DISPATCHES FROM EXOTIC LANDS
Gorilla trekking Africa wide
Mountain gorillas exist in the wild in just three countries – Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). With total numbers estimated at just over 1000, the opportunity to see them in their natural environment is a rare privilege and by visiting them you are helping to ensure their protection and survival.
When it comes to gorilla trekking, Africa has limited options and each has its pros and cons, but wherever you decide to go will inevitably be remembered as ‘the best’ in your eyes. No wildlife experience compares to gazing into the eyes of an intelligent, emotional being, knowing that you have ancient, shared ancestors.
Whilst it is possible to see mountain gorillas in the DRC, the infrastructure is not yet at a level to provide reliable experience , so for the purpose of this blog we will focus on Rwanda and Uganda gorilla safaris, but watch this space because we are constantly looking into new options. Its is also possible to see Western lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo (a completely different country to the DRC) – a magical, little known experience!
How do the gorilla numbers compare?
Rwanda is home to around two thirds of the world’s gorilla population and they live in the ‘Virunga Massif’, a vast swathe of jungly national park spread across three countries – Virunga (DRC), Volcanoes (Rwanda) and Mgahinga (Uganda). At present there are ten habituated family groups that can be tracked within Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
On paper, Uganda has fewer individuals, but they are contained within just two, smaller parks – Bwindi and Mahinga. Mahinga has just one habituated group of gorillas, while Bwindi (which is where all of our Uganda gorilla safaris take place) has four groups.
While Rwanda technically has more gorillas, they are spread over a larger area and have the potential to roam into other countries, while Uganda’s gorillas, though fewer in number, are more concentrated.
Verdict: Both Rwanda and Uganda gorilla safaris will deliver on this front!
What is the terrain like? How tough is the trekking?
In Uganda, Bwindi’s terrain is steep, the bush is thick, and there are no trails. All the good quality lodges are on high ground meaning that your trek may start with a descent, but your day will end with an arduous climb. Uganda gorilla safaris are best suited to those with a good level of fitness and a sense of adventure.
The terrain in Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) is more forgiving with gentler slopes and more open vegetation.
In either location a good level of fitness is required as it can take several hours of walking to find the gorillas and year-round rain can make the ground slippery and muddy.
Verdict: Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is generally a little easier going.
When are the seasons for gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda?
Uganda straddles the equator while Rwanda sits just south, but both experience an equatorial climate meaning it is possible to enjoy both Rwanda and Uganda gorilla safaris all year round. In the misty mountains the weather is more influenced by altitude than latitude, and it rains most days, all year round.
Having said that, in Rwanda there are two ‘dry’ (relatively!) seasons running between mid-December to early February and from June to September. In Uganda peak season falls between July and September, when precipitation is at its lowest and conditions underfoot are least muddy.
How do the costs compare?
The permits for Uganda gorilla safaris are cheaper at around USD $700 per person, whilst in Rwanda they are double that, costing USD $1,500 per person. This is reflected in general terms as well with the prices for road transfers, accommodation and so on all tending to be lower in Uganda.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Rwanda is far smaller which means that getting around is easier. It is possible to get from the international airport at Kigali to the mountains in 2 hours drive, whereas in Uganda, getting from the airport to the gorillas requires a nine hour drive or a short flight. One would assume these easier logistics would make Rwanda the cheaper option overall, but this is not necessarily the case. Any offset is unlikely to have a significant impact on the overall cost of a safari.
Verdict: A Uganda gorilla safari is likely to be cheaper than a Rwanda gorilla safari
Which has the better accommodation options?
Uganda and Rwanda’s accommodation options are quite different. In very general terms Uganda’s offerings tend to be well priced and slightly more rustic, whereas Rwanda has seen a lot of investment in recent years which has brought a selection of really top notch, high end lodges.
Accommodation for Uganda gorilla safaris
- Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
- Buhoma Lodge – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
- Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge, Uganda
Accommodation for Rwanda gorilla safaris
- Volcanoes Virunga Lodge – Volcanoes National Park
- Bisate Lodge – Volcanoes National Park
- Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge – Volcanoes National Park
- Singita Kwitonda – Volcanoes National Park
Bisate Lodge, Rwanda
Verdict: If you are looking for something mid to high end, Uganda has some excellent options, but if you want something super luxurious that will really knock your socks off, you’re probably better off heading to Rwanda.
What else is there to do while I’m in the country?
Rwanda is still recovering from its recent history, but is doing so with such vivacity that it is an incredibly inspiring and uplifting place to visit. The Kigali Genocide Memorial is deeply moving, and a must-visit, but there is so much more to the country that tourists are slowly beginning to discover. The mountains boast world class mountain biking and hiking; there are some community-oriented initiatives, such as the Nyamiraambo Women’s Center in Kigali, that are well worth a visit; and it is possible to track chimpanzees in the beautiful Nyungwe Forest.
Akagera National Park in the north offers ‘Big Five’ safaris, plus incredibly rare species such as Sitatunga antelope and the Shoebill stork. There’s a fabulous lodge in the park – Magashi – and the best bit of all is that almost no one goes there!
Uganda gorilla safaris are easily paired with savannah-style safaris in Queen Elizabeth National Park, which is home to the famous tree-climbing lions. There are some inspiring community projects here too, which always welcome visitors with open arms. Chimpanzee trekking is well established in Kibale National Park, and based out of good quality lodges such as Primate Lodge.
There are plenty of water sports and white water rafting to be found on the Nile, and even a handful of lakeside retreats for pure R&R on Lake Victoria. Most notably, Uganda links easily with East Africa for a Maasai Mara or Serengeti Safari. For inspiration head to 10 Reasons a Serengeti Safari Tour is a ‘Do Before you Die’ Experience or When to visit the Serengeti.
Verdict: Both Uganda and Rwanda offer so much to do its tough to choose between them. Uganda’s offerings are perhaps more established, but Rwanda’s are arguably more exclusive since international visitors are yet to discover them.
Gorilla trekking adds a whole new dimension to the concept of an African wildlife safari. It’s one of the most moving and emotional wildlife experiences on the planet. For die-hard savannah lovers it couples incredibly well with a classic East African style safari and our bespoke travel service means all our itineraries are seamless.
Ultimately, both Rwanda and Uganda gorillas safaris provide spectacular encounters and when you are sitting in the company of Great Apes you won’t be questioning your decision!