To kick off our trip to Africa, our first excursion was a trip into the jungles of Rwanda to visit the gorillas! When we booked our trip, I was most excited for this portion of the trip and I was not disappointed. We got so close, we could touch them… well one of them pushed Josh (see full story and video below)! To see them live in their natural habitat was so much better than seeing them behind bars at a zoo! Here’s everything you need to know when venturing on a gorilla trek and helpful packing tips (see the end of the post).
Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
Getting There and Gorilla Family Assignment
Planning in advance: We booked our trip through the travel agency, Scott Dunn, about 15 months in advance and it is $1500 per person to go trekking. Save your money, it’s totally worth it!
Day of Adventure: We started our morning bright and early at the Virunga Lodge with a 5:30a wakeup and 6am breakfast. By 6:30a we were in the car and on our way to the base camp to get our gorilla family assignment. Bring a copy of your passport or make sure the hotel/lodge can make a copy for you. You need this for the rangers.
There was an option of an easy, medium, or hard hike and we requested an easy to medium hike. There are 16 families in the Virunga Mountains - Volcanoes National Park and 10 families are visited once per day by 8 people max for one hour. Our driver/guide helped arrange which family we would see and introduced us to the ranger that we would be with for the day. We met with our group and our ranger gave the details of our gorilla family and laid out how our adventure would play out. We lucked out and only had a group of 6 people, which was better to see and gather around the gorillas.
We were assigned Titus the silverback and his gorilla family. A group of gorillas is called a band or a troop, or the less common is a “whoop” of gorillas. I like whoop the best so that’s what I’m going with… Within the whoop there were 3 other Silverbacks in which two of them were Titus’ children who were known as the troublemakers.
We learned a lot about the dynamic and behaviors of gorillas. Most whoops have one silverback since their competitive nature for females keep them separated to their own family. Silverbacks keep many females in their groups but don’t like other males doing the “jiggy jiggy” (as our guide put it) with their females. Once male children reach a certain maturity they may run off from the group with one of the females to start their own family or they meet a female from another family.
After we had our briefing, we all jumped in our cars and drove about 30 minutes to our stop closest to where the gorilla family was located.
Hiking to the Gorillas
We parked in a lot amongst some rural farms. We hired a porter there to help carry our bag while we were trekking through the jungle. It was worth the $10 USD for the porter to carry our bag with cameras and water. He would even help me climb up and down areas that were harder to climb. I’m fairly fit but can be very clumsy, so I was happy with having a helping hand.
The jungle front was a few miles away at a slight incline. We were given some walking sticks carved with intricate gorilla designs and set out on our trek to find the gorillas.
We had heard some stories from others at the lodge saying it took 3 hours to hike and find the gorillas the day before, so we were prepared to hike for anywhere from an hour to 3 hours.
We walked about an hour through a farm (in the sun) along a trail up to the gate that led into the jungle. Our ranger told us the family had climbed into the crater and that if we sit and wait, hopefully they’ll come out closer to us. We just sat at the jungle front looking over the valley. After, about 45-60 minutes the gorillas climbed out of the crater and were “close.” We didn’t know what “close” meant but we were excited and entered through the gate to the jungle. Literally, there was a gate to the jungle with a man guarding it.
Trekking and Finding the Gorillas
After about 15 minutes, we met with the trackers that were following the family and we were instructed to leave our bags and walking sticks as they are threatening to the gorillas. We took a few steps and instantly saw a sleeping silverback and female right next to him, which we were probably 15 feet from!
We kept walking and found another gorilla enjoying some lunch. We watched him eat for about 5 minutes and couldn’t believe he was right in front of us. We moved on and could hear some gorillas grunting in the bushes but couldn’t see them very well.
We eventually found Titus, the main silverback of the whoop, and took a picture with him.
Now this is where it gets crazy. Titus decided he wanted to move but were all in his way. The ranger separated our group to get out of his way but there wasn’t a lot of room to move. Titus then pushed Josh out of the way (gently not forcefully), and leapt onto some trees taking them down so he could go on his way! It was intense and awesome all at the same time!
We moved on and found a few others eating and a 3 month old baby with the craziest hair (or fur). He was so cute, he just wanted to check out what was going on and while people were interrupting his meal.
As we were walking along, one of the silverbacks was on the move. Again, the rangers tried to move us out of the way and as he pulled me back, I was basically leaning against the hill and Titus came right between Josh and I! He stopped and took a look at Josh, then wandered off. It was exciting, exhilarating, intimidating, and terrifying - all at the same time!
We carried on and came upon a few more gorillas eating and climbing around. At this point, it had been an hour and our time was up. We met back up with the trackers and our porter, reloaded our bags and made our way back to the car.
Once we returned, there was a man selling hand carved walking sticks and little gorilla figurines. I have a collection of animal figurines from around the world and this souvenir was the perfect addition to my collection to commemorate our wonderful day with the gorillas!
What to Pack and Bring on your Gorilla Trek
You don’t need to bring too much on your trip because you don’t want to carry too many things and most of them won’t be necessary. Plus we were limited to 33 pounds for our smaller flights.
What to Wear while Gorilla Trekking
Everything I researched before we left suggested to wear layers which wasn’t helpful because what kind of layers? How many layers are really necessary? I now have those answers! In the morning it is chilly. I wore a short-sleeved t-shirt, a long-sleeved cotton pullover that was treated with bug repellant, along with my lightweight rain jacket on top and it was a perfect temperature. Josh runs a little warmer so he had one of his long sleeved safari Columbia shirts on and was fine. As we started walking and the sun rose a little higher, I peeled off the rain jacket. Wear more neutral colors to blend in and not scare the gorillas away. Do not wear camouflage, it’s illegal.
You’ll want to bring gardening gloves and wear a long sleeved shirt so you don’t get sliced by the branches or long grass like needles. You’ll want to wear good hiking shoes as the jungle floor can be slippery, muddy, thorny, etc. I brought my hat and left it in the car since we were going to be under the jungle canopy most of the time.
Packing List for Gorilla Trekking:
Rain Jacket - lightweight and packs into a little pouch
Hiking Pants - convertible ones are great if its really hot
Garden Gloves - just to protect your hands, nothing fancy
Hiking shoes - high tops are better for your ankle but not necessary
Gaiters - so fire ants don’t climb up your pants (our lodge provided them - check with your accommodations beforehand)
Water - we brought 4 bottles for the 2 of us
Snacks & lunch
Copy of your passport for the rangers
Sony a7rii with a 70-300mm lens on it to get close shots
Sony 6500 with a 10-18mm lens for wider shots
We are obsessed with the DJI Osmo Pocket Camera that has a stabilizing gimbal for amazing 4K footage, panorama shots, and the ability to track what you are shooting! It’s replacing our GoPro. This captured Josh being pushed by a gorilla as Josh was falling and the gorilla was jumping!
Before you leave your lodge/hotel/camp:
Apply bug repellent - Ultrathon is a lotion and lasts 12 hours
Apply sunscreen to your face and chest - ThinkSport is our fave
Pack snacks, water, and a lunch - our lodge provided sandwiches and fruit, we packed those along with some granola bars. You never know how long you’ll be out there!
When you return from your Gorilla Adventure:
Return your gaiters
Give the lodge your hiking boots to clean them - they can be muddy or dusty
Give the lodge your clothes to wash
Take a shower, relax and look at your pictures
Where to Stay in Rwanda - Virunga Lodge
We fell in love with the Virunga Lodge instantly and didn’t want to leave! Located at the top of a mountain, our room (also called a banda) was huge, decorated with vibrant colors, and had spectacular views. The staff was amazing, waiting on you hand and foot. The meals were incredible and included a great variety of food. The rooms didn’t have Wifi but the main lodge did.
Full review on the Virunga Lodge coming soon!
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