Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda is an experience no wildlife enthusiast will forget in a hurry. The moment you first encounter a mountain gorilla in the dense forests that form part of the Virunga Conservation Area will forever stay with you.
This experience was the highlight of our visit to Rwanda. It was incredible to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, protected and thriving.
Where to Find Mountain Gorillas in East Africa
Rwanda is one of three countries in the world where you can still find mountain gorillas in the wild. The other two countries are Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Uganda, you will find them in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mganhinga Gorilla National Park – which is one of 3 parks in the Virunga Conservation Area.
This area is a cradle land that straddles the borders of Uganda, DRC and Rwanda. In addition to Mganhinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, you will find DRC’s Virunga National Park and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park within this area.
Like many people who visit Rwanda, our journey to see the gorillas began in Kigali. There, we rented a car and drove down to Gisenyi, spending a few days there before heading to Musanze, the gateway city to the Volcanoes National Park.
How to Get to Travel from Gisenyi to Kigali to Volcanoes National Park
Musanze is situated almost halfway between Kigali and Gisenyi, making it ideal to visit from either location. Depending on which city your travel from, the transit could take up to 2 hours for a one-way journey. Different transportation options are available, including taking the Rwanda Inter-Link Transport Company (Ritco) bus, renting a car for a self-drive or renting one with a driver.
The drive to each city is straightforward on well-tarmacked roads, while the drive to the trailheads is mostly done on dirt roads. If you do a self-drive, it is important to adhere to every traffic rule and speed limit to avoid getting ticketed. Once in Musanze, you can then make your way to the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters in Kingi for your trek.
How to DIY your Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
It takes some planning to visit Volcanoes National Park independently. Luckily, the planning process is not a difficult one. There are three major aspects you need to consider for your trip, and they include:
- Booking your gorilla trekking permit
- Arranging your transportation to the park’s HQ and the trailhead
- Booking your accommodation
Booking your Gorilla Trekking Permit
The first step to planning your trek in Rwanda is to book a permit for the day you wish to visit. You can do so via the Rwandan Development Board’s website. The website allows you to secure permits for different experiences, including a hike to see Golden Monkeys, and Dian Fossey’s tomb, amongst other offerings.
During peak travel seasons, permits tend to sell out quickly. Therefore, it is advisable to book yours as early as you possibly can.
Once you’ve purchased your permit, you can then look to make arrangements for transportation and your accommodation.
Transportation to Volcanoes National Park
Transportation to Volcanoes National Park can be arranged in multiple ways. One option, which is the one we went with, is to rent a car and do a self-drive. We rented a Rav4 from Kigali Car Rentals and had a very positive experience with them.
One thing to note though is that even though our car was a 4-wheel drive and in great condition, we couldn’t get up to some parts of the road during our trek. At some point, we had to hop into the vehicle of another guest.
The car eventually did get us to the group we were rerouted to after our original group crossed into the DRC but if we were to go on this experience again, we would probably go with a larger vehicle.
When Mark did this trip a few years ago, he simply hired a car and driver for the day of his trek. This is a cost-effective way to organize your transportation, especially if you combine it with taking the bus from Kigali or Gisenyi.
Accommodation – Where to Stay in Musanze, Ruhengeri
The last part of planning your independent trek is to book your accommodation. While you can technically visit Volcanoes National Park as a day trip from Kigali or Gisenyi, I would recommend spending at least one night in Musanze.
Upon the recommendation of friends in Rwanda, we chose to spend 2 nights at La Locanda, a homely B&B located right in the heart of Musanze. This accommodation was only a 20-minute drive away from the park’s headquarters and offered breakfast, dinner and unlimited drinks. We undoubtedly enjoyed our stay here.
For travellers looking to splurge on a more luxurious experience, the One&Only Gorilla’s Nest in Kingi may just be exactly what you’re looking for!
Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda – Our Experience and What to Expect
Our day began with an early breakfast at La Locanda, after which we drove to the Volcanoes Park Headquarters in Kingi. Upon arrival, we validated our permits and PCR tests and were told to wait in a designated area for our gorilla group assignment.
We were paired with an official who would help with the assignment. Before travelling to Rwanda, I had done some research about the group I wanted to see and came up with a shortlist of 3 groups, with Susa Group topping the list.
What to Expect Before the Trek
We communicated that to the official, who made sure we got our preferred group. While waiting, we grabbed a free cup of coffee and then went on to rent rubber boots for the hike. I had travelled with my regular trainers and opted to hike in the boots instead – which turned out to be a great decision.
Once the group assignments were completed, we were introduced to another guide who briefed us about the Susa group, before we headed out of the HQ for our hour-long ride to the trailhead.
What to Wear to go Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
For our trek, we donned a few layers of clothing that covered our arms and legs. We didn’t have gaiters but our pants tucked nicely into our socks and boots proved to be the perfect alternative. We also packed a waterproof bag for our electronic equipment in case it rained but luckily, we did not need it.
What to Expect During the Trek
After a few hours of driving and a series of events, we finally arrived at the trailhead to track a breakout group from Susa. We met yet another guide, who gave us a briefing on the new group – Noheri. He also went through a couple of points and behavioural notes and what to do if we were approached by the group’s silverback. Then we began the 1-hour hike through the forest, toward the gorillas.
We went through a beautiful bamboo forest before arriving at a point where we were asked to drop off our bags and walking sticks. The guide advised us to put on our jackets and gloves (if we had those) to avoid getting stung by Stinging Nettles, (more like to reduce the impact of the sting).
At this point, we were only minutes away from the gorillas. Our guides and trackers began forging a path through the thick vegetation to the point where we first saw a glimpse of them.
My first sighting was that of a mother and her playful baby and it was incredible! Just beside them, the silverback lay in the grass, scratching his head and watching us closely.
An Hour with the Mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park…
It was so fascinating to observe the gorillas closely, to see how similar they were to humans in their mannerisms and expressions; to see how the trackers and guides interacted and communicated with them by mimicking the sounds that they made…
We had only one hour to spend with them and the time flew by quickly, yet felt sufficient for the experience. When the time was up, we retreated to the open area where we had left our belongings. There, the guides allowed those who brought packed lunches to have them and gave us an opportunity to tip the trackers. Shortly after that, we made our way out of the forests and back to our lodge in Musanze.
How Difficult is Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda?
Your gorilla trekking’s difficulty level will depend on the gorilla family you are visiting. Some treks take up to 30 minutes, while others may be hours long. Since the gorillas are constantly moving, your guide might not give you a specific duration for the hike, however, they will give you a range that is close enough.
If you have any mobility concerns, you can let your assigned official know at the park’s HQ and they will assign you a group that’s easier to visit. Note that the minimum age to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda is 12 years.
The Best Time for Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
The drier months of June to September are considered the best time to visit Rwanda. We visited in August and had warm weather conditions in the afternoons and cooler temperatures early in the mornings and late evenings.
Even though August is supposed to be a dry month, it rained quite a bit in Gisenyi (Lake Kivu area) and Musanze. Therefore, you should carry a raincoat and waterproof bags for your equipment even if you visit the park during the dry seasons.
How Much Does it Cost to go Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda?
This experience usually costs $1,500 for the permit alone. However, we were able to take advantage of the ongoing discount offered to African citizens and residents, paying $500 each for our permits. I believe the park also offers a discount for low-season travel between November and May.
How Many Days Do you Need?
I recommend allocating at least two days to the trek – one full day for the trek itself and half a day each for travel to and from Musanze. Guests to the park are expected to show up at the HQ between 7 and 7:30 am, so I recommend spending the night before the trek in Musanze.
The Sum Up!
Many people say going gorilla trekking is a once-in-a-lifetime experience but this is an experience I would love to do again if the opportunity presents itself. I enjoyed the hike in and out of the forest to see the gorillas and enjoyed the hour we spent observing them.
The price tag for this experience is quite hefty, but if it ensures that we can one day return to see the gorillas still thriving in the wild and the community being taken care of, then it is worth every penny!