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An Encounter with the Virunga Gorillas

Mountain gorilla are endangered apes that were on the verge of extinction in the 1990’s because of the civil wars where their natural habitants had been turned into fighting grounds and hiding places for soldiers. After a lot of conservation efforts by the Rwandan government, the mountain gorilla population started increasing steadily and today volcanoes national park is a home to half of the total mountain gorilla population in the Virunga massif that extends from northwestern Rwanda, south western Uganda and southeastern DRC.
Mountain gorillas are some of human’s closest wild animals with over 98% of their DNA similar to humans. They prefer living in the forested mountain and are vegetarians that feed on plant leaves, shoots and wild fruits. They are mobile animals that move from one place to another as they look for fresh food ad for new places where they will spend a night.
Volcanoes national park has a total of 10 habituated mountain gorilla families. Each mountain gorilla family is tracked by a group of strictly 8 tourists every day, which they spend with one hour as they observe, take photographs and learn more about the life of these greatly endangered apes.
Tourists going for gorilla tracking first assemble at the national park headquarters very early in the morning where the local traditional dancers entertain them as they take a cup of hot tea or coffee. They are allocated to the mountain gorilla family they will be tracking then briefed about the safety procedures to follow while in the forest. Some of the safety procedures include

  • Following the guides instructions especially while in the forest
  • Keeping a reasonable distance a way from the mountain gorillas
  • Minimizing noise especially when in the presence of the mountain gorillas
  • Not using flash photography
  • Avoiding imitating the behavior of the mountain gorillas like beating the chest as it may send a wrong impression to the mountain gorillas.

After being briefed, the tourists are led to the forested mountains under the protection of two armed rangers. These carry guns they use to fire bullets to scare away other dangerous wild animals that could be encountered while tracking mountain gorillas. A hike through the forested mountains is very exciting with views of other wildlife species in the national park like birds.  The trek takes about 1 to 8 hours depending on the movement of the mountain gorillas. It’s a little hectic and a physically demanding activity however its always better for those who cannot hike for long distances to inform the guides or their tour operators early enough to ensure that they are allocated mountain gorilla families that can be got to after relatively shorter times of trek.
Alternatively there are porters for hire that can carry luggage and always help tourists to go move through the difficult parts of the forest. These porters can also carry some one on locally made stretchers up hill or down hill and can therefore be of great help in case their services are needed. They can be hired at about $10 to $15.
Mountain gorillas can be encountered at any time of the year however tracking can be more easy during the dry season because its always easy to move through the forests which may not be the case during the wet season. Tourists interested in mountain gorilla tracking should acquire permits that are sold at $750 each and can be obtained from the Rwanda development board or through a trusted tour operator.
Volcanoes national park can be got to by road transport from Kigali a drive that takes about 2 to 3 hours.

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Travel Tips

Planning a Gorilla Safari – 5 Things to Know

In a lifetime everyone has the right to encounter something out of the world, an experience that they will wish to take home with them, and just boastfully narrate to their relatives and friends in form of a deeply captivating story. Deciding to embark on a gorilla safari results in one of the few experiences that many people desire to have. The few who have experienced this still tell the same story but in different versions every day.
Yes for many, the climax of the trip to the gorillas is standing still and looking into the dark pensive eyes of the mountain gorillas is such a magical experience that will never fade off your memory! some travelers try to take a “selfie” with the mountain gorillas in the background, and share it with jealous friends. At that point, all your preparations have held truth; and all the nights of anxiety are no more. But what are those little things that might make the entire safari even more gratifying? Here is my short list;

  1. Make sure you travel at the right time of the year. If you are not so sure about your fitness levels, I advise travelling during the dry season when the soils aren’t boggy. The best months of the year to track the gorillas would be December to late February and from June to September during the dry season.
  2. Remember to book your permit in time, preferably before you set off. Due to the high demand, over 70 people travel to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park daily for the Uganda Gorilla Safari experience, while others are placed on hold. You surely don’t want to be among the miserable lot that has to wait.
  3. All Uganda’s gorilla tracking trailheads are traversed on foot, with some hikes lasting 8 hours. As humans are playful, the gorillas might decide to play hide and seek so hikers should check that they are basically fit to climb through the jungle even for long duration like these.
  4. The rains are rarely predictable, so tourists should pack a pair of solid shoes, preferably jungle boots, a jacket and an umbrella. On a sunny day I would advise you to travel with a fine cap or hat, sun glasses (in case you find that you need them), smear yourself with sunburn lotion, and also come along with a good insect repellant.
  5. The other thing to mind about when planning your safari is choosing the right tour operator. The criterion for choosing the tour operator is somewhat crazy, but basically a company with a good customer reputation would be a good choice. With the right tour operator you won’t have to worry about sleeping uncomfortably, or arriving later than 8am when the gorilla trekking exercise has commenced. These are just a few things that will complement your holiday and make it more enjoyable. A hint to search for the specialty tour operators who may know better about the process of organising a gorilla safari, choices of lodges and campsites where to stay and how to craft tour itineraries.

 

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Gorilla Trekking in Mgahinga National Park

The most thrilling tourist activity in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is that of gorilla tracking, an activity that involve visitors hiking through the forest in search of the endangered mountain gorillas. Surprisingly, Mgahinga can be accesed by travelers taking tours in Rwanda given its location within the Virunga Ranges. This is the reason as to why there are many tour offers that combine gorilla watching in the Volcanoes National Park and Mgahinga National Park offered by several tour operators.
Within this magical park, there is only one habituated gorilla group that can be visited by tourists. Known as the Nyakagezi group, this is one of the oldest habituated gorilla in the history of gorilla tourism in Uganda and it consists of 9 members; 2 silver backs, 3 adult females, 2 juveniles and 2 infants. Though most travel books indicate that gorilla trekking in Mgahinga is unreliable because of the gorilla family escapades to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for more than two years the group has been settled within the park and a good number of tourists have gone gorilla tracking in the park.
Gorilla permits for Mgahinga National Park can be booked at the Uganda Wildlife Authority offices in Kamwokya Kampala or at the park headquarters. You can also book these passes through a recommended tour operator based in Uganda.
Planning a Gorilla Trek in Mgahinga National Park
Gorilla tracking is a vigorous activity that can take a full day. During this tour, you are led by a guide through the gorilla’s empire/tracks as he/she explains all about gorillas such as their ecology, movements and general behavior.
Please note:
Like gorilla tracking in other groups within Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, the success of seeing gorillas is NOT guaranteed despite the high chance of seeing them. Since they are wild animals living in the jangle, they don’t have a fixed routine; therefore finding them requires luck and the experienced of your guides. These guides know gorillas intimately since they habituate them, they will hence take you to the area where they saw them last. They may also be able to suggest how long the hike might take at the journey start.
Please note that you are free to ask guides to slow down if they are going too fast or if you want to have a rest, look at birds /flowers, and your guide shall wait for u.
DOS AND DON`TS

  • -It is advisable that you put on jangle shoes best for steep muddy slopes
  • -The weather is unpredictable and it can change any time. Please carry rain wear, sunscreen, a hut and sun glasses, as.
  • -You are advised to Carry water and food because this activity is lengthy and tiresome especially to first time trackers
  • -Once tracked, ensure that you keep 5m distance from Gorillas. If approached by one, back away slowly.
  • -Avoid pointing or waiving your arms- this can scare away annoy gorillas.
    please Move slowly and Keep your voice low/better if silent for better tracking
  • -When taking photos, ensure that your flash is off for can threaten gorillas.
  • -You may carry binoculars, these help u see far features and creatures in details.