Without doubt, the highlight for many people when visiting Uganda is trekking through the magnificent Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see wild Mountain Gorillas in their natural habitat. Featuring on many visitors’ “bucket lists”, the experience of encountering Mountain Gorillas in the wild is frequently described as both soul-stirring and overwhelming.
Currently one of only two countries in the world where this awe-inspiring experience occurs, Uganda is home to around half of the world’s population of Mountain Gorillas, located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks. The trek to visit Mountain Gorillas is an intimate, authentic and exhilarating encounter that will live long in the memory.
There are four different sectors in which to track gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and one a little further to the south in Mgahinga National Park. Each sector is the home territory to several habituated gorilla families. The term “habituated” simply means that the gorillas are accustomed to brief visits from humans and see us as a neutral presence in their environment.
There are two sectors accessed from the northern side of Bwindi named Buhoma and Ruhija, accessed from the south are Rushaga and Nkuringo. There is also a habituated gorilla family found in Mgahinga National Park. Although one area may be hillier or more densely forested than another, each gorilla trek is unique with the length and difficulty of the walk very dependent on the movements of the gorillas on that day.
At Experience Uganda we can help guide you in choosing the appropriate sector to track the gorillas. This is often planned around the availability of gorilla permits, your preference of lodges in which to stay, and how the logistics of reaching each area works in with the rest of your itinerary. A maximum of 8 people are permitted once a day to visit any one of the gorilla families. Due to this relative scarcity, it is not uncommon to sometimes find trekking permits during popular seasons, to be sold out up to one year in advance.
Trekking permits can only be purchased by a licensed tour operator such as Experience Uganda, from the Uganda Wildlife Authority HQ in Kampala, Uganda.
There is a minimum trekking age for Mountain Gorillas in Uganda of 15 years which is non-negotiable. It is however still possible to travel with children to Bwindi as there are a range of other rewarding, child-friendly activities that we can organise whilst you are trekking.
Although the habituated gorilla families are used to the presence of humans, they are entirely wild animals and thus group dynamics and territories can be fluid at times. This indeed is what makes gorilla trekking so spectacular; hiking through the forest not knowing exactly what you may encounter or what behaviors you may see. All treks start after safety briefing at 8am, after which you will either be driven a short distance to the forest or start your walk directly from the briefing station. With only a maximum of 8 people in your group, plus Uganda Wildlife Authority Rangers, the trek offers an intimate experience and provides ample personal reflection time.
The park rangers and guides whom accompany you on the trek understand that this is usually a once-in-a-lifetime encounter for most visitors and will do their utmost to ensure you are well looked after and that gorilla sightings are successful. Although not guaranteed, daily success rates of sighting gorillas are extremely high, even if it requires extra time trekking through the forest. Visitors are offered a “porter’ to help carry their bags which will contain, amongst other items, water bottles and a packed lunch. Although you are not obliged to take up the services of a porter (currently a set fee of US$20), we encourage this as the terrain can be difficult in parts and this is one of the key ways in which gorilla trekking directly supports the local community.
The whole trek itself can last for anything between two and eight hours depending on the movements of the gorillas. Once locating your gorilla family, you will spend an hour observing them in their natural habitat. The informed guides will describe the family dynamics to you and help identify each individual in the family as well as the history of that group, providing a detailed back-story to your gorilla encounter.
The safety distance from the gorillas is set at 8 metres for your safety as well as the gorillas, as they are susceptible to human diseases such as the flu. Gorillas are however inquisitive and may approach closer on rare occasions, at which point the park rangers will then gently guide you a few paces back to ensure everyone’s safety. During the safety briefing you will be instructed never to approach the gorillas yourself for these reasons, gorillas are also far more likely to exhibit typical behaviors when quietly observed from a safe distance.
Attire when gorilla trekking is key to a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Sturdy, yet lightweight boots or shoes and long socks and long trousers are essential, a long-sleeved top is recommended. Choosing clothing with muted, neutral colours is a good idea. A light rain jacket is also a must have as well as a small rucksack to carry your lunch, water, camera and any other personal items. Two non-essential, but handy items to bring are gaiters to keep your trousers tucked tightly into your boots and a cheap pair of gardening gloves or similar to avoid the occasional stinging nettle.
As well as trekking wild Mountain Gorillas in Uganda, Chimpanzee trekking is another unmissable and indelible experience that should definitely feature in your trip plans if you can. Providing invaluable insights into the often chaotic lives of these intelligent, remarkable creatures, tracking chimpanzees is a gateway to viewing and unveiling the secrets of our closest relatives.
Although less arduous than most gorilla treks, chimpanzee trekking puts you in the heart of the dense forest, surrounded only by stunning foliage, delightful bird song and the enthralling chattering and hooting of chimpanzees up in the tree canopy or down on the ground.
There are 4 areas in Uganda where you can visit wild chimpanzees in Uganda; the famous Kibale Forest, Kyambura Gorge and Kalinzu Forest (both near Queen Elizabeth National Park), and Budongo Forest (in Murchison Falls National Park). The chimpanzees in Kibale (located in Western Uganda) have arguably formed the basis for most of mankind’s understanding of chimpanzee behaviour through scientific study and the filming of a plethora of nature documentaries on the chimpanzee families in this forest. Therefore chimpanzee trekking in Kibale has both a very high sighting success rate and is the most popular destination for this activity.
Further South, bordering Queen Elizabeth National Park, is the remarkable Kyambura Gorge. This natural, deep valley is characterized by its lush vegetation, dramatic landscapes and a river winding its way through the terrain. Within this breathtaking, natural wonder, you can follow the habituated chimpanzee group as they search the trees for fruits and leaves or stroll casually through the verdant undergrowth. Although sightings are somewhat less successful than in Kibale, around 70% at the time of writing, the walk through the gorge itself is highly recommended for birdwatchers and anyone seeking to explore the beauty of Uganda’s wilderness.
In the glorious Murchison Falls National Park, you will find a hidden gem in Budongo Forest. Bordering open grassland and tributaries of the Nile River, lies a pristine, tropical forest inhabited by around 700 chimpanzees. Rich in endemic plant and bird species and with many meadow-like areas found in the midst of the trees, Budongo is a marvel to trek through. Sightings are common in Budongo and chimpanzee treks can be carried out during your stay in Murchison Falls.
As with Gorilla permits, Chimpanzee trekking permits can only be purchased by a licensed tour operator such as Experience Uganda, from the Uganda Wildlife Authority HQ in Kampala, Uganda.
There is a minimum trekking age for Chimpanzees in Uganda of 12 years
Like the gorillas, you will need similar, sensible attire to trek the chimpanzees. Terrain is generally flat with some undulations, but can be muddy and the forest can be particularly dense in some patches. There remains a 8 metres safety distance when encountering chimpanzees as they are extremely susceptible to human diseases.
Unlike gorillas, chimpanzees live in large communities that fragment into smaller factions during the day and you may be lucky enough to see multiple groups on your trek. Chimpanzee treks occur both in the morning and in the afternoon and depending on their mood on the day, you may witness chimpanzees mating, feeding, grooming, drumming on tree buttresses or even hunting monkeys.
It is highly likely that you will hear the chimpanzees before you see them as they are particularly vocal animals and once you locate them, you will spend an hour with these marvelous primates.
For true primate enthusiasts and those wanting further insight into the lives of the two great apes, the habituation experience is not to be missed. The gorillas and chimpanzees you will encounter on your trek have already gone through the long and delicate process of being habituated to the presence of mankind, however Uganda also offers the opportunity to be part of this incredibly important process, which is intrinsically linked to the success of gorilla and chimpanzee conservation efforts.
A relatively recent and truly special experience, Gorilla Habituation offers the chance to spend a few hours with gorillas who are being habituated to the presence of humans. As gorillas are naturally very shy and elusive apes, this experience allows you to observe the wildest gorillas you are ever likely to see within their natural habitat. This process is crucial to the survival of these endangered primates and you would have played an essential role in preparing them for viewing by tourists, which facilitates their protection with greater ease.
Conducted over and extended period in the forest, this excursion offers you the chance to partake in the habituation process of chimpanzees alongside rangers and occasionally, primatologists. This process can take several years and this fantastic excursion put you right in the midst of intricacies of readying chimpanzees for safe and successful viewing by tourists. As well as increasing the chances of spotting other forest wildlife, the day in the forest will also be enriched with stories from rangers and researchers of life in the forest specific details of the social dynamics at play within the chimpanzee group you encounter.
In Entebbe Uganda Wildlife Education Centre offer programs for you to spend time and interact with rescued and rehabilitated chimpanzees. This is a very rare and special experience, as a young chimpanzee takes your hand in the same way a small child would. If you are interested in this, please do ask us about it well in advance as there are strict health and vaccination requirements that take up to six months to certify and complete.
Also from Entebbe you can visit by boat The Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary on Lake Victoria. Whilst you cannot physically interact with the chimpanzees here, you can see them up-close through the enclosure and learn more about this vital project that provides a life for chimpanzees whom have been rescued either from injuries in the wild, or the illegal pet trade.
As intelligent and social creatures, it is extremely difficult to re-introduce chimpanzees back into the wild, where they are often not accepted by chimpanzee communities and die. The sanctuary provides a life-line for these creatures and your visit plays a vital part in keeping it running.
Endemic to the Albertine Rift, Golden monkeys can be trekked in the wild in Mgahinga National Park, one of only a few places in the world where you can see these playful and inquisitive primates. Much like the gorilla and chimpanzee treks, after an early morning briefing you will set off on foot up the volcanic slopes in search of the Golden monkey. You will travel to higher altitudes than on a gorilla trek in order to reach the stunning alpine bamboo forest; a favourite haunt of the Golden monkey.
Your guides will expertly track these endangered monkeys and sight success rates are very high on these treks. Being well habituated and highly inquisitive, Golden monkeys comfortably exhibit entirely natural behaviors when observed and more often than not they will captivate their audience with their daring acrobatic antics. Their unique colouring with their golden-orange fur differs to all other species of monkey in the region and they also live in raucous groups of up to 70 individuals, providing an abundance of great photo opportunities. This is one of the most engaging and underrated primate experience in Uganda and definitely worth undertaking to make the most of your trip.