Planning for gorilla trekking is far different from the experience of going in game drive vehicles rather it requires physical fitness and active hiking over steep terrain. Therefore a gorilla safaris should be planned ahead so as to get prepared for the hairy cousins.
GORILLA SAFARI PACKING LIST
Rwanda also known as a land of a thousand hills has three moderate altitude volcanoes which form part of the Virunga massifs.
With the help of Rwandan development board or trusted local tour operators, you are guaranteed the best hiking experience while in Rwanda. Hiking permits can be obtained right in Kinigi Rwanda’s main tourist centre located inside the Volcanoes National Park in Musanze district northern province.
Tourists will not need to book hiking permits in advance, except purchasing your own hiking gears in time or optionally hiring them. Other requirements that you need to enter Rwanda include Rwandan tourist visa and a yellow fever vaccination card.
Rwanda’s three distinct volcanic mountains from an integral part of the virunga volcanic province, a chain of 8 volcanoes that make up the verdant virunga mountains region one of the two place to see mountain gorillas in the whole world.
The volcanoes are karisimbi, Bisoke and muhavura. Karisimbi volcano is the 5th highest peak in Africa standing at 4507 meters above sea level and it will take hikers two days to complete it while Bisoke at 3,700 and muhavura at 4,127 meters above sea level can be hiked in one day.
Mount Karisimbi is best for serious hikers because of its high altitude (4,507 meters above sea level) often referred to as the white shell mountain and once you get on top expect to be covered by a mist of white clouds.
To hike karisimbi, you will need your own hiking gears such as camping tents, sleeping bags, porters, rain jackets, warm clothing not forgetting your cameras.
Hiking starts at kinigi the main tourist centre early at 08:00am. As the guides briefs visitors, hikers make final checking of their hiking gears then slowly ascend. For the first day you will traverse the lush mountain base with wild animal encounters, birds, rare vegetation and scenic views. The first day of hiking takes 6 hours to reach the first camping base and enjoy the overnight camping. The second day hikers ascend up to the top summit offering magnificent and breathtaking views of Nyiragongo in DRC and the greater virunga.
Descending takes about 6 hours depending on the pace of the group and guides.
Mount Muhavura is the second highest volcano in Rwanda at 4,127 meters above sea level. Muhavura is shared between Uganda and Rwanda but it’s possible to hike it from kinigi in volcanoes national park Rwanda. It takes a full day and needs average fitness but rewarding with fantastic views of the five virunga volcanoes and twin lakes of Burera and Rubondo and you will refresh by the Crater Lake near the summit.
While hiking the steep slopes, hikers can see rare high altitude plants such as lobelias abd heathers as well as mammals and monkeys. The name muhuvura means the guide when translated from Kinyarwanda because the mountain is used to navigate the borders of Rwanda and the Albertine rift valley.
Permits to hike can be got on arrival at kinigi and there is mid range to luxury accommodation since hiking the volcanoes takes one full day, hikers can stay for other adventures such as golden monkey tracking and biking safaris.
Mount Bisoke is another stunning volcano standing at 3.711 meters above sea level with a largest crater lake on top than any other crater lake within virunga volcanoes. It’s the fourth highest volcano in Rwanda, Hikers start at 08:00 am and it can be hiked in 4-6 hours roundtrip depending on the average fitness of the group.
Hikers escorted by armed rangers traverse through breathtaking bamboo and sub-alpine that are often covered by fog and are a habitat for mountain gorillas and the Dian Fossey’s karisoke research centre. Hence visitors can make a visit to the grave site of Dian Fossey after the hike.
Hikers are likely to encounter buffalos, giant forest hogs, monkeys and see many birds.
Reaching on top at the crater a perfect picnic to have your packed lunch meals as well as enjoy scenic views of the surrounding volcanoes because it marks the borders of Rwanda and DR Congo. There are accommodations within volcanoes national park or visitors may choose to stay in Goma or in Lake Kivu because these are not far from Bisoke just about 35 km.
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park located in Musanze district northern province lies up in higher altitudes of the bamboo and tropical forested virunga volcanoes between 2,500 -4000 meters above sea level, which make it an ideal habitat for mountain gorillas.
An estimated population of over 200 gorillas inhabits the park; at least 10 gorilla families have been habituated. These are families are visited by tourists but to further the knowledge about gorillas, 3 gorilla families are meant for research conducted by the Dian Fossey gorilla fund international at Karisoke research center in Volcanoes National Park.
Each family has unique features that are normally described for tourists by the Rwandan development guides during preparation for trekking early morning at kinigi, the main visitor center.
Karisimbi gorilla family was formed after the original Susa gorilla family which had more than 40 individuals split into two families back in 2009. The gorilla family which split family is called to as Susa-B. The current silverback of Karisimbi called Nyagakangaga took away 13 gorillas from Susa family to create his own home range on the slopes of Mt. Karisimbi (4,507 meters above sea level) one the volcanic mountains in volcanoes national park from which it was named during the 2010 “Kwita Izina” gorilla naming ceremony.
Regrettably, in 2012 two members of Karirimbi migrated leaving the gorilla family with 11 individuals led by 1 silverback Nyagakangaga along with 3 other silverbacks that are still under his rule. The other members include 2 infants, 1 juvenile, 1 black back, 2 sub-adult females and 1 sub-adult male.
Trekking Karisimbi gorilla family may take visitors a whole day due to the long distances covered when hiking because of its home ranges in the steep slopes of Mt. Karisimbi (4,507 meters above sea level).
Igisha gorilla family also known as Susa group B split from the original Susa family when the current silverback Igisha moved away with 23 individuals. Later on Igisha silverback seduced two other gorilla members into his family to make up 26 individuals. They include 3 silverbacks, 7 infants and 7 adult females, 2 black backs, 4 juveniles and 3 sub-adult males.
Sabinyo is one of the dormant volcanoes in Volcanoes national park and this group rooms its lower slopes hence the name Sabinyo. The group has 8 individuals which are easily trekked because it’s often found foraging on the edge of the park and the volcano. Led by Guhonda, one of the strongest silverbacks in volcanoes national park, there are 3 adult females other plus playful juveniles that tourists find impressive when trekking.
Amahoro is another gorilla family of 17 individuals including 1 silverback, 2 black backs, 2 juveniles, 5 females, 5 babies and 2 sub adult males. Amahoro is Kinyarwanda name meaning “peaceful” and that true with the gorillas of this family. It is easily trekked by tourists who hike to its home range on the slopes of Mt. Bisoke with less difficulty. Though, one has to deal with steep climbs to reach the family on the day of trekking, use a porter to carry your backpacks.
Umubano gorilla family was once part of the Amahoro family but later broke away when one of the Silverbacks (Charles) was challenged by the dominant silverback in a fight. Charles the current silverback of Umubano gorilla family was defeated hence it took 11 members which include 1 sub adult male, 3 adult females and 6 juveniles.
Trekking to see Umubano is not difficult since its home range overlaps that of Amahoro family and trekkers often decide to trek both gorilla families because they have different features.
Agashya gorilla family at the time of habituation it had 13 members hence the substitute name. Agashya itself means “news” and the name came after the then silverback leader of the family Nyakairima lost control to Agashya the current leader silverback of the family. The family has lived up to its name when it has managed to increase its members from 13 to 25 individuals. Although this gorilla family rooms the slopes of Mt. Sabinyo the same range area of Sabinyo gorilla family, it often moves far to the slopes of Mt. Gahinga another volcano in Volcanoes National Park. Hence trekkers of this family need to be fairly fit.
Hirwa is one of the new gorilla families in Volcanoes national park. It was birthed out of the members that left group 13 and Sabinyo family and Hirwa means “lucky one” hence it was lucky that other gorillas joined the family to make up to 9 individuals. They include 1 silverback, 3 adult females, 2 sub adult females and 3 babies who have attracted most tourists to trek the family for the baby gorillas are playful.
This gorilla family was formed in 2007; it has 11 individuals led by Bwenge the Silverback. It’s one of the popular gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park because it featured in “Gorillas in the Mist” a movie that was produced in 1988 to show the conservation efforts of Dian Fossey who pioneered gorilla conservation research in Rwanda.
Sadly, Bwenge family lost its 6 infants that died strangely despite the efforts of veterinary gorilla doctors. Trackers named the family and its silverback Bwenge which means “clever one” because Bwenge endured hardships that could have dismantled its composition.
Kwitonda gorilla family has 18 individuals including 2 silverbacks living in harmony. Kwitonda means “humbleness” and its true with the dominant silverback are loved by many trekkers for being humble during the 1 hour encounter.
This gorilla family was highly nomadic in past migrating to DRC but it has stabilized on the slopes of Mt. Muhabura (4,127 meters above sea level) in volcanoes national park. although trekking to see this gorilla family is quite difficult, it adds on the adventure and excitement.
Ugenda gorilla family is composed of 11 individuals including 2 silverbacks. The word Ugenda means “mobile” and this family is one of the unreliable and difficult to trek in volcanoes national park as its name suggests. Like all gorilla families move in search of flesh vegetation, for Ugenda gorilla family, it moves a lot from one place to another, though Rwandan development board trackers are skilled and it won’t be difficult to trek it as already highlighted.
Their current home range is on the slopes of mount Bisoke 3,711 meters above sea level. Every gorilla trek is different adventure in its own way given the rules and regulations of trekking are kept so that gorillas are not interfered at the same giving you a calm encounter.
Rwanda is a landlocked country located in East Africa bordered by DRC, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. The country’s tourism industry relies a lot on nature especially wildlife with the leading tourist attraction being the mountain gorillas. Other tourist attractions in Rwanda include golden monkeys, chimpanzee, birds, Lake Kivu and wildlife of Akagera national park.
In the whole world mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Massifs shared by Uganda, DRC and Rwanda. In Rwanda, mountain gorillas are found in Volcanoes National Park in Musanze district-Northern Province. The park can be accessed by car within 2 hours from Kigali International Airport.
Since the end of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has strategized on developing its tourism industry by creating an enabling environment such as tarmac roads, tourist hotel facilities and customer services, setting up community development projects and increasing tourist security.
Perhaps Rwanda is perceived as a safe tourist destination due to its marketing and promotion using mountain gorillas as their icon tourist attraction in the major international travel Medias such as CNN Travel and tourism trade fairs like the ITB Berlin. This has resulted into positive coverage compelling many travelers to visit the nation.
In addition to the gorilla naming ceremony which takes place every year has evolved since 2005 to unite international tourist with local communities and nature. The naming ceremony is usually used as a platform to market local tourism products. Many exhibits feature traditional dances, music and drama where locals perform poems and songs approving the benefits of gorilla tourism on their livelihoods.
The initiation of gorilla tourism project can be traced back in the 1970’s with strict environmental rules set in the name of ecotourism that allowed few tourists to visit gorillas in their natural habitat. Prior to the gorilla project, Dian Fossey had pioneered gorilla conservation when she established a research centre in Volcanoes National Park Rwanda. Her legacy has continued through the symbolic Dian Fossey grave site and the gorilla fund international.
With eco tourism local communities were restricted from accessing the forest which did not stop the threat of human activities on the life of the critically endangered mountain gorillas due to high population densities surrounding gorilla habitats.
Local communities continued to compete for resources as they hunt animals, encroach on the forest despite strict conservation to meet their daily life needs such as food and income. As a result there was a need to address local community welfare in order to reduce challenges to gorilla tourism and conservation which were mainly human-wildlife conflicts and poverty related.
That gave birth to a foundation for local community development strategy by the Rwandan government. The strategy also included diversification of tourism products beyond gorillas where by traditional life styles and heritage in form of food, arts, handicrafts industry, architecture and festivals were promoted as tourism products.
The promotion of local community tourism as a result of gorilla tourism has increased the attractiveness of volcanoes national park as a tourism destination as well as increasing tourist experience. This is evidenced by more than 20,000 tourists who visit the country every year mainly for gorilla tracking.
To strengthen conservation of gorillas, there was need to labor. The Rwandan development board created employment opportunities for local communities working in Volcanoes National Park as guides, rangers, porters and community conservation leaders which have uplifted their wellbeing.
The government also initiated a revenue sharing scheme in 2005 where by 5 percent of the money from gorilla tourism goes into the communities creating several social and income generating benefits. Some of the projects set up include schools, health care centers, roads, water tanks as well as tree planting which saves the environment and income generating activities like bee keeping, craft making and vegetable growing. These make people own the gorillas and the park resources indirectly.
Some of the community projects that came as a result of gorilla tourism offer tourist services such as accommodation, food stuffs, cultural and traditional activities. This gives tourists an understanding to appreciate culture and life styles of Rwandan local people such as arts and the landscapes. The community owned Sabinyo Community Lodge provides accommodation to tourists as well as provide market for local food and arts.
Another remarkable benefit from gorilla tourism is the Iby’ Iwacu cultural village near Volcanoes National Park, tourists visiting this village will enjoy staying in a traditional hut on a full board basis, taste local food, like the dress codes and also learn the history of Rwandan people which presents an authentic cultural experience.
While staying at the Iby Iwacu village, you will experience Rwandan culture by paying for activities such as community walks where you meet and interact with people who left poaching, participate in traditional dance and music featuring songs of gorillas, learn how local food and banana beer is prepared. This has increased the attractiveness and competitiveness of Volcanoes National Park beyond gorilla tourism.
In the area of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park where gorilla tourism is based, there are local communities living around the forest. Historically people lived in harmony with gorillas and other wildlife including the forest dwelling Batwa pygmies in the Virunga rainforests who were later displaced during creation of Volcanoes National Park and some parts of Nyungwe forest National Park.
Batwa pygmies were left homeless and marginalized as they could no longer practice their traditions which included hunting, dressing styles, fruit gathering and traditional healing. Fortunately the benefits of gorilla tourism through the gorilla organization in 2001 reached out to uplift the Batwa by providing land, agricultural training and education in an attempt to preserve their unique culture.
The gorilla organization centered on preserving unique traditions of Batwa, tourists who come for gorilla tracking in Volcanoes National Park also visit the Batwa at Iby’ Iwacu cultural village to learn how they used their traditions.
Tourists pay a fair price to get involved in Batwa activities such as hunting techniques, traditional healing, fire making, Batwa dances which give tourists a unique experience. This participatory approach in tourism has raised income levels for the Batwa and other local communities as a motive for conservation of mountain gorillas.
Revenues from gorilla tourism have also acted as an incentive for local communities to support conservation of mountain gorillas. Community projects such as goat, pig rearing and bee keeping not only create income but also act as alternatives for bush meat and wild honey which has reduced poaching and encroachment on the gorilla habitat.
Consequently with reduction in poaching and encroachment, gorilla population in Rwanda has increased as well as the neighboring Uganda. This is attributed to strong collaboration between local communities and the various methods used in conservation such as trans-boundary management, anti-poaching and ranger based monitoring systems.
Therefore the successful conservation of mountain gorillas has been partly due to positive attitudes of local communities living around gorilla national parks who have lived for long with the gorillas. Today gorillas co-exist with local communities and have become one of the greatest conservation stories in Africa.
Mountain gorilla habituation is a process of training wild gorillas to be accustomed to human presence without altering or changing their behaviors for a period of 3 years or more depending on the pace at which gorillas are getting used to humans. The process is done by experienced researchers, trackers and few lucky tourists who know how gorillas behave and closely follow them on a daily basis by imitating their actions such as picking and chewing on the vegetation with non threatening body language.
With time researchers will first put the gorillas on test to see if they are ready for normal trekking. Therefore declaring gorillas ready for normal trekking largely depends on the readiness of gorillas during habituation, if not then the process of habituation continues until they become ready.
This process is totally different from gorilla trekking, please note that trekking is done on already habituated Gorilla groups. This means that habituation experience is far more unique than trekking because few tourists spend four hour contact with gorillas than one hour for normal trekking.
Uganda Wildlife Authority, a top body managing all national parks of Uganda recently introduced gorilla habituation experience for tourists in Rushaga sector found in the southern section of Bwindi impenetrable forest national park not found anywhere else.
Currently there two groups that have been opened for habituation experience in Bwindi forest; the gorilla groups are Bikingi and Bushaho; maximum number of 4 people can be allowed to participate in habituation experience rather the 8 people for trekking. Gorilla habituation costs 1500 USD per tourist for four hours and the cost includes park entry fees.
Normally tourists are briefed very early in the morning about the rules and conduct before gorillas and of course reminding you to dress properly for the impenetrable thickets by experienced Uganda wildlife authority guides, then slowly you enter the forests to look for the designated two gorilla groups under habituation, the four hours excludes time spent when searching for gorillas meaning that lucky tourists spend real four hours observing gorillas in their natural habitats. It means that a total of 8 permits are given out daily depending on availability of tourists interested in habituation experience.
Booking for gorilla habituation permits is done in advance due to limited number of tourists interested in the activity through the Uganda wildlife authority who will later contact the warden manager of Rushaga tourism sector to confirm availability of dates. Tourists are expected to have secured their visa and passport requirements before planning for gorilla habituation.
Gorilla habituation experience was acknowledged to be good for conservation of the whole gorilla population and their habitats because the proceeds from the experience partly go to conservation and supporting of local community development and educating the locals living around the park about the importance of gorillas and other wildlife.
It’s well known that gorillas are prone to contracting human infectious diseases hence training gorillas to be used to humans puts them at risk but good enough the rangers have a ranger based monitoring system they use to closely monitor gorillas every day and obviously there are other threats to gorillas such as poaching, encroachment which must be dealt with besides human diseases.
How to get there
Accessibility of Rushaga sector in the southern part of Bwindi national park is possible by public transport or by direct scheduled charter flights from Entebbe international airport or Kigali in Rwanda.
From Entebbe to Bwindi takes approximately 9-10 hours about 550 km of driving in a safari vehicle on tarmac roads that pass through beautiful terraced green rolling hills giving you insight into the rural Uganda lifestyle. There are several routes but your guide knows a relatively short route. The most popular is the route that passes through Queen Elizabeth national park via Ishahsha sector where you might stop for the rare tree climbing lions.
It becomes easy to get to Rushaga in Bwindi when you are already in Lake Mburo or Queen Elizabeth national park because from these parks it takes less than 6 hours to reach Bwindi.
Alternatively tourists can fly direct from Entebbe airport or kajjansi airfield along the Entebbe – Kampala highway using Aerolink or eagle air charter planes to the airfields of kihihi in kisoro district and there after drive for a short distance to Rushaga area. Most of these flights are usually arranged by your travel operator.