The Gorilla tracking experience is one of most thrilling, lifetime adventure you should include on your lifetime activities. No one can fully describe the joy and wonderful moment attached to the first setting eyes on a wild mountain gorilla. I have tracked all the gorilla groups in both Uganda and Rwanda, but every day, it comes with a new experience. I have never regretted any of the tracking and felt the cost of the permit is worth the value. You must, however prepare for some hustle up and down the steep rocky hills in the forest, sometimes on a rainy and muddy day. But when you meet this huge yet humble primate in their territory, it will be worth your effort. You will spend approximately one hour with this endangered great ape and get any details you have been wishing to know about them. But to do this, you have to reserve a gorilla tracking permit well in advance. You can book it yourself, but we advise that you use a tour company to organize for you all your gorilla tracking packages. A maximum of 8 persons can visit a given gorilla family per day.
Meanwhile 480 Mountain gorillas are in Virunga Mastiff, shared between 3 countries of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC, there are additional 400 mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. If combined, there are 880 mountain gorillas remaining in the world in the three countries of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. Mountain gorillas live in an age-graded groups families similar to those of humans, but only habituated groups are available for tourism (10 of the habituated families live in Rwanda and 14 in Uganda). We exhaustively describe the habituated gorilla groups in our previous articles. If you want to choose between Rwanda or Uganda for gorilla tracking experinec, here are some hints, but remember taste and preference varies as an old saying “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”.
The current gorilla tracking permit in Rwanda is US$750 per permit compared to tracking in Uganda which is slightly lower at US$600 per permit. Both permit give you a one-hour time to track a particular gorilla group where a maximum of a group of 8 tourists can track. The money paid is a conservation fund to support the gorilla conservation and the communities around the gorilla habitat. If you consider gorilla tracking permit as an important factor in choosing a country to track from, then you would consider Uganda, but if this is not the case, any can work for you.
Generally, Rwanda provides the easiest access to gorilla tracking experience. However, this is only important when you are combining gorilla tracking experience with visiting other countries like Kenya or Tanzania or if you have limited time to spend in the country. Volcanoes National Park is situated 116 km from Kigali and it will take you only 2 or 3 hours to drive from Kigali to Volcanoes National Park. Meanwhile, Bwindi and Mgahinga are located 510 km from Kampala/ Entebbe Airport. Driving straight from Kampala/ Entebbe Airport to Bwindi and Mgahinga can take you a minimum of 8 hours. This means, when you want to track in Bwindi and Mgahinga, you need a minimum of 3 days (day 1 is travelling to Bwindi or Mgahinga, day 2 is tracking date and day 3 is travelling back to the airport). Most tour companies now give a package of gorilla tracking in Uganda with other wildlife activities since there are several National Parks and game reserves along the way to Bwindi and Mgahinga NP. Rwanda’s pride is its ability for one to do the gorilla tracking experience even in one day and fly back home which is impossible in Uganda. In real practice, though, the one-day gorilla trek tour is not recommended because of the pressure it exerts on the trekker. Also note that, it might be easier to get a space/ticket available in Uganda than in Rwanda as there are more gorilla groups in Uganda than Rwanda.
Tracking mountain gorillas in both Uganda and Rwanda can be as short as 1 hour or as long as 6 hours depending on where the gorillas spent the night and which group you are tracking. But on average, it takes you about 2 hours hiking to see the gorillas in both Uganda and Rwanda. Generally, from my experience, Rwanda gorilla trekking may be slightly easier than Uganda gorilla trekking, but this is not a guarantee. It has happened to me that I tracked a group in Rwanda for 6 hours and 30minutes in Uganda, so there is no guarantee of ease in a particular country.
Another important point to consider is the variation in altitude. In Rwanda, tracking takes place at 8000-10,000 feet above sea level, while in Uganda, tracking takes place 4000-8,000 feet above sea level. Visitors who have flown from a low altitude country should therefore think of acclimatizing before tracking in Rwanda. Although the altitude in Rwanda is not high enough for altitude sickness, it is high enough to knock the breath out of anybody, no matter how fit, who has just flown in from a low altitude. If you are from a low altitude country, it is therefore important to acclimatize in Rwanda before tracking the gorillas or track the Uganda groups.
The long drive to Bwindi/Mgahinga is quite enchanting with great sceneries all through like the Equator, abundant wildlife in Lake Mburo National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale Forest National Park, terraced mountains with flowing rivers, and a lot of rural Africa and small towns. This is not the case for the drive from Kigali to Volcanoes National Park. You will certainly need to spend more on transport and time to track the mountain gorillas in Uganda than it’s for Rwanda although this cost is compensated for by a cheaper gorilla permit.
Besides, some sections of the roads to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are not so comfortable to drive on yet in the case of Rwanda, you drive on smooth tarmac at least up to the Volcanoes National Park head office. Not to mention though, the roads leading from the Volcanoes park office to the gorilla trek trail-heads can only be accessed with a raised 4×4 vehicle.
There are no better gorillas between countries. If you go to Rwanda, you will find 10 habituated gorilla groups, meanwhile in Uganda, there are currently 14 gorilla groups. The mode and system of tracking gorilla in both Uganda and Rwanda are very similar. Gorillas are followed on a daily basis, therefore; the locations are virtually guaranteed.
The gorilla tracking experience may vary due to:
With my long time of tracking, I have seen very little variation in the gorilla tracking experience among countries. The gorillas in both countries are of the same species and have similar behaviors, group composition and dynamics. All these characteristics may vary from group to group in a particular country. One little difference I have observed in Rwanda tracking is the experience in the early morning before tracking. Early in the morning (Maybe 7:00 AM), while the visitors are being entertained by the lively traditional dance troupe (SACOLA Traditional Dancers), there are coffee/tea dispensers with cups available for free to visitors. In Uganda, you can get this in the evenings from the various traditional cultural groups that are near the park (at a small fee to support the local communities).
However, the drive from Kampala to Bwindi is a very fabulous one traversing at least another national park (either Kibale or Queen Elizabeth National Park, famous for tree climbing lions and many other big mammals, or Lake Mburo National Park) and not to miss- the Equator. In a way, even before you arrive Bwindi you have had a bit of the ‘Pearl of Africa’ as is fondly known. To many, driving along paved eucalyptus avenues to the gorillas in not the best deal. Most tourists now prefer to do gorilla tracking in Rwanda first, then cross over to Uganda to do gorilla tracking and other wildlife activities like visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park for the BIG 5 safaris and chimpanzee tracking among other activities.
General cost involved in gorilla package:
Because of the long drive one endures from Kampala to Bwindi/Mgahinga, the general cost is normally higher. But the higher cost may be compensated by the low cost gorilla booking permit of US$600 (Cost even lower during April/May/November at US$450) unlike the US$750 in Rwanda. Because of this dynamic, most tour companies now charge apparently the same amount as a package. The costs involved are mainly transport, gorilla permit and accommodation). The cost variation in the cost is therefore heavily reliant on the transport means you use, accommodation selected. All these can be chosen by either you or the tour company.
When you purely want to track gorillas and nothing like seeing other spectacular wildlife species, then the best destination will be Rwanda. However, if you are interested in several wildlife species in addition to Gorillas, Rwanda may not be in position to offer that. For such people, Uganda would be your destination. There are several National Parks and Wildlife Reserves along the western part of Uganda, which can be accessed in a few hours to days. When traveling from the Ugandan Capital Kampala to track gorillas either in either Mgahinga or Bwindi, you can branch to Lake Mburu NP, Queen Elizabeth NP, Kibale forest NP, Semuliki NP among others. From here, you can view a diverse wildlife species ranging from the endemic Uganda kob, as well as lion, leopard, elephant, giraffe, hippo and crocodile, several species of primates among other wildlife species. Uganda is the best single country to visit for both chimpanzee and gorilla trekking. A number of tourists have continually had to cross to Uganda after their Rwanda gorilla trek to tour other reserves like National Parks so endowed with abundant wildlife one cannot see in Rwanda.
Which country are you visiting now?
From our experience in tourism, the ultimate decision to choose a country to do gorilla tracking is dependent on a variety of factors ranging from the pockets to what the hearts choose.