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Ask the experts: East African gorilla treks

Need advice for your next trip? Our experts offer recommendations, tips and guidance. This month, our pros offer advice on planning a trip to Rwanda or Uganda to see the mountain gorillas

Ask the experts: East African gorilla treks
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QI’d like to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda. What do I need to know? How should I prepare and what can I expect?

Emma Gregg, freelance travel writer: No two gorilla treks are the same, but sightings are practically guaranteed to those willing to work for them. A challenging hike through hot, steep, tangled, high-altitude jungle is the norm. They’re not called mountain gorillas for nothing. It’s best to be in decent physical shape and prepare for your precious hours to fly by. If you’re a keen photographer, consider making more than one trek, as lighting conditions and visibility may be different each time.

While many travellers book through a specialist safari operator, you don’t need your own guide to see gorillas as independent travellers can book direct. National park trackers and guides are included, and porters — highly recommended, however fit you are — can be hired on the spot.

Now is an excellent time to go. Even though the top destinations — Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park — weren’t directly affected by the 2013-16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, demand for permits dropped during the crisis and availability remains better than you might expect. However, following Rwanda’s controversial decision, announced in May, to raise more funds for conservation and community development by doubling its permit price to $1,500, Ugandan permits (a relative snip at $600) will be snapped up fast.

Will Bolsover, Natural World Safaris: Gorilla tracking — whether in Uganda or Rwanda — is truly a life-changing experience and one that you must not miss. Both countries offer exceptional gorilla tracking experiences but with different advantages. Rwanda has recently increased their permit prices to $1,500 per gorilla tracking permit per person, per day (having doubled in price). In comparison with Uganda, which still holds on to a $600 permit price, this is a vast difference.

Does one country offer more than the other? Whilst it is true to say that Rwanda is probably slightly ‘easier’ to track gorillas, I am not sure it is worth double the price. Yes, you can sometimes see them in slightly less dense clearings in Rwanda, making it easier for photography, however Uganda also delivers. Other factors to consider should revolve around what else you want to see… Rwanda has made huge efforts to offer a wider range of experiences including recently reintroducing rhinos and lions into Akagera National Park, yet its main focus is still around gorilla tourism. Uganda, on the other hand, has a longer tradition of offering that little bit more with the savannah game of Queen Elizabeth National Park, the lovely Murchison Falls, the chimpanzees of Kibale National Park and the remote, yet classic, savannah region of Kidepo.

A few tips and tricks:

  • Always track the gorillas twice — an hour with these amiable primates goes all too quickly and you need to ensure you don’t spend all of that time behind your camera lens!
  • Gaiters — take them! It can be very muddy and gaiters assist in keeping your legs dry and keeping out those creepy crawlies that inhabit the rainforest.
  • Book through a legitimate travel company. Permits, fees, quality guides and drivers are essential in ensuring that your once-in-a-lifetime safari is exactly that for all the right reasons.
  • If you are ill, please do not track the gorillas. Due to their close relation to us, we can easily transmit diseases to our fellow primates and this could wipe out whole families.
  • You must be 15 or over to track the gorillas for health and safety reasons — more so for the gorillas than for you!

Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)