Gentle giants, the Eastern gorillas that hide in the rift valley rainforests are a joy to behold, a wondrous reward for the intrepid explorers who trek through the mountains to see them.
Fierce, and proud, the silverback gorilla stands and watches over his domain. At 1.7m tall and upwards of 150kg, he towers over the great apes and monkeys like the Greek gods of old towered over man, and he surveys his females and offspring with the same regal gaze. Gorilla females move between several silverbacks and their groups before choosing the male that they prefer, so a sense of pride is justified. As you approach, he ambles towards you, calm and gentle, but firmly placing himself between you and the group. This is entirely acceptable for you, as you mean them no harm and are simply here to observe their intricate habits.
With strong bonds within a group, and playful young that you'd expect from great apes not that far off from humans, gorilla behaviour is complex and delightful to observe. The gorilla's brain to body mass ratio is slightly lower than that of chimpanzees, so they are regarded as a less intelligent species. However, this does not mean they lack intelligence, and they also exhibit many of the interesting characteristics of great apes, including tool use. Herbivorous diets, as opposed to omnivorous, and significantly bigger physical size, round out the other main differences to the chimps with whom they sometimes share habitat.
Beyond simply meeting our fascinating genetic relatives, a gorilla trekking safari offers plenty of traditional delights, from beautiful locations and friendly, passionate locals to the delight of discovering wild mountainous rainforests and the sheer beauty of the East African Rift Valley. Our preferred combination takes you to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where you can not only go gorilla trekking but can also experience cultural interests such as tea farming or the Batwa pygmies. A day trip to the beautiful Queen Elisabeth Park, for traditional game drives or boat safaris, is also recommended. From there, we take you to the mysteriously named Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, made famous by the life works of Dianne Fossey. Here, there is more lush, fertile rainforest to explore, and more gorillas to encounter. In the off season, chimps are also found in the area.
Our recommended gorilla safari is only 7 days long, because we feel that this trip combines very well with a week in the Serengeti, but we could easily show you more of the mountainous paradise of Uganda instead. Other options include more gorilla trekking, looking for chimpanzees (consider the incredible Mahale National Park) or even a tropical beach break in Zanzibar or the Seychelles. Feel free to discuss the various options with us by clicking 'contact'.
The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, set on the eastern edge of the Albertine Rift Valley in the corner of southwest Uganda, is a World Heritage Site covering an area of dense lowland forest, steep hills and deep valleys. It has become famous for its population of 350 mountain gorillas – the largest number to be found anywhere in the world. Due to the wildness of the terrain, visitors who take on the guided gorilla treks through the forest will sometimes find the going tough. But they will be rewarded with virtually guaranteed sightings of these awe-inspiring primates. The Bwindi Forest is one of the only forests to have survived the Pleistocene ice age, and has also become a renowned biodiversity hotspot, harbouring 11 other primate species (including chimpanzees), elephants, forest antelope, around 350 bird species and over 200 dazzling species of butterflies. The thick vegetation of the park is broken up by sparkling lakes, waterfalls and the dramatic Virunga mountain range, which can be explored along several spectacular hiking trails.
Established in 1925, Volcanoes National Park is one of the oldest parks in Africa, and attracts a constant flow of tourists from around the world. Stretched across the forested Virunga volcanic mountain range on Rwanda’s western border, the park’s main attraction is its population of mountain gorillas. Watching these gentle and peaceful giants at close quarters is without a doubt one of the most thrilling and poignant experiences in the world of wildlife. The 16 000 hectare park encompasses six extinct or dormant volcanic peaks. Bamboo forests cover approximately 30% of this area, and during the bamboo shooting season from September to November, the gorillas spend most of their time here. Eight gorilla groups have been habituated to humans, and are undisturbed by the presence of hikers. The magnificent golden monkey is the park’s other primate, living almost exclusively in the bamboo forests. Forest antelopes, elephant, buffalo, spotted hyena, genets and rodents also live in the dense rainforests, but are generally extremely shy and difficult to spot.
The remote, comfortable Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp is surrounded by the lushness of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, making it the perfect base for once-in-a-liftetime encounters with some of the national park’s 350 mountain gorillas. The camp has eight thatched luxury tents, as well as a spa, open-sided communal area and outdoor campfire. A warmly African feel in the comfy lounge, bar and dining area is complemented by smiling staff members who go out of their way to make guests feel at home. The lawn in front of the main building is often used for al-fresco dining, while a small set of steps leads down to a campfire surrounded by handcrafted wooden armchairs. There is also a mini-spa which offers a soothing range of treatments and massages.
Accommodation comes in the form of eight luxury tents with canvas walls and thatched roofs, each occupying its own secluded location in the forest. The tents each house two Queen-size beds - one for each guest - leading to a bathroom with a huge bathtub featuring forest views. During relaxation time, guests can enjoy a cocktail on their polished wooden viewing deck. To ensure highly personalised service, each tent is allocated a personal attendant.
Whilst the camp is arguably Uganda’s best base for gorilla treks, guests may not even have to depart from its laidback atmosphere, as inquisitive gorilla families frequently wander straight into camp!
Gorilla treks take several hours of walking through the dense forest, often in slippery conditions. The guides are expert trackers who can spot the tell-tale signs of the primates moving through the undergrowth, and will give fascinating insights into the lives and habits of mountain gorillas during the precious one hour period that tourists get to spend with them.
Tourists who want to just hike also need to be accompanied by a guide. The Munyanga River Trail is ideally suited for visitors who are pressed for time, and travels along the edges of the forest, where birds, primates, ferns, orchids and butterflies will be encountered. The trail ends at three wonderfully clear waterfalls. Longer hikes include the Rushurra Trail, which showcases panoramic views over the western rift valley floor, the Virunga and Rwenzori mountains and Lake Edward. The Muzabajirro Trail, Ruizi River Trail and the Bamboo Trail are just as spectacular.
The park has worked hand in hand with the surrounding communities to preserve one of the most ecologically diverse areas in East Africa. Tourists are able to support these communities by taking illuminating walks with the Batwa Pygmies who were the original dwellers and keepers of the forest, or by visiting the villages or community hospital.
The most popular times to visit Bwindi are during the drier seasons from June to September and December to February, as these are when conditions are easiest for gorilla trekking. During the low season, tourists can take advantage of lower rates for permits.
Nestling in the foothills of the dramatic Virunga mountains, conveniently placed close to the gorilla trekking trails of the Volcanoes National Park, Sabinyo Silverback Lodge has gained an international reputation for excellence, offering great accommodation in Rwandan-style suites, cottages and a family cottage. The lodge offers equal doses of style, adventure and natural beauty, whilst treating guests to all-encompassing service and top-class cuisine.
All areas of the lodge are built from stone, with earthy colours and patterned fabrics merging with contemporary influences. The main lodge has large couches in front of a roaring fireplace, and a variety of board games and books will keep guests entertained on rainy days. The eight lodgings all have fireplaces in the large sitting areas, as well as sheltered verandahs, dressing rooms and en-suite bathrooms with sizable bathtubs, showers and twin basins.
Most guests at Sabinyo Silverback Lodge are there to enjoy a luxurious base for treks to see the gorillas. Tours depart daily from the Volcanoes National Park headquarters. Various hikes, forest walks and a trail to see the grave of Dian Fossey also depart from here, a does a trek to look for golden monkeys. You can ask the lodge staff about a variety of other excursions to places of interest, including lakes, colourful towns and hidden sacred forests. If you plan to be out for the most of the day, a delicious picnic lunch can be packed for you.
The lower altitudes of Volcanoes National Park are covered in dense forest broken up by open areas with grass and bush. The Hagenia – Hypericum forests are spectacular, comprising tall, straight-trunked trees and massive hygenias with gnarled trunks and spreading branches. Higher up, the closed forest gives way to the Subalpine Zone, a bush-like habitat dominated by striking Giant Lobelias and Giant Senicios. Above 4 000m, the landscape changes again into a desert-type topography scattered with a few small shrubs.
While watching mountain gorillas is the number one attraction in the park, several hiking trails have been developed that will lead hikers to the summits of most of the volcanoes, where they can enjoy spectacular views over Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, numerous lakes and mountain ranges. The duration of hikes vary from between a few hours to several days, and due to the steepness of the slopes and the muddy nature of most trails, hikers need to be accompanied by a guide at all times.
Volcanoes is situated about 110km from the capital city of Kigali and the nearest town is Musanze. A relatively good tarmac roads link these two towns, while another navigable tar road links Musanze to Kinigi – the place where all activities in the park start. Gorillas are exceptionally sensitive to human diseases, so strict regulations have been put in place to minimise the risk of transmission, something that all visitors need to take note of.
Average temperatures hover between 11 degress and 19 degrees Celcius. The dry seasons (from June until September and January to February) are certainly the best times to visit.