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What to pack for a Gorilla trek in Rwanda

May 29, 2023

By Jackie Badenhorst

I recently visited Rwanda for a gorilla trekking photographic expedition with Tusk Photo. To say the trip was incredible is an under statement – this experience crept into my heart as one of my most special ever. 

The scenic Volcanoes National park covers 160 km2 of rainforest and encompasses five of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains, namely Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo. It borders Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.

This was my first trip to Rwanda and I was truly impressed with the country. Despite a tumultuous history, riddled with violence and conflict, the people have worked together to build their nation in peace. The people we met, both young and old, were friendly, full of hope and so proud of their country, they welcomed tourists with open arms. 

The trip took place in the beginning of May, toward the end of the long rainy season. The park is open year-round but generally the high season would be June to September, during the dry season. We didn’t get a lot of rain when walking – a few drops now and then, although it did rain at night, making the area muddy the following day. We did however enjoy the cloud cover when trekking – this meant it wasn’t really hot and we good, even lighting conditions for photography. 

We were lucky enough to enjoy 4 gorilla treks during our 5 night stay. This is another benefit of heading there during the low season – as often there are too many people vying for the 96 permits granted per day (which breaks down to groups visiting 8 of the 13 habituated groups daily). There are also golden monkey treks on offer, although we opted for an additional gorilla trek instead.

So how does the daily trek work?

You leave your lodge and arrive at the park headquarters around 6:30/7am, where you are assigned a ranger for the trek. 

This is a well-run operation, with guests enjoying complimentary coffees and drinks while your driver guide arranges your trek for the day, is alotted your park ranger (who leads the trek), as well as the gorilla group you will be visiting.

The park rangers have a quick brief where they tell you about the gorilla family you will be visiting, what to expect when you find them, how to behave when around the gorilla family. From there, you drive to the area where you will begin your trek.

Experienced park ranger, Daniel Niyonsaba
Experienced and knowledgeable park ranger, Daniel Niyonsaba, we really enjoyed his company.

Once you arrive at the starting point, you meet up with porters who will carry your bags during the trek if you need it. These are ex-poachers, now employed to assist tourists on a daily basis. This is a vital initiative for sustainable conservation in Africa – not only do these guys stop their poaching activities but the actually start caring for for these animals’ well-being – as the gorilla’s survival ensures them jobs and resultant food on their table.  

Porters at Volcanoes National PArk
A great group of porters

We had so many cameras that we opted to hire porters. They were really friendly, helpful guys. There were some super muddy sections where every misstep had you sinking your feet and legs into mud. The porters always had a helping hand to get you up and out.  You needed to have hands free to grip and hold, so carrying stuff wouldn’t be ideal. I would recommend hiring a porter – this allowed me to take more equipment than what I would’ve otherwise, as well as extra water, a raincoat etc. 

Back to the trek.. As you head off, you also practice sounds you will make when communicating with gorillas. Basically a ‘we-come-in-peace’ kind of call. 

Beautiful scenery on the trek. Image by Nellie Tromp.

Trek distances vary according to your preference – generally between 3-5km. This is not far but there are some steep sections, so the entire trek could take anything from 4-5 hours. The porters chop through dense sections of vegetation – allowing you to get through with relative ease. As with anything in life, the fitter you are the more enjoyable the activity.

Eventually you meet up with trackers who spend their day with the gorilla group. Here you will leave your bag, take only the cameras you need and head in for an hour with the gorillas.

That first moment I spotted them took my breath away and filled my eyes with tears. It was incredible. I’d always heard how special it was but this far exceeded my expectations.

Selfie with first gorilla group
Obligatory selfie with the first gorilla’s I saw!

We visited the Hirwa, Umubano, Kwitonda and Urwego groups. 

Each group had completely different structures – some more silverbacks, some more youngsters. We found them to be extremely relaxed in our presence.  

No words can do the time spent with gorilla’s any justice – you’ll need to experience this for yourself. All I can do is offer some advice on equipment you may benefit from taking along.

My essentials for the trek:

  • Long hiking pants with stretch – like the Craghoppers Nosilife Pro Stretch pant. Plenty stinging nettles around, watch out, the sting doesn’t last (unless like me, you lay in a stinging nettle for 10 minutes because the photographic angle is good – that night I suffered with burns and itches for hours!)
  • Long sleeve shirt – Like the Craghoppers Nosilife Adventure L/S or Nosilife Pro Stretch L/S – keep yourself protected from sun, insects and stinging nettles.
  • Gaiters – the long version that go up to your knee (these protect you from nettles and serious mud).
  • Overtrousers (I wore the Craghoppers waterproof over trouser – this worked really well, as my clothing beneath wasn’t covered in mud, plus they are waterproof – should you get heavy downpours. I actually saw a number of the park rangers and trackers wearing them). 
  • Waterproof breathable rain jacket – a must – you’re in a rainforest.
  • Boots 
  • Cap – it gets hot when walking, before you get into the rainforest.
  • Water
  • Cash for tips (you will tip your ranger, porter and tracker for their invaluable assistance)
  • Cash to buy curios at end of trek (the community set up tables with their beautiful artworks at the end of the trek), plus there is a community centre on the main road with a variety of curio to purchase (they generally accept credit cards).

Photography equipment 

What did I take?

  • 3 full frame camera bodies 
  • 16-35mm 2.8
  • 24-70mm 2.8
  • 70 – 200mm 2.8
  • 400mm f4.5  
  • iPhone

The gorillas are generally within close quarters. You should be around 7m from them but they often come closer to you due to the confined spaces you share, which is great!

By the time we found them each day, they have done their first feed for the day and were resting/grooming/playing – this was wonderful. When they get up to feed they move fast and the photography can be more challenging. 

Iphone pic of a relaxed silverback.

As mentioned above, you have to leave your bag and take the cameras/lenses you want along. The 400 was only used twice for portraits, I mainly used the 70-200mm and 16-35mm. This ensured a wide variety of shots – wide to portrait. I also used my iPhone for a few videos and behind the scenes shots. 

Go check out some of the images I captured on Instagram

This trip is a naturalist’s dream, highly recommended. I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of physical activity, interaction with wonderful local people, plus then the awe-inspiring moments with gorillas. To me, being on foot and in close quarters with wildlife always feels like you’re truly a part of the ecosystem, as opposed to just an on-looker from a vehicle. I find it absolutely thrilling and memorable. 

It is wonderful to see what a country can become with proper leadership and open-minded, proud people. Rwanda is filled with hope – coming from South Africa, I feel inspired by what they’ve achieved. 

Happiest kids I’ve ever seen!

We visited the genocide museum and the Ellen Degeneres campus for the Dian Fossey Gorilla fund on the drive from Kigali to the National Park – both were informative and very much worth the visit. They really give you a good background on the country as a whole, and the plight of gorilla’s over the years.

If you head out, which I implore you to do, may you have as magical a time as I did. Enjoy! 

The dreamteam that made our trip so special, lead by the wonderful driver guide, Sam Nayebare.
Tusk Photo gorilla trek group
A happy group – courtesy of Tusk Photo

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