Mountain gorilla trekking: five tips to help you make the most of your hour

by Pip Strickland
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A silverback with mountain gorilla family in Rwanda
A silverback with mountain gorilla family in Rwanda
  • Have your camera ready and a fully-charged battery.
  • You'll want a telephoto lens to get great portrait shots
  • Know your physical limitations and be put in a group of a similar fitness level to yours.
  • Wear long trousers tucked into socks to keep your legs from getting scratched and/or bitten.

Trekking to see the mountain gorillas of Uganda, Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Getting up close and personal with these magnificent animals is truly an honor but, with only one restricted hour in their presence, how do you make the most of your time? Here are five tips for making this short-lived experience one of the most memorable in your life.

1. Choose the gorilla trekking hike that is right for you

Trekking to see the gorillas can range from half an hour to ten hours through dense jungle and along muddy slopes, with the high altitude adding extra strain on your body. Depending on your fitness level, you will be placed in a group based on the length of the hike you would like to do, with trackers heading out in the morning to determine locations. It is important to be realistic about this. Not only do you not want to slow the rest of your group down, but if you opt for a longer hike and arrive at the gorilla’s location completely exhausted, you won’t enjoy the time you have with them.

 

2. Be camera-ready

Undoubtedly, you will be hoping to get some fantastic up-close shots of the mountain gorillas during your hour. Being technically-prepared is crucial so you don’t waste time messing around with settings. Whether you are traveling with a point-and-shoot or an SLR, make sure you know your camera inside out, and if you’re changing lenses, take a backpack designed so you can easily access them. There is a limit to the distance you are allowed to get to the gorillas, so if you want intimate portraits, pack a zoom lens or camera with good zoom capabilities. In addition to still images, try to capture a short video illustrating the atmosphere and sounds of the experience. But most importantly, make sure your batteries are fully charged!

 
3. Do your mountain gorilla research

The more you know about mountain gorillas, including their genetic relationship to humans and behavioral traits, the more enriching your experience will be. It’s possible to research online the individual groups that inhabit the parks and sometimes request to trek to one that particularly interests you. In addition to online resources, Dian Fossey’s ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ is a great read before you depart, with plenty of fascinating information about her studies and the time she spent on the forested-slopes of Rwanda.

 

4. Know your gorilla etiquette

The gorillas you will trek to are habituated, meaning they are used to seeing tourists on a daily basis and are not known to attack. But like most people, they appreciate a bit of etiquette when you are in their presence and knowing how to behave will ensure they remain calm and content. Your guide will teach you how to make a deep grunting sound when you arrive (as a peace offering), and try and avoid making direct eye contact with them which can be interpreted as a threat. While you are only permitted within a certain distance of the gorillas, if they approach you it’s important not to turn and run away, but just behave nonchalant. Gorillas are also susceptible to human diseases, so if you are sick….don’t go trekking! If one gorilla contracts your virus, the results could be drastic for the entire group.

 

5. Put the camera down

While there will be the urge to capture every moment and movement through your lens, it’s important that you also put the camera down during your hour with the gorillas and live the experience with your own eyes. Listen to the gorillas communicate with one another and take in the ambiance of being within this majestic environment.

With permits, flights and ground transport costs to visit the mountain gorillas far from a ‘budget’ experience, the hour spent with them can feel incredibly short. But with a few preparations, it can also be one of the most rewarding and memorable wildlife encounters in the world.

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