Seeing mountain gorillas in the wild is one the top wildlife bucket list experiences for most of us. Mountain gorillas are shy and their entire population live in remote areas in only three countries: Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic republic of Congo (DRC). Other subspecies of gorillas can also be found in other countries in Africa such as the Congo, Central African Republic or Gabon. You can read more about gorillas and the many facts that make them unique and fascinating animals in my article here. If you’d like to find out more about this beautiful country, here is my complete travel guide.
While mountain gorillas only inhabit these three countries they are concentrated in the Virungas Mountain Range which is split among the border they share. In Rwanda the Gorillas are in the Volcanoes National Park, in Uganda they are primarily in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and in the DRC they are in the Virungas National Park. The three parks are connected and gorillas can roam freely between the three parks.
I have seen the mountain gorillas in both Uganda and Rwanda so I can also compare between the two experiences. The DRC is the least stable and most dangerous place to see mountain gorillas and in fact, at the time of writing, the park is closed following the kidnapping and release of two British tourists and their local driver and the killing of a park ranger. It is therefore advisable to organise your gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda instead.
I have written an article comparing gorilla trekking in Rwanda vs. Uganda so you have all the information to make the right choice of country for you. This article is focused on the gorilla tour in Rwanda.
But first, let’s talk about the gorillas in Rwanda and the families they are part of, how to obtain the permits for your gorilla trek in Rwanda and how much you should budget for.
The gorilla families you can see in Rwanda
There are currently 12 habituated gorilla families welcoming daily visitors in Rwanda, not eight as other resources will have you believe. I double confirmed this with the park rangers who visit them every day and with the lodge. Other families are set aside for research and many others are simply wild.
Each of the gorilla families can be visited by eight guests every day that means a total of 96 visitors are taken gorilla trekking in Rwanda every day at the Volcanoes National Park. I will be discussing the guidelines for gorilla trekking, how to obtain the gorilla permits in Rwanda and their cost below but first let’s look at each of the gorilla families.
Agashya mountain gorilla family in Rwanda
My gorilla safari was with the Agashya family. This is one of the largest and it gets its name from the main silverback dominating the pack. Agashya means “the news” and it comes from the fact that the silverback truly made the news when it took off with the entire gorilla family from the previous silverback, Nyakarima who was the original silverback of Group 13 which was how Agashya was originally known as when it formed.
Agashya has grown a lot since the original 13 and is now made of more than 25 gorillas of all ages as a result of strong efforts by the silverback to snatch gorillas from other groups, attract lone gorillas and procreate. When I visited this was the family with the most number of baby gorillas, the youngest being just one month old.
The breadth of ages in the Agashya group and its large size makes it a great gorilla group to track as you can see how gorillas evolve as they grow older by looking at the various members and how they interact with each other. There are four silverbacks in this gorilla family but the oldest one is the leader.
As Agashya took over from the previous gorilla, he is afraid of attacks from others, so if he sees any threat, he will take the family uphill making it more difficult to track. I was lucky and he was right by the park’s edge with the entire family by his side so we spent an hour seeing all the of the gorillas together in a clearing.
Susa A mountain gorilla family in Rwanda
Susa A is probably the most famous gorilla family in Rwanda because it was the one studied by Dian Fossey and so it is the oldest habituated gorilla group and it also hosts the oldest habituated gorilla, Poppy. Poppy was born in 1976 and is believed to have been part of Dian Fossey’s original gorilla group. The Susa gorilla family was originally the largest with 42 individual gorillas but it was then reduced to around 30 gorillas when it split into two, Susa A and Susa B.
Susa A gorilla family gets its name from the river Susa where they are usually found and is also known for having a pair of young twin gorillas, Impano and Byishimo who are often seen playing around and together. Susa is usually found at higher altitudes requiring longer treks and so it is suitable for those who are fittest.
Susa B or Karisimbi mountain gorilla family in Rwanda
This is the other part of the original Susa family which broke off and it is sometimes referred to as well as the Karisimbi family because it stays on the higher parts of the volcano at around 4,500m.
This family is also often found further afield in the mountains. Trekking the Karisimbi family is tough as the treks are long and steep so only the fittest visitors can reach them. The group has around 16 members.
Sabyinyo mountain gorilla family
The Sabyinyo gorilla family has the largest of all the gorillas in Rwanda, Guhonda, which is a mighty and impressive gorilla. The name of this family comes from the volcano and it means “old man’s teeth”. It is a relatively small family with around 10 gorillas and is usually easy to find as it is located on the park’s edge so it is one of the favourites. Guhonda definitely fulfills the image of a fierce huge silverback.
Bwenge mountain gorilla family
At around 11 members the Bwenge gorilla family is one of the smallest after six of its young gorillas died a few years ago. It is usually also located higher up the mountain and gets its name from the silverback who formed the family after leaving his original group and managing to attract females from other families in 2007.
Amahoro mountain gorilla family
This mountain gorilla family in Rwanda gets its name from the main silverback and from how peaceful he is (amahoro meaning peace). The family is made of almost 20 members and is usually found in the lower parts of the mountain so it is easier to reach. His peacefulness has been the source of some breakouts which created the Umubano family.
Umubano mountain gorilla family
This gorilla family was created when Charles, its dominant silverback, defeated Ubumbwe, the silverback from Amahoro, in a fight that lasted months. He then left with a few of his females to form Umubano. The group currently has around 10 gorillas. Umubano means “neighbourliness”.
Hirwa mountain gorilla family
Hirwa means the lucky one. This family was formed with parts of the Sabyinyo and the Agashya families who broke off and created a new family. This is a common event and the only way for a silverback from a former gorilla group to have his own family: he either fights the dominant silverback for control or leaves and tries to poach some females from other families. When this happens, the new family is also named as part of the annual gorilla naming ceremony. This is a small family with around 10 members but with twins.
The Kwitonda mountain gorilla family
Kwitonda means humble and it is a reflection of the silverback and the group of around 20 gorillas. As Volcanoes National Park is a continuum of forest and mountains expanding to the DRC and changing its name to the Virunga National Park, mountain gorilla families often move across the borders from one country to the other. This was the case for the Kwitonda family who came to Rwanda from the DRC.
Ugenda mountain gorilla family
The name of this mountain gorilla group comes from “being on the move” as it is always changing its area and so it is harder to track. The group has around 10 gorillas and unless they are moving around, they are usually easy to trek to.
Summary of all the gorilla families
|Gorilla family name||Meaning in Kinyarwanda||Number of members||Difficulty|
|Agashya||The news||25+||Easy unless up the hills|
|Susa A||Susa River||16||Difficult|
|Susa B (Karisimbi)||Karisimbi is the highest mountain in Rwanda and means white shell because the volcano is often covered in hail||10||Difficult|
|Sabyinyo||Old man’s teeth||11||Easy|
|Amahoro||Peace||20||Can be tough|
|Ugenda||Being on the move||10||Easy if not on the move|
There is also a new gorilla family that has recently been found and named Mgoza, which is the name of the guide that found the new family. We currently have no further details about this new family.
What to expect in your gorilla trekking safari
Going on a gorilla trekking excursion is one of the most memorable experiences for anyone fortunate enough to afford it, so it is important to be prepared.
Firstly, you should read my gorilla packing list because I put together a very detailed list of things you should bring with you on the trek and how you should dress. This is important to make your gorilla excursion most comfortable.
Secondly, you should also familiarise yourself with gorillas so you know how they behave, how they look, what you should and should not do in their presence, etc. I wrote a very in-depth article on gorilla facts packed with some of the most interesting aspects of gorillas in general and of mountain gorillas in particular. Gorillas are such fascinating creatures it is very interesting to read more about them.
Now that you are well geared and knowledgeable about the gorillas here is what you should expect on the day of your gorilla trek.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda starts very early in the morning, and you will probably be picked up from your lodge by your guide or the lodge’s staff at around 6,30am so you can be at the park offices around 7am. Coffee and tea will be available there for you to warm up or wake up.
All visitors, guides and park rangers will be there at the Volcanoes National Park offices at around that time. Visitors will then start to be assigned to the various gorilla families and around 7,30am you will be called to your group.
The Volcanoes National Park offices have an outdoor area with round seating areas each named after a gorilla family. Once your guide or a park ranger comes to tell you your assigned gorilla family you will head to the specific briefing area.
A gorilla family briefing will start then and will be carried out by the two gorilla guides that will go out with you. They will introduce themselves, tell you more about the gorilla family you have been assigned and give you tips and warnings about your gorilla trekking experience. All the dos and donts of coming in close contact with the gorillas in Rwanda will be explained then. You can read more about them in the next section.
Once your gorilla guide has explained everything and you are properly briefed you will go back to your cars and drive to the park gate that has been assigned to you. Every day, gorilla trackers leave the park early in the morning to locate the gorilla families that will meet visitors on the day. This way, the trackers find the gorillas before the visitors arrive at the park and can direct them to the location of their gorilla family from the closest park entrance.
Volcanoes National Park, unlike Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, has many park entrances. So you can drive to the one closest to your assigned gorilla family to make the trek shorter.
The drive to the park entrance can be shorter or longer depending on the family and their location. We drove for about 20min to our designated park gate then left the cars there and continued on foot, starting our gorilla trek.
At the designated park gate you will meet your porters. These are absolutely optional but a good way to help the community and get some help in your trek. Even if you are really fit, trekking in the soft volcanic soil and the slippery mud of the park is tricky so having a helping hand to hold on to is quite useful. The porter will also carry your things so both your hands are free and you don’t get tangled in the branches.
The Volcanoes National Park is surrounded by farmland so depending on the trackers directions you may start trekking on farmland, along the edge of the park, before entering. This is because trekking inside the park boundaries is far more difficult than doing so in the farmland where there are less trees, branches and ups and downs. In our case, we arrived at the gate before our trackers found our Agashya family who were still on the move. So we started by walking along the farmland on the boundary of the park.
The trackers and the guide communicate via mobile phones and keep each other updated on the gorilla whereabouts so the guides can find the quickest and easiest route there. This part of the gorilla trek is the least predictable. You could be trekking for just an hour like I did, or you could be trekking for several.
The trekking can happen in various kinds of vegetation depending on the location of the gorilla family but you will for sure trek through thick vegetation, mud, sliding soil, across rivers or streams, under barbed branches, through stinging nettles, bamboo thickets or extreme undergrowth. It is essential to be properly equipped.
Once the trackers have found the gorillas, the guide will take you immediately there. This could mean suddenly getting into the park or finding the next gate in. You will continue trekking until you are just a few meters from the gorillas at which point you will meet the trackers.
It is at that point that you will be briefed again, reminded of the dos and donts and also where you will have to leave all your belongings except for your camera equipment. Everything else, including your bags, needs to be left behind with the trackers who will take care of it until your hours with the majestic gorillas is over.
This is a safety measure as you want to have the least amount of things with you but also because all food and drinks need to be kept away from the gorillas so their habitat and ways of life can be preserved. I welcomed the rule because the space around the gorillas is usually small and you can become too busy with too many things on yourself. Grab the camera, the lenses, the memory cards and batteries and get ready for the experience of a lifetime.
Once everybody is ready, you will leave it all behind with the trackers and approach the gorillas following your guide and the park rangers who carry guns. You will smell the gorillas before you can even see them. Your adventure will begin the moment you spot them. The guides will start “talking” to the silverback saying “We come in peace” and the group will approach and find a good viewing point.
During your one hour with the gorillas you will be moving as they move and may be shifting position. You can go down on your knees, and can even get quite close to them, always respecting the rules. Sometimes the gorillas may come close to you, the little ones may want to play, the silverback may move, you are not in a zoo and this is a dynamic experience.
If you are lucky and the entire family is around and together, you may choose to focus on one or another gorilla. In our case, we were very lucky to have the entire Agashya family right there so we could split a little and watch our favorite gorilla in the group. Other times you are not as lucky and you only get to see a few of the family members.
While you are advised to be healthy and relatively fit for the gorilla trek, it is also true that for those visitors who are not and whose dream is to see the gorillas, the local porters can do magic. There was a guest on the day prior to our trek that had serious issues for trekking and arranged for four porters to help her through the jungle. We have also been told of guests in stretchers being carried across the forest by the porters. While this is not the rule, there are ways to make the experience possible for everyone.
When the one hour is over, the guides and visitors leave while the gorilla trackers stay longer collecting data and observing the gorillas and will stay with them until the gorillas find the place where they will be making their beds for the night. This way they also know where they will be the next day when they will be tracking them again.
The gorilla tour does not end when your hour ends but when you return back. Trekking needs to be done back to the closest park gate and that could mean a long way again. There, the guides will communicate with your driver so that the car will be waiting when you arrive. At that point is when you pay the porters the standard $10 fee or more if you are happy with their services.
Rules and guidelines for gorilla trekking in Rwanda
Now that you know what to expect in gorilla trekking in Rwanda you need to be aware about the Dos and Donts.
Gorillas are wild animals. They have been habituated, which basically means that they are used to seeing humans and understand we are not a threat, but that does not mean they are 100% predictable. Wild animals are and will always be unpredictable so certain rules need to be observed both for their safety and that of the tourists who visit them.
In order to go on your gorilla trekking tour you need to be at least 15 years old.
Although you can take as many photographs and videos as you like, you cannot use flash photography as this could scare the gorillas and cause them to react violently.
Only 1 hour a day
Habituated gorilla groups spend only one hour a day with visitors. That means that your time with them is limited to that and your guide will make sure that this timeframe is respected. This ensures that gorillas are not disturbed and that their activities are not changed due to human interaction.
During the one hour you will spend with the gorillas you will be requested to stay 7m away from any of the members in the family. If a small one comes close to you, the guide will make noises telling him to go away. If he comes towards you and wants to pass, just move aside to make way for him or her.
I found the 7 meter rule was not always easy to observe given the constrained spaces of the forest and that the guides, and the silverback, were quite relaxed. So at times we got much closer to the gorillas, especially to take photos.
Quiet, calm and non threatening
As mentioned, gorillas in Rwanda have been habituated to humans. That is, they are used to seeing us and know that we pose no threat. However, these are wild animals in a wild environment so you should always remain calm, quiet and avoid yelling. You should also avoid direct eye contact with silverback which may be seen as a provocation. If he stares at you or gets closer, look down and submissive.
No cold or disease
Gorillas share more than 97% of the same genetic code as humans. That means that they are susceptible the same diseases that we suffer from only that they may not have developed any resistance to some of them so they could die from a simple cold.
Ebola, for example, wiped out entire populations killing hundreds of gorillas. It is essential not to go on a gorilla trek if you are sick. If you feel unwell on the day, let your guide know and try to reschedule the trek.
Despite the park staff trying to accommodate requests for seeing specific families and trying to match difficulty levels and distance to the gorilla families to the fitness level of the individuals trekking on the day, the location of each gorilla family and the difficulty to get there is unpredictable.
As I mentioned, our gorilla family was supposed to be at a specific gate and ended up being at another one. That meant we walked for an hour to find them. This was not particularly difficult but some families can be really high up in the mountain and require up to 5 hours of trekking to find. So, hope for the best but be ready for the worst.
This means packing water, snacks and food in case you are one of the unlucky ones trekking for the entire day towards the volcanoes’ peaks, at high altitude.
The unpredictability also goes for the weather. You can start the trek in sunny skies only for all to break loose and for the rain to pour down before you even find the gorillas. Wearing waterproof gear is a good idea, especially to keep your camera equipment dry.
How to get the permits for your gorilla trekking in Rwanda
To get your gorilla trekking permit you can use the online booking system by the Rwandan Government e-services portal. All tour companies have to buy the permits from the same government entity which controls the fair allocation and makes sure that there are no favoritisms towards any tour company or hotel.
However, most tourists will buy their gorilla trekking permits in Rwanda from the tour company who will organise their tour. If you are only coming to Rwanda for your gorilla safari, the lodge that you are booking your stay with will also be able to organise the transport from and to Kigali as well as the permits. Just make sure that no additional cost is added to the already steep cost of the permits.
When buying the permits you will not be able to choose the gorilla family you will be visiting as that is decided on the morning of the trek depending on the guests, their level of fitness, their interests and their abilities. Your guide will then be able to make a request which may or may not be respected.
Cost of gorilla trekking in Rwanda
The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) announced at the end of 2017 that it would double the price of gorilla trekking permits to $1,500 from then onwards for any new booking. This makes Rwanda’s gorilla permits the most expensive at more than double the price of a gorilla permit in Uganda where they cost $600.
The permit includes the experience of spending an hour with the gorillas and the rangers, trackers and guides and applies both to locals as well as foreigners who all pay the same price. This amount goes towards conservation and to the local communities who now receive $150 from each permit.
This price hike is part of the country’s high end tourism strategy that is reflected in all the moves. The new lodges opening in the country follow that philosophy. For example, Bisate Lodge, at the edge of the Volcanoes National Park, was brought in by the RDB in an effort to work towards conservation while attracting the most discerning and wealthy tourists. Bisate Lodge, managed by Wilderness Safaris, is a great example of low impact tourism with just six villas set on the hillside, on land that was not suitable for farming. At $3,000 a night, the lodge is the best base for gorilla trekking. Add the cost of a permit and a trip for two people and two nights easily adds up to $9,000 without flights or transportation.
There are more affordable accommodation alternatives in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park but the cost of the gorilla permit is the same.