An opportunity to come face-to-face with the largest ape on the planet is an incredible experience worthy of any bucket list. Mountain gorillas share 97% of their biological make-up with humans, which makes them absolutely fascinating to observe in their natural habitat.
Today, their wild population of 880 mountain gorillas is divided across various forests, including Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite the ongoing poaching threats and instability in the region, tremendous conservation efforts have resulted in the rise of the numbers of mountain gorillas over the last decade.
There is no better time to go gorilla trekking in Congo than now!
Where to See Mountain Gorillas in Congo
During our visit to East Africa in 2017, we got a chance to go gorilla trekking in Congo, which offers the cheapest gorilla trekking experience. The instability in the region makes the DRC less attractive to visitors than Rwanda or Uganda, but for that exact reason, it’s a region that needs our tourism dollars the most.
Gorilla Trekking in Virunga National Park
There are 8 habituated gorilla groups in the Virunga National Park in the DRC, ranging from 9 to 26 in size. During our visit in November 2017, almost all the groups had babies which made our visit that much more special.
Gorilla trekking permits in DRC cost only $400/person during the high season and just $200/person during the low season. It’s a bargain of a price that can’t be beaten!
Permits can be purchased online through Virunga National Paris’s fantastic online booking system, and it is not necessary to make a booking many months in advance. The system actually allows you to see the number of permits left for each day, which makes it really easy to stay flexible without having to book far in advance.
How Difficult Is It to Track Gorillas in the DRC?
Everyone, we speak to about our experience trekking gorillas has one question: how challenging was it?
When we were first researching tracking gorillas, all information made it seem like tracking gorillas was a difficult undertaking. But the truth is, that the distance and difficulty of the hike to reach the gorillas can vary dramatically.
It depends on which gorilla family you visit and their whereabouts in the parks. Every gorilla trekking experience is different and that’s a part of the excitement of this amazing activity!
Gorilla groups that are located close to the start of the trail can be found in less than 30 minutes and require a light stroll through the forest. Those located deeper in the forest may be harder to get to and may require an hour or two of hiking through thick vegetation.
While gorilla trekking in Congo, the trail runs through a cattle field and the closest group is located on the very edge of the park, making it the easiest group to track. On average, you can expect to find your gorilla group within 1 hour, although we have heard of groups that take upwards of 2 hours to reach the gorillas as well.
The bottom line is, you need to be somewhat fit to track gorillas, but extreme fitness level is definitely not required to enjoy these beautiful animals.
What to Expect on the Day of Gorilla Trekking in Congo
Your gorilla tracking experience will begin early in the morning (anywhere between 7-8 a.m). You’ll join other trackers at a designated entrance in the park where you’ll get a briefing on the day and the gorilla groups that reside in the park/sector.
You’ll then be split up into groups of 8-10 people and be assigned a gorilla group, a guide, and one or two armed rangers, who will guide you through the park for your gorilla tracking experience. Once your group is set, you’ll be on your way to meet the gorillas.
In an attempt to respect the animals and in the spirit of conservation, the following guidelines need to be adhered to:
- Your time with the gorillas will be limited to 1 hour and you will be asked to maintain a 7m distance between you and the gorillas. This can sometimes be tough, as gorillas are curious creatures, especially the babies, and may sometimes try to approach you. A good guide will likely tell you to step back and respect the distance.
- Eating, drinking, and smoking is not allowed near the gorillas. Neither is spitting, coughing, or sneezing. In DRC, we actually had to wear face masks to protect the gorillas from any diseases that we might have been carrying.
- You are free to take photos and videos of your visit (keep in mind that flash is not allowed, so make sure you disable it) but we recommend also stepping out from behind the camera and taking some time to be present in the moment. If you are lucky enough to have a quiet (aka lazy) group as we did, you’ll be able to sit down on the ground and just quietly observe the gorillas. They truly are incredible creatures.
If you have an option to choose a group (we were allowed to do this in the DRC), choose one with a baby. They are the cutest and the most curious of the whole group. They will provide you with precious entertainment throughout the visit.
The total visit will take anywhere between 2-5 hours, depending on how long it will take you to hike to the gorillas. Our visit took only 2 hours (30 mins to get to the gorillas and an hour of their company) and we were back at our lodge by noon. Most other trackers returned by 1-2 p.m.
How To Prepare For Gorilla Trekking in Congo
If mountain gorilla tracking is on your travel wish list, we recommend planning this trip no less than 6 months out. This will give you ample time to plan your visit and secure your permits to see the gorillas.
Where to Stay
If you prefer to organize your gorilla tracking independently rather than relying on a pre-arranged itinerary, then your planning must begin with the lodges. There are a few lodges conveniently located inside the Virunga National Park in the DRC, but this is the one we stayed at:
Kibumba Lodge, Virunga National Park, DRC
Kibumba is the newest lodge inside the Virunga National Park, offering full board accommodation starting at $200/night. The lodge offers a luxury eco-friendly tented camp experience.
It has comfortable beds, 24/7 hot showers, and great food. The road to Kibumba is very bumpy and runs through the villages that surround the park.
What to Bring on Your Congo Gorilla Trekking Experience
Dress as if you are going hiking; we recommend long hiking pants and a long sleeve shirt to protect yourself from scrapes and cuts that are inevitable when trekking through thick vegetation.
Prepare for muddy trails and ever-changing weather. Good hiking boots are a must and gators will also be helpful, even if it’s not raining. Speaking of rain, carrying rain gear (rain jackets and rain pants) is essential, even if the sky looks really blue.
The weather in these regions can change on a dime. Hiking sticks can also come in handy, but if you don’t want to carry them from home just for this one occasion, you can rent a walking stick from the ranger for just $5.
Carry only the essentials: eco-friendly insect protection, sunblock, hat, sunglasses, water, and some snacks. You can’t eat or drink during your one hour with the gorillas. However, you’ll definitely want to have a snack and something to drink along the trail. Pack at least 1-2 L of water.
Don’t forget a camera or at least a cell phone to snap amazing photos of the gorillas during your visit. A long zoom lens won’t be necessary, as you are almost guaranteed to get within 5-10 metres of the gorillas. If you are looking for the best travel camera to bring on your trip to see mountain gorillas, we recommend these options.
No matter how much you prep for your mountain gorilla trekking experience, no matter how many articles you read about what to bring and how to prepare, the truth is, nothing can prepare you for the moment when you come face to face with these incredible creatures.
It truly is an experience like no other!