Ever since we saw Sir David Attenborough sharing his stories about mountain gorillas we have dreamed of trekking with them ourselves. To do this ethically was our first priority. Our second was the budget.
However, we did find a great way to see them for a reasonable cost that supports the conservation efforts of these magnificent creatures.
As their name implies, mountain gorillas live in forests high in the mountains, at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet. They have thicker fur, and more of it, compared to other great apes. The fur helps them to survive in a habitat where temperatures often drop below freezing.
But as humans have moved more and more into the gorillas’ territory, they have been pushed farther up into the mountains for longer periods, forcing them to endure dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions.
What might have been a bleak outlook for the subspecies just a couple of decades ago has brightened in recent years due to conservation efforts (especially those of the WWF).
Despite ongoing civil conflict, poaching and an encroaching human population, the population of mountain gorillas have increased in numbers.
The world’s smallest population of mountain gorillas—a subspecies of the eastern gorilla—is split in two and scientists have debated whether they may be two separate subspecies. A bit more than half live in the Virunga Mountains.
This is a range of extinct volcanoes that border the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The remainder can be found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
Since the discovery of the mountain gorilla subspecies in 1902, its population has endured years of war, hunting, habitat destruction and disease—threats so severe that it was once thought the species might be extinct by the end of the twentieth century.
Options of Where to Trek
There are 3 places to trek with the mountain gorillas:
- Democratic Republic of Congo is the cheapest option. However due to the lack of stability in this country, violent rebel activities in the park and concerns for our safety we decided to pass. In addition, there are only 8 gorilla families living in this park.
- Rwanda is the most expensive option and there are only 10 mountain gorilla families living in this area.
- Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the middle option for price. They have the largest number of gorilla families – 21 in total living in their park.
For us, the Uganda option seemed like the best. Also, 75% of the gorilla permit cost ($750 per person) goes to the conservation of this majestic species. Which made us feel good about our choice!
Cost of Tour Package
After a lot of research we decided to go with Encounter Africa Safaris (we did not receive any money or discount from them for writing this review). And you will see that the review is quite balanced with a lot of feedback to the tour company.
The tour included: transfers from the airport in Kigali, Rwanda to the Rushaga Gorilla Havnes Lodge where we spent 2 nights, food, the gorilla permit and of course the trek. And after a wonderful 3 days/2 nights a drive back to Kigali (and a tour of Kigali). The all in cost was $1,300 USD per person.
Getting to the Bwindi Impenetrable Park
We flew in to Kigali from Nairobi. Prior to coming to this area we applied for and received the East Africa visa which is good for multiple entries in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda for $100 USD per person for 90 days.
Our driver picked us up in a van which was very old. The driver spoke English well and doubled as a tour guide through Kigali and our road north through Rwanda and later Uganda.
I must say that the road was stunning! Ladies on the Rwanda highways were sweeping it! There were tea plantations and verdant fields to look at. I must have taken thousands of pictures!
Our driver helped us get our luggage screened at the Uganda border and go through immigration. And we were off again. The excitement was starting to build as we got closer to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
Lodging and Food
3 hours after leaving Kigali we arrived at the gates of the Rushaga Gorilla Havens Lodge. We really liked this hotel! The gorgeous vistas, proximity to Bwindi, the great food, the interesting village around it and very friendly staff made it a highlight.
Our first night we had a great dinner at the lodge (they made me delicious vegan food) and went to sleep early to be ready for the trek in the morning.
6:00 am came very early and we hurried to eat breakfast by 6:30 am, get our packed lunches and get to the park in time for the 7:30 am briefing.
Our driver got us to the park in time for the commencement of the ceremonies. Local women did some dancing and singing prior to the briefing. We were separated out into groups of 8 (our group was only 7 people) and we headed off with a park ranger and an armed ranger.
2 other scouts (members of our team) were already out looking for one of the 21 mountain gorilla families. And they were in constant communication with our rangers to provide guidance on where to go to find them.
You see, the gorillas are totally free to roam the 331 sq kilometer park. So, we needed some help to find them!
As we trekked through this incredibly bio-diverse forest, our guide (the ranger) would provide interesting information about the flora and fauna before us. After about 2.5 hours of tracking our ranger said, “take a look”.
And since Rob and I were quite ahead of the others, we were first to see a giant silverback mountain gorilla just siting on the trail before us. The guide said go ahead and get closer. We inched our way towards the majestic creature.
He stared deep into my eyes for what felt like an eternity and then ran in front of our group hitting one of the participants in the groin. The guy was a bit of a nuisance and the gorilla must have sensed it!
We were lucky enough to spend close to 2 hours with this large family. There were other males, mothers and babies and toddler mountain gorillas. All carrying on as if we weren’t there. It was magical! We trekked on steep hills and hung on to trees to continue our encounters.
The most important part was not to interfere with the gorillas and to give them the space that they needed. First, “always do no harm.”
- If you can, bring some tall gators for this trek. The red ants that the gorillas like to eat are everywhere. And once they get into your socks or your pants (and they will), they will sting and very hard!
- Bring enough water – the recommendation is at least 2 liters each because you never know how long it will take you to find the gorillas. And the trek out will be just as long as the trek in!
Village Life Near Bwindi
After the trek, we were filled with so much joy! We returned to the Lodge for some afternoon tea and a marvelous dinner. I went for a walk and delivered some clothes, food and money to some of the village women whose job it was to break stones for building materials.
One of the women, I had watched for all 3 days. She was all alone with her rock pile. None of the other ladies spoke to her or spent any time with her. Her only visitors were her children who would stop by to take a drink from her breasts. I am so glad that I gave the lion share of the “stuff” to her.
My heart still aches for her and her situation. Although the village was beautiful, it was difficult to see these women performing such difficult and thankless jobs for so little in return.
However, this village certainly does have a feeling of community. Due to the money coming in from the mountain gorilla permits a water line was put in on the hillside. Children throughout the day would go up and down the hill bringing water to their homes.
People on the most part were helping one another. Walking up and down the deep dirt road between the lodge and the park there was a feeling of curiosity, harmony and community. Most of the villagers wanted to speak with me and to “connect”. They shared their stories, customs and family information.
And they were also very curious about us.
The Return to Kigali
Our driver invited one of the villagers to join us on our drive back to Kigali. The drive down the mountain was interesting. Everyone was waving and saying their goodbyes. However about a half hour out of the Lodge we realized that the van did not have any breaking ability.
And this is a very mountainous area! Oh oh!
The driver called a friend at a nearby town to meet us as soon as possible. While driving a van without working brakes, his friend the mechanic diagnosed the issue over the phone. We continued to drive, albeit very slowly and using the emergency brake.
Within the hour the “mechanic” arrived on a motorcycle with the new master brake cylinder – somehow they diagnosed the issue on the phone!
While the van was being fixed, I took my time and walked around the village off of the side of the road. There were some tea plantations and very basic houses with folks walking up and down the dirt roads. All very interesting.
After the “fix”, we drove a bit further to cross the border. Our luggage was scanned again, another stamp on our East Africa multiple entry visa and we were off.
As always a bit of panic sets in at all border crossings about our drone, but we were spared the drama at this one.
On the way back we stopped for a few hours at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Such an important and solemn place.
Then our driver dropped us off at our hotel. The other option was to be taken to the airport. However, we wanted to see more of the city.
Visiting the mountain gorillas was one of those amazing once in a lifetime events! It brought me to tears! And the experience in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was perfect. I would not change a thing. The vistas that we saw getting to Uganda from Kigali Rwanda were also very memorable.
In addition, our accommodations and food at the Rushaga Gorilla Havens Lodge was spot on. The people of the village and those memories will stay with me forever. The price of the tour was the best I could find by far. And Monica, the administrator for the agency was prompt and a good communicator.
However, our vehicle was clearly not road worthy and put us in danger. This was a deep concern to us so we provided this feedback to the tour agency. If they could fit that problem the tour would have been perfect!
Have you been to see the Mountain Gorillas? Let us know your thoughts. And of course, if you are planning a trip don’t hesitate to ask us questions about our experience.
Have you read our report on finding the Rare Proboscis Monkeys? That was another amazing experience!