In central Africa, on the edge of the country called the land of a thousands hills, are a string of volcanoes. And on the slopes of those volcanoes is one of the planet’s ultimate wildlife experiences – tracking gorillas in Rwanda!
The Volcanoes National Park on the edge of Rwanda is one of three places in the world where the critically endangered mountain gorillas can be found. Thanks to the renowned effort of Dian Fossey and other conservationists mountain gorilla numbers are now slowly increasing. But they are sadly still considered critically engaged with their numbers in the wild being around 880. I felt extremely fortunate to be lucky enough to recently go tracking gorillas in Rwanda. It was simply magical and easily one of the all-time highlights of all my travels.
This is my experience tracking gorillas in Rwanda.
Tracking Gorillas in Rwanda
The day I was going gorilla tracking I woke up before my crazy, early alarm because I was so insanely excited. I could barely eat breakfast because I was so excited. It was like I was a kid at Christmas time.
A little before 6am my pre-arranged 4WD driver met me at my guesthouse and we made our way out to the Volcanoes National Park. As we drove a stunning sunrise swept across the volcanoes. What a beautiful morning to go tracking gorillas!
Volcano National Park sunrise
A beautiful morning to go tracking gorillas in Rwanda!
When we reached the park headquarters my driver arranged my registration and to find out which gorilla group I had been allocated. I was excited to learn I was allocated to the Isabukuru group of gorillas. A mid-sized group with some babies (yay!!) and it wasn’t too far a hike to see them.
As I waited there were tea and coffee, and a vibrant traditional Intore dance performance.
Traditional dance performance before gorilla tracking
My group of fellow hikers and I then gathered for a short briefing about our group, Isabukuru, and what to expect from the hike. Then we were off!
From the park headquarters we drove 30-45 minutes through forests of eucalyptus and for a few kilometres up a very, very rocky road (no wonder a 4WD was needed!). Along the way children by the side of the road waved and called out. We arrived at a small parking area and a few tourist shops.
Drive to the start of your trek to find gorillas
It was here porters dress all in blue could be arranged. A porter costs USD15 and is a great way to support locals. We set out across along a path through farms of potatoes and white daisy like flowers.
The trek through local farmlands
The walk was flat to start but then we started to climb before reaching a stone wall marking the edge of the national park and the end of the farms. As we climbed I started to feel the altitude and my breathing felt difficult.
The trek starts to climb through the fields
An armed guard met us here for protection from buffalo and the vibrant green of the forest surrounded our small group. We continued to climb through the forest. It was beautiful and I was starting to feel the effects of the altitude less.
Trekking through the forest – beautiful
After a while we reached a clearing and were told to leave our bags with the porters. The gorillas were close!
We then made our way through dense stinging nettles and I was very, very glad I had bought gardens gloves likes I’d read during my planning (strange I know but believe me they were perfect). I was also very happy to be wearing long pants and a long top to cover my arms and legs.
Stinging nettles on the way to finding gorillas – they really hurt!
And then, amongst the stinging nettles was our first gorilla sighting. Sitting contentedly amongst the nettles all fluffed up black hair, and oh so close. Incredible!
First gorilla sighting!
A few steps further the massive, bulky back of a silverback was right in front of us.
The massive back of a silverback gorilla
As we made our way further through the nettles we came face to face with the silverback, and surprisingly he was asleep! Completely and utterly not fazed by the small group of tourists trying to quietly contain their excitement.
Nearby the silverback’s family members lazed amongst the stinging nettles, totally relaxed too.
Isabukuru group of gorillas
Nearby a baby gorilla rested against another gorilla.
Fluffy Bubba Gorilla
The baby gorilla was the most active of the group and most inquisitive. As our group watched his family members I caught a glimpses of the baby’s eyes through the vegetation. Those eyes were like liquid and utterly captivated me!
I see you! Baby gorilla watching us tourists
Being so close to the gorillas I was really struck by the similarities of the gorillas to us humans. Their feet, fingers, ears were so human-like.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised as humans share 97% of our genetic material with mountain gorillas. One reason there are strict rules for your visit to see the gorillas to ensure we don’t pass on diseases and illness.
Nearby the silverback started to stir. Languidly scratching and yawning to show off some seriously bad teeth!
Sleeping Giant of a Silverback Gorilla
As our small group of eight watched the Isbukuru group of gorillas we realised there was a gorilla behind us and was on the move. We quickly split our line in the middle so the gorilla could pass through to join their family members. But as the gorilla started to pass between us it stopped, and then started to wee! This went on for a rather long time and we were all a little surprised.
This gorilla then came and flopped in front of me. Totally relaxed.
Unfazed by us tourists
Selfie with a gorilla!
A look of pure contentment. Exactly how I felt as we started to hike down after our all too short hour with the gorillas. The huge smile on my face says it all – tracking gorillas in Rwanda was absolutely incredible.
Yes, that’s me with a Silverback in the background – magical!!
Most people visit the gorillas of Rwanda as part of an organised trip/tour which includes transport to and from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and accomodation, etc. However, it is possible to organise the visit and necessary permit independently.
Yes, its very important to know a permit is required to visit and track the gorillas with strict guidelines.
I found it very easy and straightforward to book my permit directly with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) over email. I paid with my credit card via email and picked up the actual permit when I arrived in Kigali. For more details visit here.
Also important to know is the permit is not cheap. I was extremely lucky to have booked my permit in February 2017 when the cost was USD750. In May 2017 the RDB doubled the price to USD1,500! Before I spent time with the gorillas I was pretty sceptical I would be inclined to pay that kind of money but after spending an absolutely incredible one hour with them I think I perhaps would. It really is worth it and it’s clear some of this money does go to the conservation of these incredible animals.
One last very important thing to know is you will need to organise your own 4WD transport to take you to the trailhead where your trek begins. This is not included in the permit price. I organised my 4WD at my guesthouse, Amahoro Guesthouse, in Musanze for USD80. Musanze is one of the best options as a base for for trip to see the gorillas and Amahoro Guesthouse was a simple but clean guesthouse where they went out their way to look after me – very important as a solo female travelling in Rwanda!
So there you have it my experience tracking gorillas in Rwanda – pure magic!!