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Tourists can snap photos of mountain gorillas during the Gorilla Habituation Experience in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.Stuart Butler

The cloying, knee-deep mud felt as if it was alive. It sucked welly boots off feet, grabbed at legs and caused its victims to tumble face down into a dense, knotted undergrowth. I was just trying to work out whether that last fall had been the eighth or ninth time I’d tumbled into a patch of nettles when my guide paused, cocked his head and listened, “They’re just up ahead,” he whispered to our small group. We all craned our necks in the general direction in which he pointed. Nothing happened. Then, cautiously at first, the undergrowth moved, leaves parted and the dark shaggy face of a critically endangered mountain gorilla locked his piercing orange-red eyes onto us.

To stand eyeball to eyeball with Africa’s great apes is unquestionably one of the greatest wildlife experiences on Earth, but one that requires careful planning and consideration. Here’s what you need to know before rushing out on your own King Kong adventure.

Where and when

Mountain gorillas live in the cool, upper reaches of a handful of volcanoes and mountains in Uganda, Rwanda and the massive Democratic Republic of the Congo. The parks in which they’re found abut each other, but the viewing experience varies greatly between each country. Although it’s possible to visit any time of year, the best period is roughly between June to January, which corresponds to the dry season.


In Rwanda, gorilla tracking permits currently go for US$1,500 ($1,990) a person. Uganda charges US$600 and in Congo it’s a comparatively reasonable US$400. Bargain hunters take note. Between mid-October and mid-December, Congo offers cheaper permits for US$200. Your time with the animals will be limited to just one hour, which is valid only for the day stated on the permit. (If you’re worried about not finding the gorillas on the day of your visit then fear not. They are tracked by rangers constantly and you will see them). The only exception to this rule is in Uganda, which offers an experience (US$1,500) where just six guests a day get to spend around four hours with a group of gorillas in the final stages of the habituation process (getting them used to the presence of people for tourism and research purposes).


Most travellers to East Africa arrive through Europe or the Middle East. Numerous specialist tour operators offer gorilla safaris, but one of the best regarded is the award winning Natural World Safaris. Many of their many primate-watching tours include multiple countries, but they also offer more focused itineraries. An eight-day Uganda safari starts at £5,035 ($8,837), while the same length for Rwanda begins at £10,890 (both rates per person, based on double occupancy; flights not included). If you’re headed to Congo, Kivu Travel is a market leader (2019 tours relaunching soon).


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Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park is home to 10 families of habituated gorillas.Stuart Butler

The original home of those Gorillas in the Mist of Hollywood fame, Rwanda is the country most closely associated with the big apes. There are 10 families of habituated gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and they are so accustomed to tourists that they almost seem to regard people as an everyday part of the forest. This means that they’ll sit there happily chewing jungle leaves while you click away with a camera from a few metres away. Increasingly aimed at a top-end tourism market, everything about primate viewing in Rwanda is easy and comfortable. For example, if you don’t have the stamina to hack through montane forests for hours on end, you can normally find a group just a short walk from the national park entrances. Other plus points are that the gorillas are only a two-hour drive along good quality highways from the international airport in the capital, Kigali.

What else?
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The gorillas in Volcanoes National Park are so accustomed to tourists that they'll happily sit around while visitors snap photos from mere metres away.Stuart Butler

When you’re done with the gorillas, other activities such as tracking groups of beautiful golden monkeys and cultural village visits can easily fill another couple of days in the park.

Where to stay

In terms of accommodation, no other gorilla country does it quite as well as Rwanda. Its growing array of luxury lodges includes Wilderness Safari’s newest offering, Bisate Lodge (rates from US$1,299 a person, based on double occupancy), which fuses traditional architecture with a modern designer hotel (and they’ve tacked on a wine bar for good measure).


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Uganda's largest gorilla population resides in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.Stuart Butler

Uganda has two distinct gorilla populations. The largest number reside in the steep and steamy hillsides of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. The gorillas here are every bit as non-plussed by humans as those in Rwanda. Do take note though, the “impenetrable” in the name isn’t just there for reasons of poetry. Unlike in any of the other habitats, the forest here is a mess of grappling undergrowth, which, like a pea-soup fog, can reduce visibility to just a few metres. Combine that with slippery and vertically inclined terrain and even experienced hikers will find the trek to most of the groups here exhausting. In return for your efforts though you’ll get an experience that feels somehow less staged than that of Rwanda, with a greater sense of being in the wild.

Uganda’s other prime spot is the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Abutting Rwanda, the landscapes and vegetation here are similar to Volcanoes National Park. However, only one habituated group calls it home, and ever so occasionally they go on a short holiday to Rwanda or Congo; check before booking. On the upside, the low number of gorillas make it less popular with tourists, and it’s not at all uncommon to have the Mgahinga group all to yourself.

What else?
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The Maghinga Gorilla National Park also features a golden monkey habitat.Stuart Butler

Uganda is an unusually diverse country with plenty to keep you busy. Queen Elizabeth National Park, with its corn-coloured grasslands, tree-climbing lions and trumpeting elephants is just up the road and the habituated chimpanzees of the Kibale Forest National Park are a few hours away.

Where to stay

Accommodation around the Ugandan gorilla parks is primarily aimed at mid-range travellers who demand comfort but are happy to forgo the bells and whistles of top-end lodges. Examples are the easy-going Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge (rooms from US$195 a person, based on double occupancy), and Volcanoes Safaris colonial-style Mount Gahinga Lodge (rooms from US$240 a person, based on double occupancy), which has open fire places in the rooms and a garden filled with rainbow painted sunbirds.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

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Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is Africa's oldest national park.Stuart Butler

The mere mention of the Congo brings images of unexplored rainforests and temperamental volcanoes. In the Virunga National Park, the reality doesn’t disappoint. This is Africa’s oldest national park, one of its most bio-diverse and beautiful but also one of its most threatened. The security situation here is fluid: The government of Canada advises against all travel to eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including the province of North Kivu, in which the park can be found. Virunga itself recently reopened in February after being closed for eight months due to violence against rangers and visitors.

For those willing to make the trek, this is probably the most exciting place to see mountain gorillas. The reward is few other tourists and apes that are perfectly at ease with people. Not to mention the knowledge that you’re giving money to a park that so desperately needs all the love it can get.

What else?
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Visitors to Virunga can walk along the rim of the Nyiragongo volcano.Stuart Butler

When your morning meditation with the gorillas is over, you don’t even have to leave Virunga to track chimpanzees, climb mountains and scramble to the summit of a giant volcano to stare in awe into the boiling mass of the world’s largest permanent lava lake.

Where to stay?

Congo offers excellent value accommodation, and the Mikeno Lodge might be one of the best deals in Africa (pricing varies with packages).

The writer’s travels were subsidized by the national parks board of each country and Natural World Safaris. They did not review or approve the article.

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