Getting the most out of your Gorilla Safari
Tracking Mountain Gorillas in the Virungas is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are only a few hundred of these fascinating creatures left in the wild, with just three places where you can experience them in their natural habitat, and a limited number of permits available each day. So when staring into the eyes of a Silverback you know you are one of a select group of people worldwide privileged enough to have enjoyed this wonderful experience.
To make the most out of your encounter, we've put together some tips and guidelines.
Where to track Gorillas
There are three locations you can enjoy a Mountain Gorilla Safari: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda; Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda and Parc National des Virunga in the Democractic Republic of Congo (DRC). Uganda and Rwanda are the normal first choices, due to a history of political instability in DRC, though this could change in the future.
Fitness and health
The hike to reach the Gorillas takes place at altitude on steep mountain slopes dense with vegetation, so you generally need to be reasonably fit to enjoy the experience. There are porters available to hire at the start of your trek – they can make the hiking easier by carrying your bag and helping you up and down the steepest terrain. The cost of a porter is not included in the cost of your permit or tour – the normal 'tip' is around $20 per porter. Having a family member working as a porter is an important source of income for many living adjacent to the National Park.
As well as being reasonably fit, you need to make sure you are also in good health at the time of tracking. Those suffering from contagious illnesses will not be allowed to trek. Gorillas are highly susceptible to infection, so if you are suffering from a cold, influenza or diarrhoea you must report it to the guide at the park headquarters. If you do, it is more likely you will be refunded the cost of your permit. Non-disclosure will mean you will be barred from tracking and the cost of the permit will not be refunded.
The tracking experience
The gorillas cover large distances overnight. The guides will use their knowledge of the gorillas’ habits and information from the previous day to locate the group’s whereabouts. So the time taken to trek the gorillas can vary enormously. It may be as little as two hours to as long as 9 hours before returning to camp.
Once you have reached the group, you will be allowed up to one hour in the company of these magnificent beasts. The porters will stay some distance behind with your day bags and only the permit holders are allowed to join the Gorilla group. No smoking, eating or drinking is allowed within 200m of the group, so make sure you take a drink of water before leaving your day bag with the porters.
If your trek to find the gorillas has not been unusually long, you are likely to visit them during their long midday rest and play period. At this time of day, the dominant male, the Silverback, generally lounges on the ground or against a tree while youngsters roll in the vegetation and climb on trees, vines, and each other. Females nurse and play with their infants. It is a fascinating sight and the time will pass all too quickly.
What to wear/bring
Rainforest is called 'rainforest' for a reason, so be prepared for the chance of wet weather. Wear lightweight hiking trousers and a long sleeved shirt, but be sure to take waterproofs as well, including a hat and over-trousers if you have them. Wear a pair of light, waterproof hiking boots or walking shoes with thick tread soles and walking socks. Carry a spare pair of walking socks in case you wish to change them at some point. Make sure you have a small waterproof day bag or backpack with you to carry your camera equipment, packed lunch and water canteen for the day (bring your own water canteen to help cut down on the use of plastic bottles in the area).
Finally, carry a pair of gardening-style gloves into your backpack. This is in case you need to grab onto any passing vegetation to support yourself when climbing up or down the steep terrain – wearing gloves will help prevent unwanted contact with insects or sharp thorns. You may not need them, but if you do, you will be thankful you brought them!
Of course, you will want to take some photographs of your experience to remember your Gorilla safari by. If your camera is a film camera, make sure you have plenty of films of the high speed variety – 800 ASA or above is recommended – there is not a huge amount of natural light available in a rainforest and flash photography is strictly forbidden. If you use a digital camera, familiarise yourself with how to change the ISO/ASA settings and choose a fast speed – the larger the number the less light the camera needs to take a sharp picture.
In both cases, make sure you turn off your flash and any sound effects so the Gorillas (and the rest of the group) don't have to be distracted by the constant beeping of your camera focusing. If you cannot switch off your flash, make sure you cover the unit with dark tape to block the light beams.
Try to steady your camera when you press the shutter to ensure the sharpest pictures. You can do this by bringing a small tripod with you, or simply hold your camera firmly but lightly in both hands and rest your elbows on your knees (if seated) or against your torso (if standing). There are plenty of trees around which can be used to steady your camera against, but check first before leaning against them to ensure they are free of any ants, thorns or sap, and ask your guide if you are in any doubt.
Your tracking group will be instructed to stay together and crouch down whilst observing the gorillas. This is so that the dominant male can see you at all times and the family does not feel threatened, surrounded, or overwhelmed. Do not make any sudden moves or noises in the presence of these animals, and keep your voices low. At all times, be sure to follow the instructions of your guide.
Never stare directly into the eyes of a gorilla, for a fixed stare is as aggressive to them as it is to most humans.
Sometimes, as a release of tension or as a display to the rest of the group, a male gorilla may charge and beat his chest, tearing up vegetation and hurling his tremendous frame directly towards you. In this instance it is very important that you do not move. You must stand your ground, maintain a subordinate, crouching position, and do your best not to flinch. It is likely that the gorilla will stop before actually reaching you and calmly return to his previous location – often with a smug backwards glance at you!
If an inquisitive youngster approaches, never touch it. Though it is tempting, this is strictly forbidden. Your guide may take steps to discourage this behaviour from the young Gorilla, as this could create a threatening situation with the resident Silverback.
Make sure you always remember you are in a national park. Do not smoke, and never light a fire. If the timing and route of the trek allows, try to eat your packed lunch outside the park boundaries. Carry your own litter with you and take it out of the park, leaving absolutely nothing behind. The forest is a pristine, biodiverse habitat and needs to be treated with respect.
Booking your tour
Because it takes several months advance notice to secure an available permit for tracking, it is advisable to book your safari through a reputable tour company rather than try to organise it yourself. Inevitably, the locations for tracking are also very remote, and a tour company has the expertise to get you there safely and organise all your accommodation and meals while you are there.
Booking your Gorilla Safari with an operator who is based in the country you are visiting will also help ensure more of the money you spend will get invested back into the local community and economy. Just make sure you find an established tour company that has plenty of experience and professionalism.
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