Our guide to gorilla trekking in Congo takes travellers through the whole process of trekking the endangered mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, permit cost, the best time to undertake the adventure, information on booking accommodation and transport, rules and regulations to follow when trekking gorillas, and the packing list for gorilla trekking in Congo.
In the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, within the rainforests high on the mountains are the endangered mountain gorillas, one of the most sought-after wildlife species in Africa. These Great Apes live in Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site gazetted in 1925 and sprawling for over 7800 square kilometers. This Park is home to about 200 gorillas mainly occupying the southern region of the Park.
Gorilla families and available gorilla Permits for the Democratic Republic of Congo
Virunga National Park is a haven to about 8 habituated gorilla groups that include Bageni, Humba, Kabirizi, Nyakamwe, Rugendo, Lulengo, Munyaga, and Mapuwa, hence only 64 gorilla permits are availed each day for this Park.
How to book Congo Gorilla Permits
Congo gorilla permits are the cheapest (when compared with the other two destinations where Great Apes are tracked) and cost only $400 per person per trek. Gorilla Trekking in Congo is, therefore, the ideal destination for budget and adventure travellers who would be interested in travelling off-the-beaten-path. However, due to continuous rebel attacks within the Eastern part of the country, Congo has been considered very unstable and unsafe with the recent kidnap of British visitors (in 2018) and murder of Park rangers leading to the closure of the Park. However, Virunga National Park was eventually opened for tourism in 2019.
Regardless of the endless fights, instability, and challenges in gorilla conservation, Virunga National Park is still regarded as a wonderful African treasure in addition to being an extraordinary gorilla trekking destination. This Park takes pride in being one of the first National Parks within the African Continent with rich biodiversity and home to some of the most active Volcanoes in the World.
Congo Gorilla Permits are only issued by ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) but there are two ways to book for these permits. First, you can book on your own by applying directly to ICCN via the official Virunga National Park website, email, phone, or reaching their Head Offices in Kinshasa. This process is however more cumbersome and frustrating as sometimes it becomes difficult to get to them and even when you do, the reply is not always guaranteed in addition to some permits being set aside for direct sales.
The second way to book for Congo Gorilla Permits is through a trusted Tour Operator or Travel Agency. A number of Tour Operators in Uganda and Rwanda usually book over 80% of these permits, with visitors charged a commission of ($50-100) for administrative expenses. However, this commission is relinquished when you book the entire gorilla safari with them.
How gorilla trekking adventures are conducted in Virunga National Park
Gorilla Trekking in Congo is usually an all-day adventure with an early morning start. A typical day starts at about 7:00 am with registration and orientation at the Bukima Ranger Post. Park trackers always go ahead to find the location of each habituated gorilla group and their general distance from the briefing point. Your level of physical fitness and personal interest will determine which gorilla group you can be assigned to and the length of the trek.
After the orientation, you will walk or be driven to the starting point where the trek begins at 8:00 am, depending on the exact location of the gorilla group you will be trekking.
Hike for 1-5 hours before you finally find your assigned gorilla group and in some cases, it takes even the entire day before you reach the gorilla group. The scenery in Virunga National Park is incredibly beautiful and the hike to find mountain gorillas is just part of your experience. Always make sure to move at your comfortable pace and keep hydrated at all times especially at higher altitudes.
As you start approaching the gorilla group, rangers will request you to leave your bags as you get closer to the gorillas. The moment you make contact, you will be allowed to spend one full hour with the mountain gorillas. You will see them munching on Bamboo shoots, grooming each other, resting, hanging on trees, mating, playing and mothers breastfeeding their young ones. Every gorilla trekking experience in Congo is exceptional thus make use of your one hour to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Even when gorillas are on the move, you will move along with them as long as you maintain the minimum distance of 7 meters. There are instances of them approaching visitors but don’t feel frightened but instead slowly move back. Your guides are experienced and will be of great help in answering all your questions about the mountain gorillas, the rainforest, and other wildlife and bird species of the Park. These guides intimately know each gorilla group and can even identify each of them by their individual names and personalities.
How difficult is gorilla trekking?
Gorilla trekking is generally a physically demanding activity with visitors expected to walk through muddy trails, dense forests, and thickets thus it is important to always be prepared both emotionally and physically. The mist and abrupt or unexpected rains sometimes mean that hikes are slippery and at times muddy. However, porters can be hired to carry your backpack and camera equipment in addition to adding humor and excitement to the adventure.
When trekking gorillas in Congo, there is a need to follow the important trekking guidelines issued during a briefing at the Ranger post. Some of these guidelines include following the minimum trekking age limit of 15 years, spending only one hour in the presence of the mountain gorillas after hours of finding them, visiting each habituated gorilla family in a group of not more than 8 persons, maintaining a minimum distance of 7 meters when observing and taking photos of these Great Apes, keeping voices low while trekking or observing them, avoiding the use of flash photography, not drinking, eating or smoking while in the presence of mountain gorillas, first washing hands before embarking on gorilla treks, not littering the forest and keeping any rubbish or food leftovers to yourself and most importantly avoiding direct eye contact with the gorillas.
The Democratic Republic of Congo can be visited all year round although the best months to trek gorillas are June to September all the way to February. Most travellers opt to visit these Great Apes when the rain is reduced and the sun is shining through the jungle. December is the busiest month for Virunga National Park and it is prudent to book for the Congo Gorilla Safari. Much as the rainy season affects many plans and engagements, it doesn’t mean that the scheduled gorilla trek will completely not happen. Therefore even during the rainy season, the sun appears after a heavy downpour hence gorilla treks can go on without interruption.
Safari lodges also offer discounted rates during the rainy/low season as a gesture to attract more visitors.
What to pack and wear for Congo Gorilla Trekking
Your typical day of trekking Congo gorillas is long and fairly difficult while mornings and evenings in Virunga National Park are cold. Packing and wearing the right gear/equipment will make your day remarkable and unforgettable. Have a portable backpack for carrying a lunch box, drinking water, and rain jacket during the trek, Strong hiking boots with extra ankle support for muddy and rocky terrain, a long-sleeved shirt for protection from insects, stinging nettles and sunshine, lunch box, long cotton socks, rain jacket, first aid kit with plasters, antiseptic wipes, rehydration sachets, anti-histamine cream and tablets, pair of binoculars, sunglasses, and sunscreen, camera, gardening gloves to protect your hands, a warm sweater for cold mornings and evenings, hiking pants and many others.
How to get to Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is about 19 miles to the west of Goma Town, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Most travellers to this destination usually jet into Kigali International Airport and catch the 4-5 hour road trip to the Goma-Gisenyi border crossing then continue to Virunga the same or the next day. Alternatively, flights can land at Congo’s Goma International Airport then continue by road.