience.

As you will only be seeing gorillas once or twice during your holiday, tour operators will arrange other activities during your gorilla watching holiday, such as chimpanzee tracking or a traditional safari. On the day of the gorilla trek itself, you probably won’t want to plan too much, as you will be exhausted, emotionally and physically.

Gorilla trekking– a brief history


One of the first gorilla safaris by a tourist was not, sadly, for conservation purposes, but for preservation purposes. In a glass case, stuffed, as was the way in the early 20th century. American naturalist, and museum taxidermy expert, Carl Akeley, led an expedition to Mt. Mikeno in the Virunga Mountains on a mission to ‘collect’ gorillas. During this expedition, it is said that he had an ecological epiphany, and campaigned for this region in the then Belgian Congo, to be protected as a national park. Which it was in 1925 becoming the first national park in Africa. It is worth noting that Akeley still supported the collection of gorillas for scientific and educational purposes, but opposed hunting them for sport. How times have changed. Shooting no. Stuffing yes.Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Topbox - gorilla: Richard Ashurst] [What this holiday entails: Thomson Safaris Tanzania Safaris and Kili Treks] [Porters: Natural World Safaris]
Written by Catherine Mack
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