The park ranger stiffens, looks ahead through the thick green bamboo, and motions for the group to quietly place bags against a nearby tree. ‘They’re just up there – can you hear them?’ he asks, pointing to a leafy patch mere yards away. Rustles and low grunts echo through the still forest. The group follows the rangers slowly through the brush, and comes face to face with the Umubano gorilla family. A baby gorilla just a few months old clings to its mother’s chest, as juvenile males playfully push each other through the undergrowth. Charles, the massive silverback and de facto head of the family, observes stoically nearby.
The group, a selection of tourists from all over the world, is spellbound. The sheer size of these humanlike creatures is astounding, and their misty forest home beyond serene. A gorilla toddler shows off his newfound climbing skills by scaling a nearby eucalyptus, as the group joyfully watches on until the allotted hour is up.
Located in the scenic Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, the Umubano group is one out of ten habituated gorilla families that intrepid travellers are able to visit in the country. The plight of the Rwandan mountain gorilla was initially made famous by celebrated environmentalist Dian Fossey, and since her passing, the Rwandan government has been committed to preserving these beautiful animals. Even as mountain gorillas remain on the World Wildlife Fund’s critically endangered list, Rwanda’s conservation efforts have been globally renowned, with the country managing to increase the population by 25 percent in the last decade. Part of these efforts are funded by gorilla trekking, rendering much tourism in Rwanda often environmentally friendly and economically supportive. Trekking with mountain gorillas, while seemingly difficult, is actually quite easy to arrange.
June through September and December through February are the country’s dry seasons. Avoid the muddy and difficult treks in the off-season, as there are no discounts for rainy days. There aren’t yet any direct flights from the United States to Rwanda, but travellers can transit through Rwandair, Turkish Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Qatar Airways, Kenyan Airways, KLM, and Ethiopian Airlines. As of January 1, 2018, citizens of all nationalities can get thirty day tourism visas on arrival for $30 U.S.D.
Permit prices, unfortunately, are the most prohibitive part of this trip. Permits clock in at $1,500 U.S.D. per person, although a large percentage of the funds from the permits are put directly into Rwanda’s conservation work and local communities. Permits can be reserved directly through the Rwandan Development Board via email, or through accredited tour guide companies. Options for that include Thousand Hills, Volcanoes Safari, and Primate Safari. Book this permit before booking anything else in order to guarantee availability, as there are only one hundred permits available daily.
Gorilla trekking is located in the Musanze district of Rwanda, just a two to three hour drive from the capital city of Kigali. Most trekkers fly into Kigali before driving to Volcanoes National Park, and have a bevy of options when it comes to lodging. Check out the Marriott or Serena Hotel for a high end experience, and the Mijo Hostel for a budget stay.
In Musanze, the new and luxurious Bisate Lodge has made headlines around the world for its innovative design, with the Virunga Lodge also known as one of Rwanda’s finest. For more budget or mid-range travelers, check out La Locanda and Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel.
Anticipate a difficult hike. Treks range from two to seven hours round trip, and regardless of the season, are often over rough and uphill terrain. Anyone in moderate shape can do this, but expect a serious workout with some possible rain showers and mud up to your knees. Although you’ll have to bring some serious rain and hiking gear, get ready for a trip of an experience of a lifetime.
Check in for the hikes takes place at the Volcanoes National Park offices in Kinigi at 8 am. There, trekkers are sorted into groups based on fitness level and greeted by their park rangers for the day. Expect a really special performance from Intore dancers, a gorilla-oriented briefing, and complimentary tea, coffee, and bananas at the offices. At around 9 am, trekkers pile back into their cars and drive an additional forty minutes to the trail head. From there, porters are available for hire to carry backpacks (and sometimes trekkers themselves) up the steep mountain paths. Sturdy walking sticks are also handed out, and save a many a weary hiker.
Throughout the trek, the park rangers will be in constant communication with the rangers assigned to the respective gorilla families. These rangers are always aware of the gorilla’s movements, and exist to deter poachers, monitor the gorilla’s health, and guide tourists. Upon reaching the gorilla families, hikers will be asked to discard their bags and hiking sticks before officially entering the gorilla’s territory. Groups are allowed to spend exactly one hour with the gorillas, and although tourists must keep themselves 10 meters away, these gorillas are laws unto themselves and can get as close as they want. Thankfully, these majestic creatures are usually very friendly and safe. Get ready to see them play, eat, sleep, swing, and just do their general gorilla thing. These encounters feel entirely natural, and will undoubtedly be the capstone to an excellent trip in Rwanda.