Rwanda is one of the three countries in the whole where the critically endangered mountain gorillas live. Mountain gorilla population is estimated to be 880 individuals living in a limited range of habitats in Bwindi impenetrable forest national park of Uganda where half of their numbers live. The other gorillas live in the virunga volcanoes shared by Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo.
Gorilla tracking being a leading tourism activity in Rwanda and also as a factor of growing socio-economic development due to revenues generated from gorilla tourism has brought a lasting harmony between the environment, gorillas and local communities. Ecotourism makes it possible for tourists to get close to the rare and critically endangered gorillas but under strict environmental rules and regulations.
Tourists planning a gorilla safari in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National park need to know how to effectively prepare all necessary requirements for gorilla trekking a once in a life time wildlife encounter. A few things are highlighted below:-
Booking a gorilla permit in advance of 3-4 months
Volcanoes National Park in northwestern Rwanda has a smaller share of the mountain gorilla population estimated to be about 200 individuals. Of these 10 gorilla families have been habituated to give tourists a close encounter with gorillas in their natural habitat under strict environmental rules and regulations.
Each habituated gorilla family is visited by one group of 8 tourists per day meaning that a total of 80 gorilla trekking permits are sold out on a daily basis. In addition to the limited number of people, there’s high demand of gorilla trekking permits, a reason why you must book a permit early. Tourists need to do that by contacting local tour operators or the Rwandan Development Board. A Rwanda gorilla trekking permit fee currently is at $750 per tourist.
This high cost of the permit generates a lot of revenues which are the power lines to foster community tourism development, eradicate poverty and fund conservation of gorillas and their habitats. The other money is used in the general management of the national park human resource such as guides, conservation managers, wardens, trackers and rangers who provide maximum security. After securing your gorilla permit, you need also to book for the accommodations which range from high end, mid range to budget lodges, hotels and campsites.
Note, however, by the time of booking a gorilla permit, visitors are advised to reveal their sickness to avoid disappointments later. Sick tourists are not allowed to see gorillas it’s therefore crucial to take vaccines against infectious diseases. A yellow fever vaccination card is required for each tourist while other diseases are put to public notice on arrival.
Get good hiking boots and other necessary gears too wear
The timing of the season is one factor that determines what you need to bring or wear on your gorilla safari in Rwanda. December- February and June -September is typically dry period but still rainfall should be expected due to rainforest conditions. During this season, trails are quite dry and easy to hike due to sunny weather conditions however the ground in the forest is ever wet. Therefore expect to trek for long hours since gorillas also increase movement in search of fresh vegetation food for gorillas hence you must be physically fit.
On the other hand, the wet season is between March-May and October -November. This time trails are very muddy, slippery and difficult to hike but it comes with one advantage that treks tend to be shorter since gorillas move less. The vegetation is very green and good for photography.
Gorilla trekking takes place in moderate altitude volcanic mountains with the highest being Mt. Karisimbi at 4,507 meters above sea level. The terrain is steep and ragged; the wet conditions require trekkers to have solid hiking boots, guitars, stretching stockings so as to tuck in pants to prevent you from safari ants, sharp rocks, thorny bushes and stinging nettles.
In addition to the foot wear, you need rainproof jackets or bag to cover your camera equipment and warm long sleeved shirts/sweaters to keep you warm during rain or at night.
At the end of the day you will get your dirty clothing cleaned by the staff at the lodge and also be rewarded with a gorilla trekking certificate by the Rwandan Development Board.
Hire a porter (affiliated to the local community)
As the saying goes “good guests and good hosts, there is a local community organization providing porter services for tourists who need them. Some tourists may not carry their backpacks during long trekking hours hence decide to pay an extra amount of $10 or more to a porter who will not only carry your backpack but also pull your arm during hiking where necessary. Tourism as a leading industry for job creation means that hiring a porter generates income for them. In return once the local communities benefit from gorilla tourism, there would be less encroachment and poaching of gorillas and other wildlife. This motivates locals to support conservation and it reflects why mountain gorilla numbers are rising not only in Rwanda but also in Uganda and DR Congo (virunga region).
Travel to Rwanda with enough money
As one of the qualifications when applying for a Rwandan tourist visa, you are required to show proof of enough money besides your pre-organized gorilla trekking package. This may or may not depend on the nights you desire to stay in Rwanda while on your gorilla trekking safari. In addition to the basic price of a Rwandan gorilla permit ($750), on your safari you have got guides, trackers, porters and hotel staff who all add a service to your gorilla trekking experience at one point.
Tipping as a matter of a social tradition provides incentive for workers with regard to the quality of service offered to you. Hence you might have something to spend on say for instance purchasing a walking stick or hiring a porter and any other equipment, however be expectant and vigilant by asking guides the right way of giving gratuity.
Be physically fit
Mountain gorilla trekking is done on foot by hiking through rainforests, bamboo which dominate much of volcanoes National Park’s vegetation. The activity can last from 1 hour to 8 hours depending on where the trackers locate a particular habituated gorilla family. In addition to the time of locating gorillas, the steep terrain characterized by muddy and slippery trails make the trekking experience rather difficult for the physically challenged.
However much gorilla trekking requires physical fitness, there are options that tourists can make request to Rwandan Development Board staff about their trekking capacity so that one is allocated to a gorilla family that is easier to trek. This can be done while booking your permit in advance in order to be reserved.
Listen to the gorilla guides
As a matter of fact, gorilla trekking as a tourist activity has strict rules and regulations meant to limit human disturbance to gorillas and other wildlife. From the moment you reach at Kingi the main visitor centre in Volcanoes National Park, you are already in the territory for gorillas and expected not to confront the gorilla trekking guidelines whatsoever.
Your guides will always brief you about how to behave while with gorillas at the beginning of the trek. Remember that although gorillas have been habituated, they are still wild and subject to charge when threatened. Do as your guide tells you to do, for instance staying in a tight group, remaining calm, or sited whenever gorillas exceed the limit distance of 7 meters. Keeping voices low also increases chances of viewing other wildlife such as birds, reptiles, primates, and large mammals adding a bit on your overall gorilla trekking experience.
Whether you are a conservationist or someone who just wants to see gorillas and go back, there is a general travel trend known as ecotourism where tourists endeavor to keep destinations clean and natural. While in Volcanoes National park Rwanda, you will appreciate nature; ecotourism ensures gorillas are conserved while benefiting a local through revenues sharing that creates jobs and income generating projects.