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Gorilla tracking_ Uganda vs rwanda

One of the most amazing wild creatures in Africa is the mountain gorilla, found in the high altitude forests of Uganda, Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo. Further to a gorilla census in 2011, there are believed to be around 880 mountain gorillas in existence, primarily located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and throughout the Virunga Volcanoes which form the border between Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. To meet these majestic creatures in their natural habitat is a true privilege, an experience that creates magical memories that last a lifetime.

UGANDA vs RWANDA

A common consideration when planning a trip to see the gorillas is which country/region to prioritise.

Historically, Uganda has always been well known for seeing gorillas and offered the chance to see gorillas in two destinations – the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the Mgahinga National Park. Both regions are in the south-west of the country, at least two days drive from Uganda’s capital city Kampala, although there is now a scheduled air service to the Bwindi region.  Bwindi is still very much a key region to consider, but, in recent years Mgahinga has been troubled by inconsistent sightings as the family groups cross the border into Rwanda.

In Rwanda, the gorilla tracking industry has developed hugely over the last few years. The range of Virunga volcanoes form the Volcanoes National Park, the area made famous by researcher Dian Fossey and this area is generally regarded as the easiest option if your priority is purely seeing the gorillas rather than enjoying an extended tour of the region. Kigali, the capital, is just two hours drive south of the Virunga and with regular international flight connections, access is made very easy. In addition there are convenient flight links to key wildlife areas in neighbouring countries, in particular the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

In the Virunga (Volcanoes National Park), the tracking itself is also generally considered a little easier than it is in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, again suiting the slightly less adventurous traveller.

One would think from the above that Rwanda is therefore the logical choice but Uganda has several other factors going for it.  Firstly, the cost of gorilla permits significantly cheaper (US$600 per day as opposed to US$1500 per day in Rwanda). Secondly, Bwindi is stunningly beautiful and as a ‘forest’ is worth visiting alone even if you do not track for gorillas. Lastly, as a country, Uganda offers more ‘safari’ variety including big game and scenic highlights such as Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Park.

In summary, Rwanda is well suited to a relatively ‘quick’ visit to see the gorillas, and better suited to travellers who are apprehensive about the physical requirements of gorilla tracking. Uganda tends to attract people who are slightly more adventurous and interested in a more in-depth look at the region, combining the gorilla tracking with other primate viewing (chimps etc), birding, walking, culture, game-viewing and general sight-seeing.

A DAY GORILLA TRACKING

Assuming you are being hosted by a local company, you will be transferred from your overnight accommodation to the park headquarters for the 07h00 registration (your safari guide can have a hand in this if you want to track to a particular group. Here you will be assigned your gorilla group (the largest family group in the Virungas is the well-known SUSA group but it can be the hardest to find in terms of the length/difficulty of the walk. So in short, if you are worried at all about fitness etc., avoid the Susa Group!) and will be given a briefing by the Park Ranger who will lead your group (usually no more than eight people will be assigned to any individual gorilla family).

You will then drive (or in some cases walk) to the locality where your assigned gorilla family has its territory, and begin tracking. Porters can be hired to carry your day pack and they will usually be able to supply roughly-hewn walking sticks (if required).

Walking to locate the gorillas can take between 30 minutes and 7 hours – nothing is guaranteed! Scouts will have gone ahead to find the previous night’s nesting site, and will start tracking the group from there, communicating with your park ranger by radio. Once you catch up with the gorillas (not guaranteed) you are allowed one hour with them.

There are strict rules of behaviour, such as not using flash photography or approaching too close, which will be covered in your briefing. However, the gorillas themselves do not understand the rules and sometimes wander very close – seeing a powerful silverback close up is an exhilarating experience! When your hour is up you retreat out of the forest and return to your hotel, usually arriving back in time for a late lunch. The average amount of time tracking is about 4-5 hours, but it can be much longer.

TOP TIPS

Consider buying at least two permits allowing you to track on at least two separate days (there is only 1 track to each group per day). You only get one hour with the gorillas (which equates to one permit) so giving yourself two opportunities will not only double your chances of having an incredible encounter, but will also give you the chance to view more individuals and a broader range of behaviour. The weather is unpredictable so you could track one day in pouring rain, whilst the next morning has brilliant sunshine. Similarly, if the gorillas are moving, your sighting will not be as rewarding as if they are resting up.

It is entirely possible to combine Rwanda’s Virunga Volcanoes and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on the same holiday – the areas are less than a day’s drive apart and the ultimate gorilla safari would include both!

Take a pair of leather gardening gloves to wear when tracking through thick vegetation – it enables you to grab hold of vegetation as required without worry of insects or nettles.

KEY FACTS TO REMEMBER

  • You are not allowed to track gorillas if you have an ailment such as a cold, cough, fever, flu etc.
  • Flash photography is forbidden
  • A limited number of gorilla permits are available each day, for high season it is necessary to book well in advance

WHEN TO SEE THE GORILLAS

Gorilla tracking is available all year round, though conditions are arguably a little more pleasant from January to March and then from late May to September. Uganda and Rwanda both experience two main rainy seasons each year, usually April/ May and mid-October to mid-December. However it can rain at any time in the gorilla regions – this is after all an area of equatorial rainforest. In terms of finding the gorillas, in Rwanda the gorilla families are usually located lower down the Virunga slopes during or shortly after the wet season, where they feed on the fresh bamboo shoots.