Monday, January 5, 2015

Trekking the Mountain Gorillas – Q & A

Q – Where can I see the mountain gorillas?
A - Around 500 mountain gorillas living in the Virunga ranges can be visited by travellers. This volcanic range spreads over three countries; Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. In Uganda this is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in
Rwanda ; Parc National des Volcans and in DRC; Parc National des Virunga. Visits are organised by the respective governments with rangers guiding small groups of travellers to visit designated family groups.

Rwanda – Seven troops of mountain gorillas have been designated as groups that can be viewed by tourists in 2015. This allows for 56 permits per day as travellers trek in groups of 8 maximum. 

Uganda – 72 permits will be available per day in 2015 visiting 9 troops. 

DRC – We do not currently recommend visiting the DRC.

Q - What is the best time of the year to visit?
A - Mountain gorillas can be visited year round. Permits are available 365 days a year.
Uganda – The rainy season is usually from March to May. This can result in making trekking a little slippery but as it does not rain everyday it does not really impede travellers. Uganda drops the price of its permits in April / May. 

Rwanda – The rainy season is usually from late February to mid- May. As in Uganda this just makes things a little slippery at times. However in Rwanda this also appears to entice the mountain gorillas to lower slopes as they seek out lush vegetation so it can be quicker to find them.

Q - Where is it best to visit the mountain gorillas? Uganda vs. Rwanda vs. DRC
 A - The mountain gorilla is one of the two most endangered apes in the world. There are currently approximately 760 mountain gorillas living in the wild.  All of them are found in two small protected forest patches which cover northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There are some troops who travellers cannot visit as these have been delegated as research groups and can only be visited by designated scientists. Around 500 mountain gorillas are available for travellers to visit.  

We currently advise travellers to avoid visiting the mountain gorillas in the DRC. This country has undergone political turmoil for many years. Although we sympathise with the people of the DRC, and hope that one day tourism will play a large part in its stabilisation we do not recommend that foreigners travel there at present. 

Uganda is one of our favourite countries. We encourage travellers to visit the mountain gorillas in Uganda if they wish to combine trekking the mountain gorilla with other activities within Uganda.
The mountain gorillas are located in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in northern Uganda. This region is usually reached by a road transfer from Kampala / Entebbe. Unfortunately Bwindi is around 10 hours’ drive from the capital and main airport. As a result travellers usually need to stay in either Kampala or Entebbe for the night prior to and the final night of their stay in Uganda. This results in a minimum stay in the country of five days if you wish to trek the mountain gorillas. Flights do depart in the late evening from Entebbe but as the road can be slow going we do not recommend that you fly out on the evening that you arrive back from your trek.

Alternatively….. You can fly from Entebbe to Bwindi. This is in the form of small aircraft charter flights. This can add around $600 onto your gorilla package but it does mean that you can fly back in time to fly out of Entebbe on the day after your trek. Some travellers do fly back on the afternoon after trekking but this will depend on the weather and remember you are in the mountains so this can be erratic. 

The mountain gorillas in Rwanda are conveniently located only 2.5 hours’ drive from Kigali. This means that you can fly into Kigali at any time until around 2pm and still transfer up to the national park by dark. As the trek starts early the next morning you usually spend the night in the region and transfer to the starting point the next day (see below). You can also trek the mountain gorillas in the morning and return to Kigali that afternoon. We do not recommend that you fly out that night as you cannot guarantee what time you will return from your mountain gorilla trek. We have booked travellers on late evening flights but will only do so with them being fully aware of the consequences should they not be able to reach their flight in time. The most common length of stay if you are wishing to simply trek the mountain gorillas in Rwanda is three days with one night spent in the mountains and one in Kigali.

Q - Do I need a mountain gorilla trekking permit?
A - see below
  • Every traveller trekking the mountain gorillas must hold a mountain gorilla trekking permit
  • This is only valid for the date on and the location of the permit.
  • It is valid for the person named on the permit only.
  • It cannot be transferred once issued.
  • It is 100% non- refundable once issued.
  •  It is usually issued immediately when paid for which is upon deposit of your trip.
  • The exceptions to this rule are a few overlanding companies who have a specific license to purchase permits enmass. These are then sold to travellers whilst on the tour and are paid for in USD cash.
  • At present mountain gorilla trekking permits are USD600 from 01 Jan 2015 in Uganda and USD750 in Rwanda per person per permit.
  • Uganda does have a low (wet) season discount (approximately USD100 saving) in April / May.
  • You can purchase more than one permit and trek on consecutive days if you wish but you cannot trek the mountain gorillas twice in one day. If trekking on consecutive days you will stay up at the national park in-between trekking.
Q - Why are mountain gorilla trekking permits so expensive?
A - This question isn’t often asked but we know that it is often thought of. It is true that most people living in these countries consider themselves fortunate to earn a few dollars a week so how can their governments charge so much for permits.

The fact is that as foreign guests we bring in much needed tourism dollars to central Africa. Let’s use Rwanda as an example. I recently read a National Geographic article that stated that over 40% of Rwanda’s population are under 16 years of age. This is largely due to the genocide that was undertaken in the country in the 1990s. The country is small with a population of six million people so is quite densely populated.  Nearly all Rwandans literally dig out a living on small plots of family land. Some of this land has been put aside as national parks by the government. Protecting the wildlife in the national parks is still a big challenge and is a delicate situation. Rwandan based naturalists from the Nairobi based International Gorilla Conservation Program, and the parks dedicated teams of rangers, monitor the mountain gorilla population. They have even seen an increase in numbers in recent years due to the tourism in the region.

The Rwandan government has made a real effort to educate the local communities on the importance of the mountain gorillas in their country. Not only have they allocated 100% ( well this is Africa so perhaps a few less %) of the tourism income from the permits to the wellbeing of the rural communities (water wells and health dispensaries) but they have spent a lot of time explaining how tourism is vital for the economic development of Rwanda and the Rwandan people. 

This is obviously an ongoing project in both countries but we do feel that the governments are trying to teach  the local people that the long term effect of tourism in the country out ways the short term gains from destroying forest or killing wildlife for food.  As most travellers visiting these countries are also dedicated to these good intentions we feel that tourism is a positive effect on the region and will be for many years to come.

Q - Which country is better value?
A - The fact is that the in the long run both come in at around the same price but in recent times Rwanda has become more popular with Australians.

Accommodation in Uganda can be better value for money and the permits are cheaper. You will see some travel companies advertising Uganda as a cheaper option but once you add the extra nights’ accommodation to some categories of hotels this saving is diminished. The permit is more expensive in Rwanda but the convenience of the location of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda also adds to its allure with many travellers being time poor for this section of their African journey.If you are still unsure please ask our advice. 

Our top selling mountain gorilla tour is our Gorilla Encounter – Rwanda. This is a convenient three day package and can be combined with safaris in either east or southern Africa quite easily. Our Gorillas and Golden Monkey tour is also popular as many travellers enjoy spending two full days in the jungle rainforests.
We urge you to see more of these fascinating countries. Around 40% of Africa’s primates live in central Africa. Amongst them are proboscis monkeys, golden monkeys and of course our closest cousins, chimpanzees. Each offer one of the most fascinating animal encounters in the world and shouldn’t be missed if you are keen to see a variety of wildlife when in Africa. 

Q – Where should I fly into?
 A  - Uganda – Kampala /Entebbe
Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, does not have a commercial airport within its limits. The airport is located around 45 minutes’ drive away at the town of Entebbe. Entebbe is located on Lake Victoria and has quite a few hotels. Many travellers do seem to prefer staying in Kampala as a capital city does have some appeal however remaining at Entebbe would not diminish your enjoyment of visiting Uganda. Both places are a similar distance to the mountain gorillas. Most commonly travellers fly into Entebbe from Dubai, Johannesburg, Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam or Nairobi.

A - Rwanda – Kigali
Kigali’s airport is located only twenty minutes or so from the CBD and most of it hotels. It is around 2.5 hours’ drive from the park headquarters (see below). This makes Rwanda the most popular place for time poor travellers to visit the mountain gorillas. Travellers tend to fly in from Johannesburg, Nairobi and Kilimanjaro.

Q - What can I expect when I trek to see the mountain Gorillas?
A – See below. 
You are in the mountains! – Mountain Gorillas are called thus as they live in the rainforests on the slopes of volcanoes in central Africa. They live anywhere between 2300 metres and 4500 metres in general. 

It is a rainforest – I often refer to this region as a jungle as that is how is appears when you spend time in it, but the fact is that it is a rainforest. This means that there is a chance that you will experience rain or in fact mist may be a better way to describe it. Take a spray jacket, or if you are staying five star, borrow one from your lodge. Take a waterproof bag to put your camera in and think about which footwear you should use if you are going to walk along a muddy track – just in case. 

Can I go there year round – Yes you can. Permits are available 365 days a year. The wet seasons are listed above. 

Is the walk hard?
This is one of the most common questions we hear. Unfortunately it isn’t always easy to answer. There are actually two answers.

The walk – This is in a jungle and is up hill at times. The average time taken to walk to find the gorilla troop is around 2 hours. You walk fairly consistently and do need to watch where you are walking as tree roots cover the tracks and low limbs can be a problem. But what a walk you will have. How many of us have walked through a real jungle? The trek itself is part of the experience as you suddenly realise you are in central Africa. You are trekking in a jungle. You are going to be one of the very few people that have seen a troop of mountain gorillas in the wild.

The altitude - Unless you are an avid trekker in foreign lands you may not have spent much time at altitude. Mt Kosciusko is only just over 2200 metres high so it is not common for Australians to be in high altitude on a regular basis. Altitude sickness, as it is referred to, comes in different shapes and forms. It can attack the super fit sports fanatic or the super armchair sports viewer and is seemingly random. It comes in the form of headaches, breathlessness and tiredness. 

The good news is that you are only trekking in altitude for a short time. You are not conquering Everest or trekking the Annapurnas for a fortnight. It does help to be fit as that is one thing that you then don’t need to conquer however anyone who is in good health and likes a good walk can trek the mountain gorillas. Your ranger is very well versed in setting an appropriate pace for the group and your reward at the end will certainly out way your effort put in.  

Q - How long do we spend with them?
A - In recent years this has been limited to around 45 minutes. 

Q – How close do we get to them?
 A - The limit set by the governments is seven metres. However it is not uncommon for a member of the troop, especially inquisitive youngsters, to approach you. After all we probably look very unattractive and strange to them as we are ‘nude’. Everything else they have seen has hair all over! 

Q – How many people are in our group?
A - There are usually two rangers. One at the head and one at the rear of the group. You will walk with a maximum of eight fellow travellers so as not to appear threatening to the gorillas. 

Q - How do they react to our visit?
A - Most of the troop couldn’t care less if you were there or not. They go about their daily lives as if you weren’t even there. The main encounter is when you initially meet the troop. The alpha male silverback, who may weigh in at over 200kg, will often challenge the group until he recognises your ranger. This can be in the form of beating his chest, standing up on all fours and showing you his fangs. But don’t be alarmed as your head ranger will walk at the front of the group and reassure the silverback that you come in peace. The younger members of the troop will play in a similar manner to our own children and will often venture over to see just who has come to visit today.

Each family group is named and monitored. The rangers mark where the group was when they last saw them and know how far that troop tends to travel daily. When you book your trip the operator will take into consideration where your lodge/ hotel is when purchasing your permit. This allows you to visit a troop which is located closer to the nearest entry point to your lodge / hotel.

Q - Can I combine visiting the mountain gorilla with a visit to other parts of Africa?
A – Of course. Nearly everyone we assist will add a safari or beach stay to their visit. Both Uganda and Rwanda are fascinating countries to visit. We encourage you to stay longer and experience them.

If you wish to visit Tanzania or Kenya who are close to Rwanda and Uganda you can fly easily between the capital cities. There are also flights from central Africa to Kilimanjaro airport which allow you to travel from visiting the gorillas to the safari gateway of Arusha in a day.

You can also fly from central Africa to Johannesburg in South Africa. This opens up the opportunity to visit Southern Africa and the mountain gorillas. 

Q - Where can I stay?
A – There are limited properties in the national parks and the villages located closest to the rangers headquarters. The budget accommodation is in the form of guesthouses and bandas (basic cabins) which are fairly basic. Standard accommodation is clean and comfortable with more facilities such as a bar and restaurant. Deluxe and luxury accommodation is in the form of game lodge style properties with either villas or rooms. Most of the lodges in this category are managed by well- known safari chains and offers views, friendly service and nightly entertainment from local dance groups.

Meals are usually included in your package and are supplied by the lodge. If you have special food requirements you should advise us prior to your departure.

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