Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi
Gorilla tracking is a hiking activity into the deep jungles of the tropical forest, escorted by park rangers, breaking an cutting thickets to create a pathway tracking a family of mountain gorillas. When found, you’re allowed to spend one 60 minutes in their presence.
A genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience, hanging out with mountain gorillas is one of the most thrilling wildlife encounters in the world, and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a prime place to see them. There are literally 88 daily permits available to track gorillas in Bwindi. Permits cost US$600 (including park entry) and are booked through the UWA office in Kampala in advance. Note you must be over 15 years of age to track the gorillas.
Gorilla Tracking trips leave from the park office nearest the group you’ll be tracking at 8.30am daily, but you’re required to report to park headquarters by 7.45am. If you are based in Kisoro or Kabale and plan on leaving early in the morning, be mindful that rainy season presents potential delays, such as landslides or getting trapped in thick mud.
With the help of trackers, chances of finding the gorillas are almost guaranteed. But mountainous and heavily forested terrain can present hikers with quite a challenge if the gorillas are a fair distance away. The path is often steep and slippery, and it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to five hours to reach them, so you’ll need to be in reasonable shape. If you think you’re going to struggle it’s strongly advised you hire a porter (US$15) who can carry your day pack and lend a hand getting up and down the hill. Walking sticks are also a very good idea, and are sometimes provided by UWA.
Once you find the gorillas, you will have a maximum of 1 hour near the gorillas. You can get up to several meters of them, but you can be instructed to move further away should the gorillas get restless. Considering the terrain, it is not always possible to get this close, so bring a camera with a zoomlens, and remember the use of flash is not allowed. While in the rainforest, you are also asked to keep your voices down.
Should you be ill or have a cold, do remember that you may be refused participation. Since gorillas are genetically so close to humans, they are susceptible to many of the human diseases.
The gorilla permit scarcity increases as demand for them exceeds supply for most of the year in Bwindi. During the ‘low seasons’ of April to May and October to November (the rainiest months not advised to visit Bwindi), you may be able to confirm a space a week or two in advance of your trip. During the rest of the year it’s not unheard of for permits to be booked up months in advance. If nothing is available that fits your schedule, check with your safari company to hook you up with one. It’s no problem to buy already booked one, even when someone else’s name is on them. Cancellations and no-shows are rare, but you can get on the list at the park office: it’s first-come, first-served. If you haven’t prearranged a gorilla permit, this should be your number-one priority upon arrival in Kampala.
Where To Go in Bwindi
Nestled in the northwest corner of the park, Buhoma has three groups of gorillas: Rushegura (13 members), Mubare (11) and Habinyanza (17). As the first section of the park to open for gorilla tracking, Buhoma is by far the most developed in terms of tourist infrastructure, and with the most permits available it’s also the most popular. Gorillas are probably the most accessible here too, sometimes as little as a 30-minute trek away.
In the northeast of the park, Ruhija has three groups: Bitukura (14 members), Oruzogo (17) and Kyaguriri (19). There’s a good range of accommodation sprouting up here, but otherwise it’s also accessible from Kabale or Buhoma, a two-hour drive either direction.
While there’s only one group in Nkuringo, a family of 11 that includes two silverbacks, it’s regarded as one of the most entertaining and relaxed of the gorilla groups. Nkuringo is spectacularly set in the southwest of the park on a ridge opposite the wall of green that is Bwindi. From various spots you can spy Lake Edward, the Rwenzoris, all of the Virungas and even Nyiragongo Volcano by Goma in the DRC.
Located in the southeast of the park, Rushaga has 40 permits available for its five groups including Nshongi (family of eight gorillas, the most popular), Mishaya (eight), Kahungye (Bwindi’s largest habituated group with 26 members), Busingye (nine) and Bweza (seven). This lovely thick tract of forest is also home to elephants. Another possibility in this sector is the gorilla habituation experience (per person US$1500). The permit process is the same and the difference is that visitors stay four hours with one group that is in the process of habituation.
Hiking in Bwindi
Even if you can’t afford gorilla tracking, Bwindi is a rewarding park to visit just for a chance to explore the lush virgin rainforest. Several 3 to 4 hour hikes run by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) penetrate the Impenetrable Forest around Buhoma. The walks begin at 9am and 2.15pm and cost US$30 per person (not including your park entry fee).
The Waterfall Trail leads to a magnificent 33m waterfall on the Munyaga River, but just as impressive is the rich forest ecosystems it passes through. This is the best trail for spotting both orchids and primates. Weather permitting, the Muzabijiro Loop Trail and Rushura Hill Trail offer excellent views south to the Virunga volcanoes and the Western Rift Valley in the DRC. The latter, which is a more difficult climb, also serves up views of Lake Edward and, on an exceptionally clear day, the Rwenzoris.
A longer but much easier trek is along the River Ivi Trail, which follows the path of a planned-but-never-built road between Buhoma and Nkuringo. It’s 14km through the forest and then another 6km uphill along a road to Nkuringo village; you might be able to hitch this last part.