Tailormade African Safaris by the Safari Legends
There are only three options with regards to tracking the rare and endangered mountain gorillas. They exist only in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In a nutshell, Rwanda is for those with little time, Uganda offers cheaper permits, but requires a greater time commitment and the Democratic Republic of Congo has the cheapest permit fees.
On the surface, Rwanda seems the best bet for mountain gorilla trekking. Rwanda was the leader in the movement to protect the gorillas; this is where Dian Fossey, the American zoologist studied and conducted her advocacy work. Rwanda has been the most popular country of the three for tracking the mountain gorillas.
The biggest advantage that Rwanda has over the other two options is the short distance one has to travel from the airport. So, if you are looking to come to one of these countries just for gorilla trekking, then Rwanda is the answer. The travel time from the airport to the park gates is just over two hours and many people come just for the day. There are a number of visitors to Rwanda that have been on safari in Tanzania or Kenya and they want to take advantage of the proximity of the gorillas to these other East African countries. There are direct flights from Nairobi in Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro daily to Kigali; this enables some to arrive early in the morning in Kigali, travel to Volcanoes National Park for a gorilla trek and return to Kigali airport the same day.
The permit fees are the highest in Rwanda at US$750, but if time is an issue, then this is definitely the best option.
Uganda’s permit fees to track the mountain gorillas are US$600 and in the off-season, the fees can be as low as US$450; although with the reduced fees comes the rains and muddy conditions. Uganda also has the greatest number of gorillas by far. The biggest disadvantage that travellers face when going to Uganda is the distance they have to travel from the airport to see the gorillas. It takes a full day of driving or a couple of hours in a small plane to a local airport. If time is not an issue, then Uganda is by far the best option, as there are so many other attractions in Uganda, which makes it the most interesting of all the East African countries to visit.
Uganda has 10 national parks, the most popular being Queen Elizabeth National Park. Here, there are dozens of large mammals to see including the famous tree hugging lions, hippos galore, as well as elephants, gazelle and hundreds of bird species.
In addition, there is the famous Murchison Falls with the largest colony of hippos in Africa. There is Kadepo National Park, a wilderness park offering unrivalled natural beauty and cultural opportunities with the Karamajong, who live traditionally. Uganda has boat cruises, mountain climbing and hiking, bungee jumping, white-water rafting, a rhino sanctuary, and chimpanzee encounters, to list just a few activities.
The greatest of its assets is the Ugandan people, who are considered the most welcoming and friendly on the African continent. So, if you have a week or two, there is no contest; Uganda is the best choice.
The Democratic Republic of Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo offers the cheapest permit fees to see the Gorillas, at US$450. The DRC is the most adventurous of the three as the physical challenges in reaching the gorilla families are the greatest. The Virunga National Park, where the gorillas live is reached by most travellers from Kigali International Airport, which involves crossing Rwanda followed by the Rwanda/DRC border. The trip is a full day. There are private planes to hire should a chartered flight be an option, but it is expensive.
Another challenge to be considered is the lack of security in the Eastern portion of the DRC, which affects the safety of the travellers both en route to the park and within the park itself. Many Western governments do not recommend travelling to the DRC unless it is essential; for most, this is a big deterrent to seeing the mountain gorillas in the DRC, especially as they have the fewest number of mountain gorillas of the three countries.
The cost of gorilla trekking in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo differs, but the three countries are the same in terms of many specifics, most notably the satisfaction of seeing and photographing the gorillas themselves. The park rangers in all three countries require trackers to be briefed on the do’s and don’ts of gorilla tracking and they are all quite insistent on visitors obeying the rules and regulations. These gorillas move about the various forests within the Virunga mountain range and have been known to cross borders from time to time. The gorillas do not require visas, as the human travellers do.
In terms of accommodation, all three countries have a variety of options; luxury lodges, first class hotels and moderate guesthouses are available throughout the region. The weather conditions are the same in the mountainous areas where the gorillas are found. The permit fees to see the gorillas are used in all three countries to help protect the gorillas and their environment. It seems that despite the great expense to see these endangered primates, travellers are not in short numbers; gorilla trekking is very popular and one needs to book permits months in advance in most cases.