News & Reviews Africa Rwanda A guide to gorilla trekking in Rwanda

So you’ve just spent $1500 to spend an hour with adolescents.  Maybe some even as young as 3 weeks old.  Perhaps an adult or two will be present.  Under normal circumstances you would be arrested, but these are irregular times we live in.  As with all encounters where you pay significant sums of money to spend private time with a group that you’ve never met before, you will naturally be nervous.  Don’t be, for I am here to set things right with a simple FAQ.

What’s the process?

Assuming the idea of a luxury lodge is better than a caravan, you will have a wake-up call around 5:45.  After cursing evolution for making you wake up this early to see your ancestors – something you’d never do for your actual relatives – you’ll eat and be merry until around 6:30.  Right up until you realise how long the day is.  Before leaving Bisate you’ll sit down in a throne and feel like a pedicure is coming, but instead get suited up with gaiters and gloves.  Make sure to try the gloves on before you leave, as mine were small enough to be designed for premature babies.  You will definitely need them to avoid all the stinging nettles, and to keep your hands safe for all the high fiving you’ll do later.

Remember that guy who picked you up from the airport and drove you to your lodge?  You better have been nice to him, as that man will decide your fate.  But first, he’ll drive you to the activities meeting point, ensuring you’re there by 7am.

Why do you need to arrive by 7am?  I can only assume punishment.  You don’t actually do anything for nearly an hour, except eye up the other Westerners, pray they are not dicks, hope you don’t get assigned with any of them and drink coffee.  Entertainment is a TV showing the President talk to an American interviewer, to give legitimacy to his unlimited power and endless rule.  Your driver will then bargain for your spot amongst the easy, medium or hard treks.

After you’ve assigned your group, you get to meet your guide and fellow inmates.  A quick briefing explains the basics: no biting, scratching or hair pulling.  Then you have to stand around whilst you wait for all the drivers to get ready and leave at once in a convoy that looks super important and would absolutely be shown in slow-motion in a movie.

Great, so now what?

Oh, sorry, did I forgot to mention that you’re a 30-60 minute drive away?  And that the roads you travel on feel like they were a cure for hypersomnia.  So it’s now 9am, you’ve arrived at the starting point and lots of porters show up to take your bags.  You may now begin.

How long does it take?

We were never asked what we wanted on our first hike.  A gorilla family fond of 5 star luxury hotels, that just love to hang around room #5 at Bisate would have been nice, but instead we got put into a group of 7 on a medium trek.  Leaving at 9am, I was hoping to be back by 1pm, just in time for Diagnosis Murder re-runs; instead we returned after 4pm.  It took 2 hours just to get into the park, and a further 90 minutes to find the gorillas, ducking our way through newly created paths that porters slashed away in front of us.  We also had to contend with 3 Germans of the elder variety, that thought the entire experience was designed just for them, and used every opportunity to get in the way.  That’s normally my job.

Our second hike took barely an hour, putting us back at Bisate by 11:25.

In summary: no one knows.

Thiiiiis long

What if I’m so unfit that the last time I saw my genitals without using a selfie stick was 10 years ago?  

The rangers ultimately decide on which group will trek with which gorilla family, but all of these are estimates.  You’re also not guaranteed to get an easier trek if you ask for it.  The gorillas move, and the trackers may not even find them until you’re well into the park.  Just because it was easy yesterday doesn’t guarantee it today.

Our group had 60+ year olds and they all managed, but if you’re still worried then know that for $200 you can hire a group of porters to carry you the entire time.  If ever there was money well spent.

What if I end up with people I don’t like?

Join the club.  If you have a spare $15,000, you are in luck.  You don’t even have to go to the pointless meet-and-greet center.  You may as well have a lay in, wake up around 9, go to the spa, make some phone calls to overthrow a government of your choosing, then go on your trek around midday, just after your bath made of caviar.

Alternatively, for those of you, let’s say, more frugal, like me, see what your driver can do.  After not being asked on the first day, I gave him the following criteria:

  1. If the hike is so difficult that we have to swim across a river filed with starved crocodile, but we get to be alone, then go for it
  2. If you cannot get us alone, make it an easy hike
  3. If all else fails, put us in a group with others from Bisate.  The treks are normally mixed with other lodges.

I was so excited by going on a private hike that the gorillas became secondary.  Me, me, me.  That’s my families motto.

A little known fact: gorillas are twice as amazing when you see them only with people you like

So is it worth going twice?

Definitely.  And I don’t even get paid for saying this.  Each group is so different that you could well be looking at a different species.

Some eat leaves, others eat human brains

Why is the process so unbelievably convoluted?  

If it was easy, would you really appreciate it?  Oh, you would?  Then I can’t help you.

What do I need to wear?  

I have been called the David Beckham of literature, so I assume that means my fashion sense is impeccable.  Bisate provided gloves and gaiters, so all that was left was to wrap-up with a windbreaker and trousers – ideally thick ones to avoid the continuous threat of stinging nettles.  The experience is so exciting that if you find yourself naked no one would blink.

I would definitely recommend a baseball cap as well – I never wear one (hence why I was wearing my freebie from Cheval Blanc), but it saved me a few times by hitting branches just before my face did.

Is it safe?

What could be safer than having your 15 year-old trackers equipped with AK-47s?  Oh, you mean the gorillas.  Absolutely – as long as you don’t challenge them to a leadership contest.

Is it worth it?  

Absolutely.  I will remember the experience right up until I have a better story to talk about.

What if I have ebola?  Should I still go?

50/50.  Best err side on the caution and stay in bed until it passes.

Can I touch them?

Not if you have ebola.  Best not to even if you’re not bleeding from your eyes.  Would you want to have someone that looks like you touch you? Probably not.

Can they touch me?

Easy now, but yes!  And how cool is that? Just don’t go being weird now.  One touched me, and whilst I initially felt confused about these new feelings, I learnt to accept it and remember it fondly forever.

Alright, Gary – calm down!

How does tipping work?

The list of people that you’re expected to tip is not specified, but at some stage felt like public knowledge.  That left us as the foreign dip shits that weren’t aware of local customs.  Like adding too much milk into a Yorkshireman’s tea.

For clarity:  porters, trackers, guides and your driver. I’m pretty sure Guy the gorilla wasn’t actually reaching out for my leg, but sticking his hand out for $5. Seeing that there were up to 10 staff on a hike, you should carry around your life savings in cash to be on the safe side. I took 3 armed guards with me to protect my stockpile.  Unfortunately they only accepted payment in cash, so I had nothing left at the end to give away.

I don’t feel so bad tipping in a country where even $5-$10 can help out immensely, but I don’t like how the list of those being tipped seemed to endlessly grow.

The porters are salaried and even appear as a line on your invoice. They get paid directly by your driver. This is the beginning of where our confusion began, as we had been told to tip porters and that’s it. So we did, then we saw our driver paying him and he told us we should be tipping the guide, not the porters, so next day we did both, and then the lodge manager said the trackers are often tipped too. I’m sure next time I go back those trackers will give me a 19 hour hike as revenge.
I assume the toilets have golden swans, like Riz Paris?
Things are far classier in Rwanda.  You find a nearest bush, check the direction the wind is blowing and avoid pissing into it.

How much does it cost?

Have you read nothing I’ve said?  $1500.  Plus lots of hidden fees, such as an evacuation fee, in case they need to carry you out the park.  Whether that’s to get you away from the gorillas or vice versa is currently unknown.

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 4th Nov '18

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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