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20 July 2021

Luxury Gorilla Safaris in Africa

Want to know the best places to see gorillas on your African safari? Our safari experts are here with a guide to help you plan the ultimate gorilla safari holiday!

At last count, there were just over a thousand mountain gorillas in the wild. The entire population can be found in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over half, 604 to be precise, can be found straddling the border of these three countries, in the Virunga Massif. Virunga is a phenomenal area comprising volcanos, snow-capped mountains, and deep rainforest that covers the corner of these three countries. The remaining population, by some scientists considered a separate subspecies, is found in Uganda’s nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

One of the most popular questions we’re asked is, Where is it best to view gorillas? The first point to stress is that, solely from a direct experience point of view, there is no right answer. Spending time with any family, any group, in any country is equally rewarding, equally thrilling. Viewing a gorilla group is also 100 per cent guaranteed everywhere we operate trips; we’ve never designed a trip in which clients didn’t view the gorillas.

However, the wilder the destination – the Democratic Republic of the Congo being the wildest of the three – the ‘wilder’ the gorilla groups are. The DRC’s gorillas have simply spent less time with people, so their habituation is not nearly as advanced. The animals are more cautious around humans. For this reason, and obvious safety concerns of travelling to the DRC overall, for the vast majority of travellers the choice is between Uganda and Rwanda. Below, we’ve listed the top places we’d recommend for a gorilla safari in Africa.

If you want to discuss planning a gorilla safari in Africa, you can give us a call at ​+44 208 547 2305 or send our experts a message here.

What is the Best Gorilla Safari in Rwanda?

Many people will say that Rwanda is easier trekking, but clients should, first of all, appreciate the fact that all treks take place at altitude, so trekking is certainly never a walk in the park! From Rwanda’s capital Kigali, it’s less than a 3-hour drive to the properties you’ll stay in, which basically look over the rainforest-covered volcanos where the gorillas live. All walks start from the main park headquarters, involving very little driving time.

Due to a fantastic marketing campaign over a sustained period of time, Rwanda has attracted significantly more attention than the other locations over the years. The result is higher prices for park fees and overall better quality and ultimately significantly more expensive lodges. Park permits alone are $1,500 per person in Rwanda, versus Uganda’s $700 per person, while lodges can cruise into the multi-thousands of dollars per night! The reality is, you’re deciding to stay in some of Africa’s very best properties by choosing Rwanda: some of the very best companies work here, catering to the high-end market above all else.

For Rwanda, the general rule is that, due to the size of the country and ultimately the lack of other first-class game parks, Rwanda is best for a short gorilla safari. Combining time there with Kenya’s Maasai Mara or Tanzania’s Serengeti is a trip we’ll design often. The exception to this rule is Rwanda’s ‘Akagera National Park’, where African Parks is working with the government on one of the continent’s most pioneering wildlife projects to be found anywhere in Africa. Akagera offers the Big Five along with excellent boating and walking; it is off-the-beaten-track… the place to go to really experience everything Rwanda can offer. Take a look at an example trip itinerary here.

#1: Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Gorillas safari, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Gorillas, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Rwanda

Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda has an array of luxury lodges that offer the ultimate gorilla trekking experience. With the likes of Wilderness Safaris, Singita, and One & Only owning properties here, standards are set exceptionally high, while combinations with safari in Tanzania’s Serengeti or Kenya’s Masaai Mara are common. The gorilla trekking here can be remarkably easy, with some families located close to farmland and even the lodges themselves. Other groups can be much further away, but treks can be designed to the closest groups for people worried about longer walks.

There are seven groups that tourists visit with family numbers, varying from six or seven to as high as over thirty individuals. The most famous – the Susa group – was made famous by Dian Fossey; however, treks to see this incredible family can take 5 hours, as they nestle into the upper reaches of Mount Visoke. It is an incredibly rewarding experience to trek this far and meet the ‘Susa’… but by no means an easy task! Unfortunately, we can’t actually choose the group you visit, but we can help choose where you stay. For the vast majority of our clients, we choose between three properties:

Bisate Lodge

Bisate Lodge is a YZ favourite because of its unique, modern yet authentic design; there is nothing else like it. Seeing first hand the attention to detail in every aspect of the lodge and the care taken to offer the very best experience to all guests, we were seriously impressed; this is a wonderful property. The main purpose of your safari here is your gorilla trek, but a stay at Bisate is about so much more than this. Go for walks with the camp guide to the top of the hill behind the lodge, from where you’ll have breathtaking views out over Volcanoes National Park. With just six villas, Bisate has a very exclusive feel, and the main areas lend themselves well to a post-trek sundowner by the fire chatting about your experiences.

 

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is another fantastic option located right on the edge of the national park. Gorillas have been seen in the grounds on occasion. Run by Governors Safaris, this lodge has a more traditional feel; it is one of the oldest lodges in the area, with very close links to the local community of which it is rightly proud. Located on the top of a hill with wonderful views, it has a lot of steps, but there’s a great little buggy that can pick you up from the car park and take you up to the lodge, saving you what would otherwise be quite a strenuous climb. If you are looking for modern unique design then stay at Bisate, but if you want to feel like you are on safari this lodge has a more traditional safari feel.

 

Singita Kwitonda Lodge

Finally, we must mention one of the newest lodges, Singita Kwitonda Lodge. Opened in 2018, Kwitonda focuses on five-star luxury and the ‘hospitality experience’ above all else, a fact that is fundamentally the difference between Kwitonda and the more authentic option of Bisate. The large glass-fronted suites are incredibly spacious, with plunge pools that look out towards the national park; it is not unthinkable that you might see a gorilla while sipping champagne in a plunge pool! The individual suites are well spread out across the site, which has very few steps. Built using local materials, this super-luxury lodge is the most expensive lodge in the area.

Bisate and Kwitonda see prices well into the multi-thousands per night, so for many clients a luxury gorilla safari in Rwanda is beyond their budget. Uganda, however, offers more affordable destinations to consider…

What is the Best Gorilla Safari in Uganda?

For Uganda, the sheer size of the country and other major attractions such as Murchison Falls, Kidepo Valley, and Queen Elizabeth National Park see longer trips recommended within Uganda itself. It’s also possible, however, to fly in for a short, excellent-value gorilla safari. Uganda’s gorilla regions are a good distance away from the capital Kampala. A flight is needed, and the gorilla walks set off from five different locations. Access, therefore, is much more difficult than Rwanda as a whole.

It is also worth mentioning that steeper trekking areas of Uganda (an area called Nkuringo especially) can take the difficulty level up significantly, while a number of Rwanda’s gorilla groups are found on flat ground, within easy walking distances of the park headquarters. So, technically it is correct to say that Rwanda is the easier location to trek, but that if you avoid Nkuringo in Uganda, for example, and focus on the flatter Rushaga sector then Uganda evens out at the same level of technical difficulty.

#2: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

Gorilla tracking, Bwindi Impenetrable, Uganda
Forest safari for gorilla tracking, Bwindi, Uganda

Uganda offers gorilla safaris in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The trekking permits are $700 and this saving can also be found in the accommodation on offer. For real gorilla enthusiasts in Uganda, you can book a Gorilla Habituation experience allowing you to spend 4 hours in the forest with a gorilla group that the researchers and park rangers are habituating. This really is the ultimate gorilla experience.

Located in the south-west of Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a nine-and-a-half hour drive or a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Entebbe and is home to the only remaining population of gorillas outside the Virunga Massif. Not only does the park have a fantastic name, it is unique because it is the only place where you can do both gorilla trekking and the gorilla habituation experience.

Inside Bwindi National Park there are four trekking areas: Buhoma (great for your first trek), Ruhija (closer to the budget lodges), Nkuringo (more off the beaten track and more physically challenging), and Rushaga (for the gorilla habitation). Each area has its own trekking meeting point. If you are considering doing two treks, which many people believe gives you the best experience, we would suggest trying to get a permit for two different areas. However, the locations may well be decided by permit availability, with permits often selling out over a year in advance in peak season.

The vast majority of treks take place in the Buhoma area. There are a number of excellent properties here; however, we do have a few favourites:

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge

If you’re looking for a little bit more luxury, Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge is a more luxurious lodge with breathtaking views out over the forest. The trekking in Uganda works in a very similar way to Rwanda – meeting at the park headquarters early on the day of your trek, trekking to the gorillas, spending an hour with them before heading back down the mountain. The average gorilla trek in Uganda does tend to be a little longer than those in Rwanda and the terrain is slightly more challenging. If you have an average level of fitness and no issues with your ankles and knees, the trek will be challenging but not impossible. Bwindi sometimes lives up to its name as the Impenetrable Forest!

There are more excellent properties in this area: Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, Mahogany Springs, and Gorilla Forest Camp. If you are looking for high-end luxury, then I would suggest you look at Rwanda, where there are a number of stunning luxury lodges with a price tag to match.

In both Rwanda and Uganda, it is possible to extend your safari to include other activities. In Rwanda, you can see the Big Five in Akagera National Park and chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest National Park. However, if you are keen to do a chimp trek, we would encourage you to think about Uganda and include Murchison Falls National Park and chimp-trekking Budongo Forest in your itinerary. To understand the subtle differences between the experiences, please get in touch with one of the YZ team, who will be able to guide you through what both countries have to offer, otherwise, take a look at this example gorilla safari to Uganda.

#3: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda

Views, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda, Africa
Gorilla safari, Mount Gahinga Lodge, Uganda

To the south of Bwindi is Mgahinga National Park. Mgahinga, the smallest of the three areas we trek for mountain gorilla, is a little gem of a park where three extinct volcanos dominate the landscape. This is a very pretty off-the-beaten-track place that hosts a range of wildlife, while the Batwa pygmies still live in the area to this day, bringing a special cultural element to the trip. We’ll often only ever design trips to Mgahinga for clients that are looking to do two gorilla safaris and who don’t want both walks in Bwindi.

The lodges here are not of the same quality as those in Bwindi, which is the main reason we often suggest it as a second option. Mount Gahinga Lodge is our recommendation in this area. Most of our clients who visit this area are doing their second gorilla trek and looking for the most diverse and contrasting trekking experience.

One thing it is worth knowing is the treks in this area start at around 2,200m, so you do feel the altitude a little more than in Bwindi. However, the vegetation tends not to be as dense and the local Nyakagezi gorilla family is very well habituated, which does potentially offer excellent photographic opportunities. This area of forest is part of the Virunga Massif, linking with Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

What are the best gorilla-tracking safaris in the Republic of the Congo?

Finally, we must mention it is also possible to see Eastern Lowland Gorillas in the Republic of the Congo

In a remote location in the Congo Basin, Odzala can only be accessed via charter flights from Brazzaville twice per week. The key difference between this experience and those in Uganda and Rwanda is your location right in the heart of the gorillas’ habitat – you are quite literally entering their world for the duration of your stay. You will enjoy walking safaris into the forest, kayaking, boat safaris on the river, game drives in the savannah areas and also on your gorilla trek. Having your guide with you throughout the safari makes this a very personal experience. You need to do your homework if you are thinking of heading to the Congo. You need to speak to a safari specialist who has been there to properly understand this amazing place.

#4: Tracking Western Lowland Gorillas of Odzala

Gorill trekking, Odzala, Republic of Congo, Africa
Odzala view of bai, gorilla trekking, Congo

This is the most adventurous of the options we have mentioned and logistically a little more challenging, but if you like adventurous travel we would highly recommend a trip to Odzala National Park. This is a very immersive experience, as you will be staying in the Odzala Discovery Camps, spending a week or ten days moving between their three camps Ngaga, Lango, and Mboko - your base for the gorilla trekking. Being in the remote rainforest has its challenges. The walking safaris often involve wading through rivers. There are quite a few bugs, and heavy rain is very possible at any time.

Should you wish to have the ‘ultimate gorilla safari’, it is possible to see the lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo with their larger mountain cousins in Uganda or Rwanda. The two species are different in both appearance and the way they behave, so to experience these two different environments and species in one trip was a very humbling experience. For an example itinerary to the Republic of Congo, check out our 4-night and 7-night gorilla tracking safaris here.

How to decide on where to go for the best gorilla safari in Africa?

Access and price (of both permits and accommodation) are clearly the most commonly spoken-about differences between the destinations. As we’ve already mentioned in this article, Rwanda is the more expensive option (by far) and caters towards that top-end client, while Uganda offers incredibly good value properties and a very good experience overall. The DRC remains off our recommended itinerary list for safety concerns alone, while the Republic of the Congo is our ‘off-the-beaten-track’ destination of choice. It’s then important to understand how trips to see either country’s gorillas fit into your safari itinerary as a whole. Uganda is the place to go for a longer ‘one country’ trip and Rwanda is most commonly booked as part of a Big Five safari in either Kenya or Tanzania’s Serengeti.

The key, though, is to chat to our experts about their favourite trips and all the options available to you. Please get in touch for a chat!

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