I recently had the privilege to accompany the lovely Swenson ladies (Mom and two daughters) on their first trip to Rwanda and Uganda, to go see the Mountain Gorillas. You can see Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda, but the experience from each country is so different.
Rwanda has a fascinating history, well known, unfortunately, for the 1994 genocide. Kigali is an incredibly clean and almost sterile city. Plastic bags are banned in Rwanda and you notice it immediately. The genocide memorial in Kigali is very interesting, but if you want a true taste of the happenings, then a trip to the churches south of the city are well worth it! We spend a day at the beginning of the trip, exploring Kigali and learning about the genocide. It was touching but incredibly interesting.
To get to the Gorillas and our accommodation, we drove for about 3 hours from Kigali, heading North West, the drive is beautiful. Rwanda doesn’t offer any accommodation in the park, but their is a wide range of accommodation just outside. We stayed at Virunga Lodge and were then driven to Park HQ every morning for the 7:30am briefing and group allocation.
There are 10 habituated Gorilla groups visited by tourists, 8 people get to see each group, for one hour, each day. Each one of the groups has a different offering in terms of group dynamics, group size and most importantly, difficulty in getting to its location. Each morning, the local guides meet with the park warden and plead their case on behalf of their guests. Some are after particular groups, others just want any easy trek for their guests. It is not dissimilar to watching a bunch of stock brokers vying for stocks on a stock exchange floor.
The gorilla offering in Rwanda is world class and it really caters for just about anyone! While we were there, 2 or 3 people were carried on a stretcher from the base to see the gorillas by a team of porters. Rwanda has 80 permits on offer each day, but they don’t come cheap at $750 per gorilla permit. It is worth every cent though.
We really wanted to see the Isabukuru Group (The Anniversary group) as we had heard they had a new set of twins in their ranks, our local guide Arthur worked his magic and next thing we knew, we were heading off for Isabukuru, one of the medium/hard groups. Each group has a different starting point, which requires anywhere from a 5 minute drive from Park Headquarters, up to 50 minutes.
Each gorilla trek starts off roughly the same, with a briefing on the do’s and don’t’s of being around gorillas. You are assigned a porter, if you would like one, to carry your bag for you, highly recommended! A walking stick is available if you require and off you go! Your guide is in communication with an advanced party of trackers, who head out at first light to the last known location of that group and then do their best to find them for you.
We were incredibly lucky to get the Isabukuru group on our first day, and even luckier that on the day we went, that mom and the twins were out in the open and they put on a fantastic show.
The second trek day in Rwanda was very different to the first, it was raining and very misty for the first couple of hours. Just before we found the gorillas the sun came out!!
We drove from Rwanda into Uganda and up to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The drive up to Bwindi was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful drives I have ever done! Uganda is a really beautiful country and the people are so friendly! We had lots of fun along the way, eating pineapples, drinking coffee and waving at thousands of kids all shouting muzungu, muzungu as we drove past. (A local word for ‘white man’)
We stayed at Buhoma Forest Lodge, which is inside the Bwindi Forest National Park and is opposite the Park HQ, which meant that instead of driving each morning, it was just a 1 minute walk across the road. Bwindi is a massive park and has more than half of the worlds Mountain Gorillas. They have many habituated troops, but due to the size of the forest they have many different starting points, some hours away from each other. We had permits for the groups close to our lodge.
The terrain is typically a little tougher in Uganda and it all feels very wild, which adds to the experience. The morning procedure is very similar to that in Rwanda.
We flew from Bwindi into Entebbe for our overnight stay before we headed down to South Africa. This gave us most of the day in Entebbe and I knew of a spot, not far away from the city, where we would have a good chance of spotting a shoebill. I am not sure the Swenson ladies showed the same amount of intital enthusiasm for the shoebill day trip as I did, but once we found the Shoebill they were all converted into birders!
To sum it all up, both countries offer fantastic Gorilla viewing and both offer Chimp viewing too. Rwanda is a little easier to do, and has a very interesting history but Uganda just feels wild and more authentic! We can organise fantastic itineraries in either country.
If you would like to chat to us about organising a Gorilla Safari for you, please contact us and we can help you plan it. Gorilla and Chimp permits in both countries are limited and do sell out months in advance!