I’ll admit, it took me well over a year to actually make it up to Ruhengeri (Musanze) to do gorilla trekking, but if you are a normally functioning person (meaning you’re able to leave Kigali without crying uncontrollably), you should definitely try to schedule a trip. The mountain gorillas really are one of Rwanda’s most spectacular tourist attractions, and being able to observe them in their natural habitat is quite the experience. Also, they are an endangered species, people, and what you pay to go see them goes into protecting them, which is like a super nice thing!
There are four main things you need to think about when planning on gorilla trekking: a gorilla permit, a place to stay in Ruhengeri, a car to take you to the starting point for the trekking, and what to bring with you for the trek itself.
Getting a Gorilla Permit
Gorilla-related tourism in Rwanda is strictly controlled by the government. What this means to you is this: you can get nowhere near the gorillas unless you have a permit. When you arrange a trip through a tour company they’ll get the permit for you but if you want to wing it and arrange a trip on your own, you’ll need to get your own gorllia trekking permit at the ORTPN (I still have no idea what this stands for but they’re the Rwanda Tourism office). They have offices in Kigali (up the hill to the left from UTC) and in Musanze.
You should buy a permit in good time before you plan on going, as they might be sold-out, but they’re not known for being very good at answering emails so it might not be possible to get one directly from them until you arrive in Rwanda. It’s common for people to sell passes they can’t use for one reason or another so keep your eye on our travel forum for gorilla permits for sale. For non-residents, a permit costs US$500, foreign residents (meaning you have a work visa) pay US$250, and Rwandans pay Rwf 25,000.
Accommodation in Ruhengeri
Unless you want to get up at the ass-crack of dawn to drive from Kigali, you’ll have to spend the night previous in Ruhengeri as gorilla trekking starts earl in the morning. There are several places to stay, but the most popular for those on a budget, is Fatima Guesthouse (0392 897 704/0779 459 917) which is Rwf 15,000 to 30,000 per night. We’ll post some more options as we visit them. Eventually. In the meantime, if you know of a good place, let us know.
Transportation to Trekking Point
You’ll need to arrange transportation from your hotel to the trekking point, and it’s annoyingly expensive. If you have a car (or rent your own for a few days), you can just follow the guide car, but make sure you have four-wheel drive or you’ll struggle up the muddy roads.
The second option, is hiring a driver. The best option is to find a driver with a car specifically for gorilla trekking, stationed in Ruhengeri. You can get contact information from the ORTPN office, and it’ll cost US$80 to $100. The driver will pick you up from your hotel in Ruhengeri, drive you to the meeting point, and then bring you back at the end of the trekking.
I’ve also heard of people just arriving at the centre by whatever means necessary (taxi, moto) with hopes of hopping in someone else’s car to get to the trek starting point. It’s been done but if there’s no space for you or if the people on your trek are jerks who won’t let you share, then you’ll have to scramble to come up with another plan.
On the day of the trekking, you’ll drive (or be driven) to the meeting point around 7am. I suggest wearing good hiking boots, and dressing in layers. The day we went, it was cold and raining in the morning and hot and sunny once we met the gorillas. Obviously, bring a camera but remember to turn off the flash. Don’t pack any food on you, though if you bring a backpack you can leave it with some of the guides and they’ll guard it while you’re in the forest. Also bring sun lotion, sunglasses, and water. You might have to walk for a while before you actually enter the dense forest, and these things will be good to have with you.
And of course, don’t forget your gorilla permit! You will need to show this in order to register with your group in the morning. Normally there are around 20 to 30 people trekking on the same day, but you’ll be divided into 4 to 5 smaller groups, each one heading to different gorilla families so as not to stress out the poor gorillas by unleashing 30 people on them at once.
Before you head off into the forest, the guides will give you a quick gorilla lesson, as well as some tea and coffee. Part of this includes orders not to stray to within 7 feet of the gorillas which is very loosely policed since they’ll often wander right across your path. From the orientation, your group will head to the starting point of the trekking. Usually the guides have some idea of where to find the family, but it can still take a few hours before you’ll reach them. When I went it took no more than 20 minutes, and we spent the rest of the time just following them around.
The whole trekking takes about 4 hours, and to be honest that’s enough. A gorilla’s day pretty much consists of eating and napping, and then walking a bit, and then eating again. Though it’s awesome being so close to these wild animals (as well as walking around in the serene rain forest), a couple of hours are sufficient. You’ll be back in town in time for lunch unless you have to walk awhile to find them and it could be later.