Coming face to face with a mountain gorilla is a humbling experience, something hard to explain to people but once you've done it once you'll be drawn back for more. Rwanda and Uganda offer luxury accommodation, quality guiding and life-changing experiences.
On 1st July 2017, the Rwandan Government announced an increase in the cost of a permit to track mountain gorillas. Annual price rises within the African travel industry is commonplace, but a 100% increase from $750 to $1,500 per person, that was a surprise!
What does a gorilla permit mean? The permit grants permission for the visitor to spend one hour in close company with the great apes. It does not factor in the length of trek, which could range from a gentle 30 minutes to an arduous 6 hours – at altitude, through thick vegetation, high heat and humidity. Once you’ve located the gorilla family and the first camera shutter clicks your 60 minute countdown begins. You may sneak a few extra seconds at the end of the hour, but for all intents and purposes 60 minutes is just that.
Some context. A lot of work goes into enabling tourists to enjoy one of Earth’s great wildlife encounters. Years of habituation: “the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus”, have been diligently performed without break by researchers and tracker teams. Rangers perform intense and often dangerous anti-poaching work. Setting up of extensive community education programmes come hand in hand with creating employment opportunities on a sustainable level through international tourism. Tourism is key to these communities. In most cases local people make a subsistence living. The proximity of mountain gorillas is what appeals to US$ wielding tourists.
On the day of a trek a tracker team sets off at dawn, zeroing in on the last known location of their pre-selected gorilla family. Park rangers and a lead guide brief visitors in groups of eight before setting off on foot or more commonly by vehicle to a start point. From here the trek into the national park begins.
Historically, the two luxury properties on the Rwandan side of Volcanoes National Park have been Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, owned by Governors Safaris and Virunga Lodge, owned by Volcanoes Safaris. 2017 has seen major players enter Rwandan luxury tourism: One & Only have expanded their Nature Resorts brand with Nyungwe House. Set in the southwest of the country, Nyungwe House gives visitors luxury accommodation on the edge of Nyungwe Forest National Park, a birders paradise and haven for primates with 12 species found here in addition to habituated chimpanzee groups. Wilderness Safaris latest offering, Bisate Lodge has just opened it’s doors at $1,500 per person per night and in addition to this 2018 will see Singita, on occasion referred to as Africa’s Aman, opening the eight-suite & one luxury villa Singita Kwitonda.
Virunga Lodge, for a number of year considered the most luxurious option in the area will, by mid 2018, be the least expensive of the four luxury gorilla lodges at $910 per person per night. What does this mean for Rwandan gorilla trekking? Put simply, there are 80 permits per day available for trekking Rwandan gorillas at $1,500 per permit. The four luxury lodges will accommodate nearly enough tourists to take up those 80 permits. In monetary terms: budget for a minimum of $5,000 per couple per night if you’d like to stay in 5* accommodation and trek gorillas in Rwanda in 2018.
So is it good value, define the term! If you can afford it then yes, it is: the habituation is complete, the lodges beautifully designed, the landscapes magnificent and the access couldn’t be easier. But if $1,500 on top of your transport and accommodation, a minimum of $1,000 per person, is out of reach, what options have you got?
We’ve already mentioned Volcanoes National Park on Rwanda, across in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) you’ll find Africa’s oldest national park: Virunga, the subject of a highly acclaimed, Academy Award winning Netflix documentary in 2014 of the same name. Across in Uganda, the little known but very special Mgahinga National Park offers visitors an opportunity to trek with the one habituated gorilla family on the Ugandan side of the volcano chain, a family of four silverbacks no less! For a different environment entirely you have Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Impenetrable it certainly is. Lower altitude than the volcanoes of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, but what it lacks in lung sapping altitude it more than makes up for in density, terrain and humidity.
In monetary terms, gorilla trekking in Uganda is available at $600 per permit in high season and just $450 in low season. Across in the DRC you’re talking $400 year round. While these still are by no means budget destinations and budget prices, the opportunity to tick a line off the bucket list is that much more accessible.
Allied to more reasonable permit prices, accommodation and the cost of logistics reflect a more affordable level. Top level lodges in either DRC or Uganda cost a quarter of what you’d pay in Rwanda. It seems a no brainer when looking at the figures, but nothing is a no brainer when it comes to DRC. Virunga occupies a more stable area of this vast continent-sized country, but don’t expect the Foreign Office or State Department to ‘encourage’ travel here. Special travel insurances and only a tour operator willing to work with one of the more volatile countries on Earth will enable you to travel with support and informed guidance.
If a life-changing experience involving great apes, great lakes, nights spent on the edge of an active volcano and being part of a story of determination, passionate conservation allied with tragedy appeals, then this could be a travel experience you will never want to forget.
Having conservatively talked ‘up’ the DRC experience, finally on to the more established, certainly more stable and incredibly impressive third leg of the mountain gorilla triumvirate: Uganda. Gorilla trekking is possible in two national parks previously mentioned Mgahinga and Bwindi. The former accessed easily by a road transfer from Kigali or a domestic flight from Entebbe, Uganda’s international airport on the shores of Lake Victoria. Gahinga Lodge, another of the Volcanoes Safaris collection and the only option offering visitors the chance to walk from their room to the park office and from there up onto the slopes of Gahinga Volvano itself. There’s just one habituated ‘trans-border’ gorilla family, but my experience with the four silverbacks making up this group will certainly live long in the memory.
If we’re making comparisons, and it feels right in the context of African travel: Rwanda is for great apes what Botswana is for Southern African safari. Low visitor volume but high trip cost. For those who can afford it, a life changing experience in luxury accommodation. Uganda and DRC feel like the Zambia and Zimbabwe to their more glamorous sister. Understand them properly with the right advice and you have an opportunity to experience something truly magical.