Gorilla Safaris In Uganda – The Real Inside Story

Silverback gorilla in the forest in Uganda

On a gorilla safari you might get to see a magnificent silverback like this one

“Does everyone have waterproofs?” asks the ranger, looking around him.  The thirty-two of us, crammed into the tiny room, nod grimly.  Yes, yes we do.  And we know we’re going to need them.

The gorilla safari briefing is normally held outside, but today we’ve been shoehorned into the ranger’s office (a space big enough for about ten) because it’s absolutely chucking it down.  Rain is hammering on the corrugated steel roof and spilling out of the gutters.  A few late arrivals are peering in through the window – there’s no more room inside – but they can’t hear what’s being said because the noise of the deluge is too loud.  During rainy season in Africa, it really rains, and today the weather gods definitely mean business.

The crowded gorilla safari briefing room

The crowded gorilla safari briefing room

We’re all here for one purpose: to trek through the tangled Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in search of the rare and elusive mountain gorilla.  Even at an eye-watering USD $600 per person gorilla safaris are still Uganda’s number one tourist attraction – a once-in-a-lifetime experience available only to a privileged few.  We all know we are extremely lucky to be there, but this is rainy season and the weather is terrible. We just wish it would stop.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

The mysterious Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to Uganda’s gorilla safaris

Note: my gorilla safari permit was provided courtesy of the Uganda Tourism Board and accommodation at Bakiga Lodge was complementary.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.  I don’t accept freebies in exchange for positive reviews.  All prices are correct at the time of writing.

Where do Gorilla Safaris take place?

All gorilla trekking in Uganda takes place in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in west Uganda. I arrived there the night before, travelling from the Rwandan border after successfully climbing the volcano Nyiragongo just the day before (if you want to know more about that, read Nyiragongo: The World’s Largest Lava Lake – the photos are pretty awesome!).

I’m travelling round East Africa with my friend and fellow travel blogger Linn (check out her blog here), and a Ugandan tour guide named Hassan who has been our driver, organizer and all-round hero for the past two weeks.  As we drive north from the border along a winding and bumpy road that ascends gradually into the mountains, we begin to catch glimpses of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest hugging the hillsides.  Mist hangs in the valleys and coats the trees in an eerie white cloak; you can clearly see why early British explorers in Africa were afraid of it, and called it ‘impenetrable’.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest shrouded in mist

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest shrouded in mist

On the road we spot other curious wildlife, but we don’t stop for long.  These baboons may be interesting, but it’s their much larger cousins we’re here to see.

Three baboons by the side of the road in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

Three baboons by the side of the road in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

A baby baboon looks curiously at the camera in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

A baby baboon looks curiously at the camera

Read More: A Uganda Two-Week Itinerary

Preparing for our Gorilla Trek

The heavens open the next morning while we’re having breakfast at our lodge (about which, more at the bottom).  Hassan promises to pray hard for the bad weather to stop, but I’m not sure I have as much faith.  We’re slap bang in the middle of the rainy season after all, and so far we’ve been extremely lucky – we didn’t see a drop on the volcano – so it was only a matter of time before our luck ran out.  Anyway there’s nothing we can do: we’re here now, gorilla safaris take place whatever the weather, so we just have to make the best of it.

I don’t have waterproof trousers, so I put on my lightweight running leggings, waterproof jacket and proper hiking boots (the ones that took me successfully up Kilimanjaro), pack all my camera gear into individual plastic bags, cover my entire backpack with an additional rain cover, and off we go.

Ruhija ranger station in Uganda, the start of our gorilla safari

Ruhija ranger station, the start of our gorilla tour

We arrive at the ranger station at 8 am, and after showing our passports and being briefed, we’re divided into four groups, one for each of the four habituated gorilla families living in the area.  As we gather, some people are looking nervous – we’ve been warned that gorilla trekking is steep and difficult at the best of times, but in rainy season it’s also treacherously slippery.  Hassan implores me to hire a porter to help carry my heavy camera gear and at first I refuse, unwilling to seem weak or lazy in front of my fellow hikers.  I’m tough! I just climbed a volcano yesterday, for crying out loud!  How hard can it really be? I argue, but when Hassan assures me that in this kind of bad weather it will be harder than I can possibly imagine, I give in, justifying it to myself on the basis that I’ll be contributing to the local economy and giving a guy a day’s work.  I will soon be extremely glad I did.

Ugandan man

Crinerio, my helpful gorilla safari porter

Preparations completed, it’s time to start the trek.  The gorilla families are constantly moving through the forest looking for food, so tracking teams have been out since 7 am looking for them.  We’re told that the trackers will start by going to the place where our family was yesterday, and then use old-school methods: looking for bent branches, crushed foliage, footprints and droppings to follow where they went.  It could take them just an hour or two to find them, in which case our day will be quite easy, but if we’re unlucky it could take many hours.  We haven’t brought packed lunches, so I’m praying they’re nearby, otherwise I could get pretty hungry (which is not a good look on me).

Heading off on our gorilla safari in the rain

Heading off on our gorilla trek in the rain

Gorilla Tours in Uganda

A 2010-11 census calculated that there are just 880 wild mountain gorillas left in the world, all living in the same mountainous region of Africa that spans the borders between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  About half the population – around 400 – live on the Uganda side in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park; the remaining 480 live in Rwanda and Congo.

Four tourists hiking through the jungle in the rain

Gorilla safaris take place in all weather, so come prepared!

The 400 gorillas in Bwindi are divided up into 31 families.  Fifteen of these have been habituated – trained gently over 2-3 years to become used to the presence of humans – while the remaining sixteen families are completely wild and cannot be approached.  Habituated families are allowed to receive a single gorilla trekking group of up to eight visitors per day, for a maximum of one hour.  We’ve been assigned the Mukiza group, named after the silverback and head of the family.  I’m excited and nervous to meet them: I’ve heard stories of people getting patted, thumped, and even pushed to the ground by overly-curious animals, and I wonder if we will come back with an unexpectedly exciting story to tell.

Mountain gorillas, Uganda

Our gorilla family

The gorilla families are spread out across the park, with access possible from one of four trailheads: the main and most popular base is at Buhoma in the north-west, with others at Ruhija in the east, Nkuringo in the south-west and Rushaga in the south-west.  We’ve come to Ruhija, where there are four families – so that’s 32 people per day who get to enjoy the privilege of being able to spend a brief moment with these incredible and rare creatures.  But first, of course, we have to find them.

Gorilla trekking in rainy season

Gorilla safaris involve trekking through thick jungle

Tracking Gorillas in the Rain

We trudge through the pelting African rain.  I can’t get my camera out because it will get destroyed, so I’ve given all my gear to Crinerio, the porter, who now has the backpack on his back, covered with a plastic poncho in addition to my rain cover.  I may not get a chance to a actually use my camera, but at least I’m reasonably confident it’s going to survive the trip.  Without it the only thing I have is my phone, which I take out occasionally to grab a quick snap and then wipe on a lens cloth.  With this soon soaked through, it’s not a terribly effective strategy, but frustratingly it’s the best I can do.

Gorilla trekking in rainy season

Linn and I are not very happy about the weather

The path leads steeply downhill, though right now it’s less of a path and more of a shallow river.  A small torrent of water flows thickly down the slope, turning the ground into a slippery, muddy mess.  I lean back into my heels and plant my walking pole firmly into the ground to avoid slipping, though every so often there’s a little yelp as someone nearly goes over.  I hear one of the guides talking on his radio, saying, “Yes, it’s raining very hard. Very difficult,” which makes me feel a little better about how hard I’m finding it.

Tourists hiking up a steep slope on a gorilla tour, Uganda

The terrain can be pretty steep and impenetrable

We reach the bottom of the hill and take another path along the valley, this one also slippery with thick mud and tangled with vegetation.  My boots have made a valiant effort to keep my feet dry, but this is too much even for them: my socks are sodden now.  No one really knows where we’re going; we’re just walking in the vague general direction of where the guides think the gorillas might be, and waiting for a call from the gorilla tracking team.

Wet and muddy boots on a gorilla safari

Be prepared for your boots to get a beating on your gorilla trip!

And after about an hour and a half of trekking, it comes.  There’s a crackle on the guide’s radio, and we all stop.  The family’s been found – hallelujah! – but we’ve been going the wrong way.  We turn round and track back the way we’ve come for about ten minutes, and then without warning, the lead guide steps off the path and dives head first directly into the thick forest and straight back up the hill.  Like bedraggled rats following the Pied Piper, we follow.

Hiking up through the slippery forest to find the gorillas

Hiking up through the forest to find the gorillas

Now the going gets really tough.  Straight up the steep side of the hill we go, with no path, in the torrential rain.  We have nothing but trampled plants underfoot, their stems tangled and slippery, ready to jump up and wrap themselves round an ankle without warning.  There’s nothing to hold onto – if you reach out to grab something for balance you’ll probably just get a handful of stinging nettles.  I can definitely understand why they call this place ‘Impenetrable’ – and I’m now extremely grateful for Hassan’s insistence that I hire a porter. It’s tough enough as it is, even without carrying 10 kilos of camera gear that I may not get to use.  And Crinerio is more than just a bag-carrier – he’s there with a helpful hand to steady me and even pull me up the slope when my mud-clogged boots lose their grip.

Gorilla trekking in rainy season

If the forecast for your gorilla safari says it might rain, bring a poncho!

Finding the Gorillas

We struggle uphill in single file, pushing through the thick forest, for another half hour, until finally the person in front of me stops.  We look at each other. Have we found them? It’s hard to tell: there’s thick jungle all around, and all I can see is the couple of people in front of me and Impenetrable Forest everywhere else.  I certainly can’t see any gorillas, but apparently they are close by.  And right on cue, at the perfect, blessed moment… It. Stops. Raining.  It seems Hassan’s prayers have finally worked after all.

The group gets their cameras ready on a gorilla safari

Most gorilla safaris are not as wet as this so don’t worry!

There’s a little rearranging as we get ourselves ready.  We’re told to give up our walking sticks to avoid upsetting the animals.  Bags are opened, cameras extracted, hoods removed.  Tentatively now, we continue up the hill, even more off balance without our walking poles, but excited.  We’re almost there.

A silverback gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable forest

Our first sighting of the silverback gorilla

And then, finally, a glimpse.  It’s not much, just a dash of black fur in amongst the green.  We jostle for position; with so much foliage it’s not easy to see anything, but he’s there: Mukiza, the 28-year-old silverback himself, his fur glossy with rainwater.  The rangers push forward and use hooks and machetes to clear the undergrowth so we can see better.  I quickly swap lenses for that perfect silverback hero shot.

Read More: How To Take Great Photos Of Wildlife

Mountain gorilla in the forest

Mukiza, the male silverback gorilla

Other gorillas are nearby: there’s Kanywani, a 6-year-old male, who hangs halfway up a small tree, breaking off stalks and stripping the leaves off with his teeth.

Gorilla trekking in rainy season

Kanywani, a young male gorilla

There’s 20-year-old Twijukye, which means ‘remember’, and 19-year-old Mugenyi, whose name means ‘visitor’.

Gorilla trekking in rainy season

There’s also 29-year-old mum Korugyezi and her baby Kanoel.

Mother and baby gorilla, Uganda

Thirteen gorillas in the group in total, though we are only able to see six of them.  Well, maybe five-and-a-half, if you count this little guy.

Baby gorilla, Uganda

Seeing them clearly and getting good photos is harder than I expected.  When you watch gorillas on wildlife programmes they’re usually just sitting about in a big group, calmly munching away or grooming each other.  But here, they’re dotted about, often obscured by the thick undergrowth.

A mountain gorilla in the rain

Balanced unstably as we are on a steep slope, the eight of us struggle to get into a position where we can all get a clear view. Often just as soon as we do, the animal in question moves off again, and we have to battle our way further up the hill in hot pursuit.

Gorilla trekking in rainy season

But we manage to find our rhythm, taking it in turns to get a look and take photographs.  And now that the rain has stopped and I can get my camera out, the experience is intense.  To be so close to these incredible creatures, to spend time up close and personal with them, knowing that there are just a few hundred left – well, it’s not every day you get to do something like that.

Gorilla safari in rainy season

Particularly awesome is the way they don’t seem to mind us being there.  We look at them, and they look right back at us.  Our presence doesn’t bother them; they aren’t at all upset by the furious clicking of eight shutters and the excited whispering of eight thrilled humans.  They just take it all in their stride.  I can almost imagine this guy thinking: Oh hi, it’s you lot again.  Bit weird, all this, but whatever floats your boat.  You carry on, I’ll just be here having lunch.  Don’t expect me to stick around for too long, though, I’ve got shit to do.  See you tomorrow though maybe, hey?

A young mountain gorilla in rainy season

Now we’re here, in a way the challenge of the hike makes it all the more worthwhile: I know it’s not something I will ever do again, so it makes me savour that precious hour all the more.  Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one I will never forget.  The rain just makes it even more memorable.

Black and white photo of a young male gorilla, Uganda

But eventually our hour is up. I reluctantly take the last few photos, and we head back, buzzing from our close encounter, and grateful that we don’t have to trudge through the rain on the journey back too.

Gorilla trekking in rainy season

Our gorilla safari turned out to be a success after all!

Gorilla Safari Tips and Information

1/  Gorilla safaris cost USD $600 per person for a non-Ugandan, and $500 for non-Ugandans resident in the country.   Discounts are available in the low season months of April, May and November.  The fee includes your permit, park entry, guides, and walking stick, and 20% of your entry fee goes to support community projects in the area.  You can buy your permit directly from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, or if you book an organised tour group, your tour company will arrange it for you.  For more information visit the Bwindi National Park site.

2/  You can also do gorilla safaris in Rwanda and DRC but it costs $1500 in Rwanda and $400 in DRC.

Gorilla safari presentation

Most gorilla safaris will end with a presentation and certificate

3/ A porter will cost an extra $15.  If you are fit and healthy, the weather is dry, and you are not carrying much you won’t need one.  But if you are at all in doubt, if it’s wet or slippery, you have a heavy bag, or are unsure about your fitness, then get one.  You’re contributing to the local economy and giving someone a day’s wage.

4/ Numbers for gorilla safaris are strictly limited, so book early to avoid disappointment, especially in the peak or dry seasons.  If you go in the rainy season you may get lucky if you leave it late, but there are no guarantees, and you will need to be prepared for rain!

5/  Most people find the gorillas within a few hours, but there is a chance you may have to trek for a lot longer.  Bring a packed lunch just in case.  If you haven’t found your family by about 3 pm, they will take you to see one of the others instead.  In extreme circumstances they will let you come back the next day.

6/  You will need to be fit and healthy as the gorilla trekking is not easy. If you have a cold or worse, you will not be allowed to go near the gorillas for fear of infecting them.

Muddy boots after hiking through the mud

Think these boots are gonna need a clean!

What to wear for Gorilla Safaris

  • Proper walking shoes or boots (some people wore trainers but they were far from ideal in the rain). Mine are Salomon Quest boots and I love them!
  • Lightweight trousers or leggings. Shorts are not recommended as there are lots of stinging nettles.
  • A T-shirt. Depending on the season you may also need an extra layer as it can be quite chilly in the highlands.
  • Waterproofs. I buy all my outdoor and hiking gear from either Ellis Brigham or Cotswold Outdoor.
  • Warm clothes for the evening.
  • Gloves are highly recommended for grabbing onto trees and plants to help keep your balance.

What to bring for Gorilla Safaris

  • A smallish backpack for your stuff. Mine is by Osprey, I have two of their backpacks and I think they’re great!
  • Your camera – of course! I gave my Canon 5D Mark IV with 70-200 zoom lens, 2x extender and tripod to the porter to carry for me, though if you only have a small camera you won’t need a porter.
  • Waterproof cover for your bag
  • Packed lunch
Gorilla tracking certficate

Time to relax with a job well done!

Where to Stay for your Gorilla Tracking Experience

We spent the night before and after at the wonderful Bakiga Lodge, an eco-lodge and community project perched on a hillside overlooking the rolling hills of Bwindi.  It’s just 10 minutes drive from the Ruhija gorilla tracking meeting point.

Bakiga Lodge

Bakiga Lodge

Bakiga Lodge has four cabins and two safari tents, all self-contained with ensuite bathrooms and stunning views over the valley.  At the time we were there, more cabins were under construction.   There’s a also a central bar and restaurant area with a cosy log fire for those chilly mountain evenings.

Bakiga Lodge

Bedroom at Bakiga Lodge

Bakiga is a non-profit safari lodge, part of the Bakiga Community Project which works across the district to help communities access safer water.  All profits from the lodge are used to finance the water projects, which means that if you stay here not only will you get a cosy room and amazing views, you’re also helping the local community at the same time.

Bakiga Lodge

Have you been gorilla trekking?  How did you experience compare?  Or are you thinking of going?  Post your comments and questions below – and thanks for reading!

Are you on Pinterest? If you liked this post I’d be mega grateful if you could pin it for me – and here’s a handy pin just for the purpose! 

Follow:

19 Comments

  1. 28th May 2018 / 1:48 pm

    What an amazing experience – this has well and truly been put on our bucket list! As usual the photos are amazing and a great piece of writing.

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      31st May 2018 / 12:06 am

      Thank you so much as always for your wonderful support! 🙂

  2. 30th May 2018 / 3:56 pm

    Lovely photos and interesting info! I had no idea it’s possible to do a tour to see gorillas in the wild!

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      31st May 2018 / 12:06 am

      Thank you! And yes, it is! It’s not easy to get to though, and it’s not cheap, but definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

  3. 31st May 2018 / 9:00 am

    Very beautiful photography, even the rain couldn’t interrupt your magical moment! Bwindi impenetrable forest is a number one spot for gorilla trekking in Africa. Many tourists are skeptical about chances of seeing gorillas here when they compare with the higher prices of Rwanda.

  4. 30th June 2018 / 1:08 pm

    This looks absolutely amazing. I’d love to go trekking for gorilla’s or any animal in fact. Such a big animal lover. Gorgeous post xx

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      7th July 2018 / 2:45 pm

      Thanks Damo! Wildlife photography is one of my biggest passions, I just wish I could do more of it but it’s pretty expensive!
      B x

  5. 6th April 2019 / 3:24 pm

    What an incredible experience You must have been so relieved to find the family after that trek during the downpour. The photos alone are worth it.

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      6th April 2019 / 3:54 pm

      Thanks Cath! I think I always had faith we’d find them, though I really wasn’t sure I’d be able to get my camera out! We were so lucky it stopped raining when it did!

  6. Albi Mrázová
    6th April 2019 / 4:47 pm

    Love the pictures, I’m thinking about heading to Uganda for this kind of adventure as well. But I’m not sure if I ant to get wet like this. Do you know if it is possible to do it in the dry season?

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      6th April 2019 / 5:10 pm

      Hello and thank you! If you go in rainy season of course there is a chance it may rain, but you might also get lucky! In rainy season it’s much cheaper – $450 for the permit instead of $600, and it’s much easier to get a slot. If you do go in peak season then you will need to make sure you book early as there are only a limited number of permits available each day.

  7. 6th April 2019 / 5:46 pm

    I just loved reading your story! So happy that the rain finally went away and just at the perfect moment, too. Gorilla trekking is something I would love to do, but the costs always make me question if its worth it for the time spent. Sounds like you leave with memories to last a lifetime. thanks for sharing!

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      7th April 2019 / 7:08 pm

      It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but yes, it really is very expensive. I’d say that if you are on a budget there are other things you can do in Uganda that will give you a similar thrill and are much cheaper. Have you read my post on Chimpanzee tracking? At only $150 instead of $600 it’s much more affordable, easier walking, and arguably just as exciting.

  8. 6th April 2019 / 5:48 pm

    You’ve brought back so many great memories of when I did this same trek in Bwindi years ago. I count my lucky stars that I had a much easier go of it- the weather was nice and we found our group with just an hour of relatively easy walking, then they were considerate enough to move out into a nearby clearing so we could see them all properly. I was expecting an experience much more like yours! But even if it had been that difficult, it would still have been worth it- easily the highlight of my entire life.

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      7th April 2019 / 7:05 pm

      Wow! Sounds like you were very lucky! I’m so jealous that you saw them in a clearing, in my head that’s what I was expecting (stupid me) but ours were pretty well hidden in dense forest. Still, at least I had to work for it and got a good story out of it!

  9. agniecha78hotmailcom
    6th April 2019 / 5:52 pm

    What an amazing adventure! Gorilla trekking is definitely on my list. Your post has lots of valuable information I will one day use. Thanks for putting it all together. Amazing pictures as well!

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      7th April 2019 / 6:55 pm

      You’re very welcome, thank you so much for your kind words. I hope you get to go too someday.

  10. 7th April 2019 / 1:55 am

    Such an incredible experience even with the rainy weather! Ive done multiple safaris in Africa and its always breathtaking to see these animals in the wild! Thanks for sharing!

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      7th April 2019 / 6:54 pm

      It was hard work, and I’d definitely recommend trying to avoid doing it weather like that, but at least it made for a good story! Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Some of the links you will see on the blog are affiliate links. This means that if you click through and make a purchase, I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. 

All thoughts and opinions are my own.  I don’t accept freebies or payment in exchange for positive reviews.  All prices are correct at the time of writing.

%d bloggers like this: