Gorilla Safaris in Uganda: Permits, Parks, and Packing

Our visit to Uganda was during Covid, which made everything just a little more problematic, but it was still a very enjoyable wildlife adventure trekking into the impenetrable forest of Bwindi to view the mountain gorillas. This trip in particular needs advance planning, which we detail below.

Steep slopes and covid masks are expected when gorilla trekking in Bwindi Park, Uganda

Picking a Park for a Gorilla Trek

There are about 100,000 lowland gorillas in the wild, but there are only about a thousand mountain gorillas, about half of which live in Uganda. Only 2 parks in Uganda have mountain gorilla trekking: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga National Park.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

This park is located in the south west of Uganda, and is the best choice because there are (many) more gorillas here. This rainforest has been around since the Ice Age, and is home to about 18 gorilla habituated families (the number of families can vary as members split off and form a new troop). Hiking can be difficult along the mist covered steep ridges of the Albertine Rift Valley.

The Bwindi park has 4 gates, and trekking starts from one of these (we trekked at Buhoma both days) :

  • Buhoma region in the north, which has the best quality lodging and the shortest treks!
  • Nkuringo sector is also in the south, but at higher altitude and difficult hikes;
  • Ruhija sector in the east and also at altitude, and cooler temperatures;
  • Rushaga sector is in the south, and has excellent trekking along with views of distant volcanoes.

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is south of Bwindi, right on the border of Rwanda and the D.R.C. It is located on the slopes Mt. Gahinga volcano. According to our research, there is only one habituated gorilla family here, so we opted for Bwindi.

Trekking Seasons

Trekking is possible year round in Uganda, but there is a dry season and a wet season. Dry: June, July, August, September, December, January, February. This is the better choice for trekking up steep hills and through dense vegetation. Wet: March, April, May and October, November, rains during these months make the ground muddy and slippery. We went during wet season because with the rains comes an abundance of green leaves, and therefore treks are shorter because the gorillas aren’t able to move greater distances to forage.

Uganda, Bwindi, Silverback
Silverback keeping a watchful eye as baby gorilla explores in Bwindi park, Uganda

Gorilla permits

This is the most important planning activity: you must secure your gorilla trekking permit before you book your flight and accommodation, especially during the peak dry season (June – September). Permits cost $700 per person for a one hour encounter with the gorilla troop. Of all the times to use a reliable tour operator, this is it, because they can coordinate all the elements required after you land in Entebbe: lodging, flight (or road transport) to Bwindi, ground transportation from Bwindi airstrip to lodge, and park permit. You can also book a 4 hour “habituation” encounter for about double the price, but we didn’t do that.

Only 8 persons can trek to one family. There are (or were when we were there) 5 families accessible from Buhoma gate, so only 40 permits are allotted daily. If you book you lodge at Buhoma gate without securing your permit, you might have to drive a few hours to another gate (before 8:00 am) to get a permit. Ouch.

Trekking Tips

While these treks are not a walk in the park, someone with a moderate level of fitness will have no problem unless they have knee problems, because the terrain can be very steep. I brought a knee brace just in case, and it was put to good use. We bought permits for 2 days trekking to ensure good sightings, and both treks were about 1.5 hours each way. The first day we hiked on very steep slopes the whole 3 hours, often through wet dense vegetation, while the second day there was an initial steep slope and then flat open terrain until we got close to the gorillas when we entered the jungle. Walking sticks are available at the lodges and at the departure gate, and are a useful aid.

Speaking of Tips: A special word about the locals who accompany you on the trek: these villagers rely on tips from tourists, and this gesture from you will be very appreciated. Porters are around at the park headquarters and can be hired at about $20. They will carry your backpacks, help steady you on the trail, carry your walking-stick so you don’t have to juggle your backpack and camera while viewing the gorillas, and they will even deftly pick the safari ants from your socks before they make their way to your crotch. On the first day, when the steepness of the trail started to be obvious, the porters even gently pushed us up, which at first was a little awkward, but after a few helpful nudges up, we were all for it. Highly recommended.

The trackers, armed rangers and trekking guides are also local villagers, and tipping them all is the right thing to do.

Uganda, Bwindi, gorilla encounter

Trekking Etiquette

They say treks start at 8:00 am, but that includes about 30 minutes of cultural activities from the villagers, and then on a 30 minute briefing where gorilla behavior is explained along with rules and regulations while trekking, so if you’re a few minutes late don’t sweat it. They will tell you:

  • If sick, stay home;
  • Keep at least 5 meters (15’) from gorillas at all times, since gorillas are susceptible to human infectious diseases.
  • Wear your covid masks while viewing them (unless whispering something to your partner);
  • Avoid direct eye contact with gorillas and don’t try to wrestle one;
  • Carry out of the park what you carried in.
  • No camera flashes;
  • No loud noises or wild gestures, and stay calm and still if one charges you;
  • When the time is up (one hour) cooperate with guide and leave;
  • Hire a porter (helps their economy and they will help you);
  • Tip your porter and guide and the trackers and the armed guards.

Packing

This is a rainforest, and it rained every day we were there in October. The mosquitoes weren’t bad, but bring long sleeve shirts and long pants anyway to protect you from the dense vegetation. There are fascinating safari ants on the trails that you must avoid (your guide will show you what they are). Most people were wearing ankle gators for mud and ants, but we didn’t bother, we just tucked our pants into our socks when we encountered the safari ants. A waterproof day pack will protect your cameras and smartphone, both of which will help with photos. Heavy duty hiking boots aren’t required but shoes should have a good tread and be sturdy enough. Add a rain poncho or jacket, hat, bottled water, and you’re done. Your lodge will provide a box lunch which you’ll eat after viewing the gorillas and before the return trek, and ours had extra umbrellas for the showers.

Like any wildlife activity, avoid Broadway attire and bright colors.