What does your trip of a lifetime look like? Where would you go, and what would you do? For me, my dream trip was all about Africa... specifically, African wildlife. My whole life, I've been obsessed with animals of all kinds. I'd often imagined what it would be like to come across a wild lion, or to watch a gorilla feed her baby, but never really thought it was something I could experience for real. Even after I earned a university degree in primatology, and lived in Central America so I could study wild monkeys... even after I quit my 'normal' life and moved to Thailand to become a scuba diving instructor, spending my days underwater with sharks... even after I started to travel more and go on amazing adventures, Africa still seemed sort of mythical; a place of fantasy, rather than reality.
Then, one day, I decided to make my dream come true, and started planning my ultimate dream trip. I went mountain trekking in Ethiopia, and on a horseback safari in Kenya; in between, I spent an amazing week on an epic road trip, driving between Entebbe, Uganda, and Kigali, Rwanda. Along the way, I achieved some major goals; I trekked with chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and saw my first wild lion in Queen Elizabeth National Park. It was even better than I could have imagined, and I'd love to share with you the details of how I organized it, what went down, and the answers to some common questions. So, keep reading!
As much as I love traveling solo and planning my adventures independently, I knew I'd need a little help for this one. This trip was too important to me to be willing to take any organizational risks; I wanted to make sure that all my permits were secured correctly, and that everything was arranged in advance, so that I could relax and enjoy this part of the biggest bucket list trip of my life. I researched several companies online, and reached out to many with inquiries, but deciding on Gorilla Trek Africa was an easy call. Right from my first email, Nelson, my contact at GTA, was helpful and kind as he thoroughly answered all my questions and put together my ideal trip. After telling him only that I wanted to trek with both gorillas and chimps, he replied promptly with several different itineraries for me to choose from. GTA specializes in tailor made trips, so every aspect is customized to their clients' needs. I picked my favourite itinerary, then Nelson and I tweaked it so I could begin in Entebbe, Uganda (since I knew I wanted to hang out there after Ethiopia), and finish in Kigali, Rwanda (which was just a quick, inexpensive flight away from Nairobi, the starting point for my horseback safari). He let me choose between budget, mid-range, and luxury accommodation (I picked budget... more on that later), then gave me a price for everything, including a private car + driver/guide, permits, park passes, meals, etc.. I'll tell you now: a trip like this is not inexpensive. I'll also tell you that it was worth every single penny I spent, and I actually think it was very reasonably priced (this post is not sponsored, I'm just being honest).
Since I'm also in the business of providing travellers with exceptional experiences, I'm very picky when it comes to other travel companies... and I'm so, so happy I chose Gorilla Trek Africa. This was such an important trip to me, and GTA got literally every single thing 100% right. If you're reading this blog because you're doing researching your own trip, do yourself a favour and send Nelson an email.
day 1: Entebbe to Kibale National park
About 10 minutes before the scheduled 9am pickup time, a slick Land Cruiser pulled into the parking area of my Entebbe hotel, and I met Asaph, who would be my driver, guide, and road trip buddy for the next 5 days. He greeted me, loaded my bags, then gave me a well-rehearsed welcome speech, making sure I knew that I was in good hands, then gave me a tour of the car. We had loads of space, a well-stocked fridge, and a lovely sunroof (that I was to end up spending lots of time hanging out of during our game drives).
After a brief stop at the GTA office to pick up some last bits of paperwork (and giving me the chance to meet Nelson in person... he was lovely!) we spent the next 6-7 hours driving to Kibale National Park. We passed endless fruit plantations and forests, and drove through local villages. Time passed quickly as we spent the day (and then the rest of the week) listening to my endless reggae playlists, munching bananas while we talked. Amidst the general getting-to-know-you chat, Asaph taught me loads about Uganda and Rwanda's cultures, histories, animals, plants, and environments.
Some days later, once we had become pals, Asaph explained to me how important it was to him, and everyone at GTA, that the guests all feel safe and well cared for during their time with the company. Prior to the trip, I personally had no concerns about safety, but I did really hope I'd have a cool driver to hang out with, since I was otherwise by myself. That first morning of driving with Asaph put me totally at ease; he was professional, a great driver, super knowledgeable, but also a lot of fun.
Around mid-afternoon, we pulled into Chimpanzee Forest Guest House, our first night's lodge, which is where I first realized my definition of "budget accommodation" differs greatly from Gorilla Trek Africa's. Instead of the small, plain room I expected, I was taken to an adorable bungalow with stunning views. The whole property was gorgeous, with loads of fruit trees, tea plantations, and colourful flowers covering the huge grounds. I wandered around the grounds and took some photos, then, after a delicious 3-course dinner, settled into bed for a rest.
day 2: chimpanzee tracking in kibale, then on to Queen Elizabeth national Park
To say I woke up excited is a vast understatement, obviously. Today was the day I would see wild chimpanzees. After a 6:30am breakfast and short sunrise drive we arrived at Kibale National Park, dubbed "The Primate Capital of the World", and a place whose inhabitants I'd studied extensively throughout university. We spotted some red-tail monkeys before we even got out of the car; already, the park was living up to its reputation.
While Asaph took care of my registration I joined the other tourists for a welcome meeting, where we learned about the park, and were also given a set of rules for our chimpanzee viewing experience; keep a distance of 7m from the animals, don't mimic calls (you never know what you might say...), no flash photography, and only healthy trekkers are allowed to join (because humans and chimps are so closely related that illness and disease can easily be transferred to them). We were then split into groups of 8, and set off with our park guide and guard, who carried a rifle in case he needed to scare-shoot (i.e. shoot into the air to frighten any elephants or buffalo away). The trekking was easy, on flat, well paved paths. Tourists had the option of hiring porters to carry their bags, and were provided walking sticks to use as trekking poles.
Park trackers head into the forest at about 7am to locate the chimpanzees, then radio their locations to the guides, so it's almost a guarantee that you'll see chimpanzees. It took only about 45 minutes before our guide quietly told us we were about to get to the chimps. I can't eloquently describe how it felt to be face to face with our closest living relatives, but I'll tell you that I cried a little. They were beyond amazing, and I'm so grateful to have had the chance to see them in real life. We spent over an hour with four males, each one lounging in the leaves without any worries. We were quite lucky to come across them on the ground, as they could otherwise be up in the tree canopy, where they would be more difficult to see. There were times when it felt a bit crowded, as several groups of tourists would be at the same individual at the same time, but everyone was quiet and respectful, and the chimps were clearly completely habituated, and didn't pay us any mind as we enthusiastically snapped photos.
After we left the forest, Asaph and I set out for the 150km drive to our next destination: Queen Elizabeth National Park. On our way out of Kibale we spotted black and white colobus monkeys in the trees, a blue monkey, and many olive baboons... the latter of which would turn out to be common throughout Uganda. We drove across the equator, which was pretty cool, then reached QENP in the middle of the afternoon and went right in for a game drive, figuring the animals would mostly be hiding from the scorching sun, but happy to see what Mother Nature had in store for us; turns out, we were in luck. We spotted warthogs (a personal fav, thanks to the Lion King), lots of kob (a type of antelope), and many African buffalo. Then, we were very fortunate to see a gorgeous lioness who appeared out of nowhere, right next to our car. We were watching her nap in the tall grass when a buffalo all of a sudden headed straight for her, chasing her into the bushes while snorting and grunting! Check out my Instagram Uganda story highlights if you want to see it for yourself! We cruised through the park for hours, and spent sunset watching a herd of elephants, including a brand new wobbly baby, grazing among the trees. By the time I finally reached Enganzi Lodge, my beautiful home for a night, I was more than ready for a good meal, hot shower, and deep sleep.
day 3: Queen elizabeth national park game drive, then on to bwindi impenetrable forest
After an early breakfast we headed back into the park for a sunrise game drive. I sat on the roof of the car and kept my eyes peeled for wildlife while Asaph cruised along slowly. We spotted another herd of elephants having breakfast, many kob, some chunky buffalo, and a few more warthogs, dashing through the savannah with their adorable little tails sticking straight up. The lions were rumoured to have retreated into the depths of the huge protected space, so we decided to head out of the park and onto our next destination, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
As we headed further south, the ecosystem shifted from a hot, dry savannah to a cool, humid forest. Lush green plants flourished everywhere, and nearby Rwanda's volcanos loomed in the distance. We arrived at Gorilla Mist Camp in the early afternoon and I was thrilled by the gorgeous views from my solar-powered hut. I spent the rest of the day wandering around, relaxing, and reading; a welcome rest in the middle of a very exciting road trip.
day 4: gorilla tracking & crossing into rwanda
I woke up elated, knowing I'd soon be in the presence of the mountain gorillas... something I never thought I'd ever have the chance to do in the wild. I had a quick breakfast before taking the short drive into Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
The process for trekking with gorillas was basically the same as with the chimpanzees. All the tourists gathered at the forest's headquarters for a group briefing, then we split into smaller groups of 8, were assigned a guide, given the option to hire porters or borrow walking sticks, before heading into the forest. Again, trackers find each gorilla group ahead of time, so while it's possible for it to take all day to find the gorillas, it's likely that your whole gorilla experience will be over in time for lunch.
I was assigned the Bitukura family, which happens to have two silverbacks, and I couldn't wait to meet them. The trekking experience was more challenging here than in Kibale with the chimps; of course, mountain gorillas got their name for a reason, and the terrain can be steep at times. It was pretty simple to get to them, taking under an hour of slow hiking, but we reached them just as they decided to cover some ground, crashing through the dense jungle, down a mountain side, leaving us to scramble to keep up. I wasn't sure if we'd really get to spend much time with them, but was happy to have at least caught a glimpse. It's important to remember that wild animals are free to do whatever they please, and go wherever they want; part of the adventure is that there are no guarantees that the wildlife will want to hang out with you.
Just as I started to have flashbacks of my university field season spent trying desperately to keep up with the totally unhabituated spider monkeys I was attempting to study, a gorgeous female gorilla popped out of the bushes with her baby in tow. She sat right next to us, munching on leaves, while her baby gazed at us calmly. Having been born into a habituated and protected family, he's never had any fear of humans. More individuals came into view, climbing trees or cruising through the forest. A massive 250kg silverback lumbered past before retreating into the bushes, and I marvelled at his presence. Tracking the gorillas was a fabulous adventure, and time flew by. Our guides were generous with our time allowance, but before I knew it, it was time to say goodbye to the gorillas and head out of the forest.
The afternoon was spent driving into Rwanda. The border crossing was quick and easy, aided by the fact that I already had my East Africa Tourist Visa. Asaph told me that Rwanda was the cleanest country in Africa, and it didn't take long for me to see what he meant. The roads were spotless; Asaph said that every Rwandan is responsible for helping to clean the land, and there are certain days where everything shuts down so people have time to devote to tidying up: something the rest of the world should use as an example. We arrived at the last lodge of the trip: Gorilla Solution Lodge, overlooking the Virunga volcanos. It was another incredible place to stay, with ultra friendly staff who even tucked hot water bottles into my bed while I was in the restaurant having dinner, and who insisted on cleaning my filthy hiking boots (maybe more for their sake than mine...). The wifi was good too, so I did a little catching up online while drinking a beer by the fireplace. Not too shabby, eh?
day 5: golden monkey tracking & kigali
I couldn't believe how quickly time had passed when I woke up on the final day of the road trip. To be honest, I felt a bit emotional as I headed off for my final trek, knowing that one of the best experiences of my life was about to come to an end. We took a short drive to the headquarters of Volcanos National Park on a cool, drizzly morning. This time, I was off to visit golden monkeys, an endangered species of monkey only found in the Virunga mountain region of Central Africa. As with the chimpanzees and gorillas, we were paired with our guides and briefed before heading into the forest. Again, trackers had set out early to find the monkeys, and it didn't take long before we were led right to them. Unlike the apes, these guys were super active; jumping through the forest canopy, and playing with each other nonstop. They were very fun to watch, and pretty tricky to photograph, since it was impossible to tell what they would do next! There were many individuals, maybe two dozen or more, and they definitely put on quite a show; a few times individuals popped out of bushes and ran directly into me!
After our morning with the monkeys was up, our final leg of the road trip took us into Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. We had some extra time before I had to be at the airport to catch my evening flight to Nairobi, so Asaph offered to take me to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The centre honours the memory of the 800 000 people who were murdered in only 100 days, in one of the most horrific events in human history. Through videos, filmed interviews, and an extensive informational display, the centre educates people on what happened, and why. It also serves as a place to honour the memories of those who lost their lives; over 250 000 people are buried at the centre, so visitors, including the victims' families, can come to pay their respects. It's truly a beautiful memorial, and although it was heart wrenching, I'm so glad I had the opportunity to visit the centre and learn more about the genocide. I would also like to emphasize that the genocide is very much over, and that Rwanda is a very safe, welcoming place. The Rwandans are now united, and the separation introduced by colonization, which is what directly led to the genocide, is a thing of the past. I am humbled and impressed by how resilient Rwandans are, having moved forward from a terrible time, without forgetting the past.
From the memorial, Asaph took me to the airport, while we both talked about how quickly the week had passed. I was sad to say goodbye to my new friend, but so grateful to have been able to go on this adventure. This truly was the trip of a lifetime, and the only thing that could possibly have made it any better would be to have had more days to keep it going...
Is gorilla/chimpanzee/monkey tracking ethical? Yes! The animals were all completely habituated to humans, and only passive interactions are allowed (i.e. no touching, feeding, noise mimicking, or getting too close). Additionally, the income generated by this form of tourism supports conservation of the animals and land (benefitting the ecosystem as a whole, not just the primate species we pay to visit). The permit fees and other costs contribute to the economies of these countries, provide jobs for people, and make it financially viable to put resources into protecting the animals and their homes.
Is it safe? Absolutely. I felt 100% safe at all times. Everyone I interacted with, from lodge staff, to border officials, park rangers, and of course, my driver, was perfectly professional and friendly. Both Uganda and Rwanda are also very stable, safe countries. The non-human primates were friendly, too!
What about visas? Visas are available online for most nationalities. I recommend the East Africa Tourist visa, which is valid across Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, and makes border crossings quick and easy. It's also cheaper, and takes up less valuable passport space, than 3 separate visas. Apply online on the immigration website of the country you'll visit first.
What to pack? Bring along hiking clothes including long pants, long sleeved trekking shirts, hiking boots, and a sunhat. Also pack comfy casual clothes for evenings, sandals or comfy shoes, a warm sweater, and a rainjacket. The gorilla habitat includes stinging nettles, so it's a good idea to bring gardening gloves (or horseback riding gloves, in my case!) to protect your hands while you move through the bush. Gaiters and trekking poles are not necessary, in my opinion.
How much does it cost? The price will vary widely depending on your itinerary. One big chunk of the expense is the gorilla tracking permit. In Uganda, the cost is $600USD for the permit. In Rwanda, the price recently went up to $1500USD for the permit. The most budget-friendly option for gorilla trekking is The Congo, where a pass will cost $400USD. Chimpanzee permits for Kibale are $150USD per person. If you book a trip like mine, you'll probably have paid for everything in advance, but still remember to bring cash (in local currency or in USD/Euro/GBP) for tips, porters, and souvenir shopping. In addition to your driver, you'll interact with a lot of people, such as guides, scouts, trackers etc., and tips are always appreciated.
Did I miss any questions? What's your ultimate dream trip? Comment below!
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