1. Pace yourself. Remember, gorilla trekking is not a race. You will be hiking well above sea level, and even very fit people can feel the effects of the diminished oxygen in the air, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, and a racing heartbeat. Whenever I travel to the region after being home in Boston at sea level I need to go through an adjustment period of several weeks before I can hike at “ranger speed.” Most tourists will not be adjusted to the altitude, so it’s best to travel at a slow but steady rate. Don’t be afraid to ask your guide to stop for a few minutes if you need to catch your breath. It’s helpful to avoid alcohol and cigarettes and get a good night’s sleep before trekking.
2. Beware of ants and nettles. If this is your first time visiting a rain forest, you may be imagining a deep, dark jungle filled with poisonous snakes and biting insects. Luckily for you, the relatively cool temperature and high elevation of mountain gorilla habitat mean you’ll avoid the mambas and Jurassic-park sized mosquitoes of Africa’s lowland forests. However, you will need to keep an eye out for ants and stinging nettle plants. Red ants often travel in columns crossing trails in the forest. As long as you don’t step on them you’ll be fine. And whatever you do, always check the ground if you’re going to the toilet or sitting down. Otherwise, you may find yourself with your hands down your pants, groping at the nasty pinchers digging into your read end. I’m sad to say I’ve seen grown men strip off their clothes and beg for salvation after sitting on an infested log.
The forest is also home to a variety of nettle plants that cause stinging pain which can last for anywhere from 5 minutes to several hours. Ask your guide to indentify which plants to stay away from. In some places, it’s impossible to avoid nettles. In this case, wearing a rain jacket and rain pants can help prevent keep the nettles from reaching your skin.
3. Observe good gorilla etiquette. When visiting a mountain gorilla group, you are the guest of the group’s dominant silverback male, whose job it is to protect the family. Despite the fierce reputation of silverback gorillas, these animals generally remain calm and behave predictably, especially if tourists follow a few simple rules. Don’t worry if you can’t remember everything here. You guide will remind you when you are about to reach the gorillas.
- Leave walking sticks and trekking poles behind as the gorillas may feel intimidated by items that look like weapons.
- When tourists first approach a group, the silverbacks may charge or display—chest beating, lip pursing, and even bending or breaking trees or bamboo. They are basically telling you that this is their turf and they are in charge. If you are charged, resist the urge to turn around and run, as this will encourage the silverback to continue charging. Instead, stop and then slowly back away. If you are on a path, move off of it to allow the gorilla to pass.
- Stay on the edge of the gorilla group—don’t walk through it. Especially be careful to not get between the silverback and youngsters.
- If a curious youngster approaches you, back away. If it continues towards you, make a soft coughing sound. This vocalization means “stop it” in gorilla language. Ask your guide to give you a demonstration.
- Don’t forget to turn your camera’s flash off as this can startle the gorillas. If you have a camera tripod with you, pay careful attention to the gorillas’ body language as you set it up. Sometimes gorillas don’t mind a tripod, sometimes they do. If they appear uncomfortable or agitated, they probably view your tripod as a threat. Put it away as there’s no way you’ll get your peaceful gorilla scene with the tripod in view.
4. Help keep the gorillas healthy. The national parks have a variety of rules in place to help keep the gorillas healthy. The most important rules are to avoid trekking if you are sick and to try to stay at least 7 meters (21 feet) away from the gorillas. Back in 80s, when gorilla tourism was first getting started, tourists could actually allow the gorillas to touch them and even sit in their laps. This was before scientists realized that the gorillas were highly susceptible to human diseases and could die as a result of coming in contact with a disease like the human flu.
Even if you do not feel sick, if you have to cough or sneeze, turn your head away from the gorillas and cough into your elbow. Keeping a distance of 7 meters from the gorillas is trickier as they don’t know the rules. I’ve had curious youngsters try to grab me and I’ve been pushed into the vegetation by a silverback trying to make his way through the crowd. Do your best to back away if possible, and, as great is the temptation is to reach out to a playful little gorilla, don’t engage it.
5. Tip your guides. Tipping guides and porters is customary in both Rwanda and Uganda. If you use a porter to carry your bag there’s a standard fee of $10 or the equivalent in local currency. By the way, I almost always hire a porter to carry my bag when I know the hike to find the gorillas will be an hour or longer. I get to focus on photography and a local person gets a decent wage they can use take care of their family. It’s also customary to tip the guide around $10. Rather than give all $10 to the English-speaking guide, I tend to give a few dollars to the trackers who found the gorilla group, and then about $5 to the main guide. The trackers stay with the gorillas after you leave, so try to remember to give them something small before you head down the mountain. They likely spent hours tracking the gorillas from early dawn and so deserve a little recognition.
On your gorilla trek, bear in mind that all gorilla-viewing experiences are unique. Some days you might get perfect weather and find the gorillas sun-bathing out in the open. On other occasions, the gorillas might be very active and moving through dense bamboo in search of food. Whatever happens, you’re guaranteed to walk away with lasting memories of your encounter with this magnificent species.