Gorilla encounters are the ultimate wildlife experience. Mesmerising family scenes play out before you, with mothers nurturing tiny babies, toddlers somersaulting through bushes and brambles,youngsters posing, flirting or stuffing their faces with bamboo and big daddy silverback watching over them all.
You only have one hour in their company once you’ve found the gorillas with the help of expert trackers. It’s an expensive hour. Permits, best booked well in advance, cost $600 (£375) in Uganda (00 256 312 355000; ugandawildlife.org) and $750 (£469) in Rwanda (00 252 576514; wandatourism.com), helping to fund the survival of around 880 of our critically endangered mountain cousins.
However, during November, as well as in April and May (the rainy seasons), Uganda discounts permits to $350 (£219), accommodation is cheaper and the chances of seeing gorillas are just as good.
Deep in the forest
Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is dense, steep and home to some 400 mountain gorillas,including 11 groups habituated for tracking. Buhoma is the main centre. For budget accommodation, try Buhoma Community Rest Camp, which works alongside the local Batwa people, from $20 (£12) per night (00 256 312 100060; buhomacommunity.com). Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1250; rainbowtours.co.uk) offers a five-day trip staying at the relaxing Buhoma Lodge from £2,370 including flights and permit.
Rwanda’s 480 mountain gorillas roam the Virunga Mountains of Volcanoes National Park. Some, such as the Susa group studied by famous primatologist Dian Fossey, live at over 3,000m. In July, the annual naming ceremony of baby gorillas – Kwita Izina – attracts thousands, but it’s great for gorilla-spotting year-round. Chimps, colobus and golden monkeys can also be tracked. Benefit local people by staying at the luxurious Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge owned by Sacola community trust. Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) has a six-day package including two nights in Kigali, flights and permit from £2,495.
More than 100,000 western lowland gorillas live in the lush rainforests of west and central Africa.Classed as critically endangered, fewer groups are habituated for tracking because of their inaccessible locations. In Congo’s Odzala–Kokoua National Park the tough tracking experience is softened by the luxury of Ngaga and Lango Wilderness Camps. A five-night itinerary including two gorilla tracking excursions with Zambezi Safari & Travel Company (01548 830059; zambezi.com)costs from $6,474 (£4,047), with internal charter flights an extra $1,854 (£1,160).
In the wild
Gorilla tracking in Gabon isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s a raw, wild experience: there are no habituated groups here yet, but watch this space. Meanwhile, Mama Tembo Tours (001 778 861026; mamatembotours.com) offers 12-day trips from €3,052 (£2,395), focused on searching for western lowland gorillas, trekking in remote Moukalaba-Doudou and Loango National Park where they sometimes stray onto the beach. You may not find gorillas, despite estimates of 35,000 in Gabon, but if you do, it’ll be a pure and authentic encounter.
Closer to home
Howletts, the Aspinall Wild Animal Park (0844 842 4647; aspinallfoundation.org/howletts) in Kent offers a 30-minute encounter with western lowland gorillas for £50, in which visitors can also help feed them. At Durrell Wildlife Park (01534 860028; durrell.org/wildlife-park) on Jersey, the Ape Shift costs £150 for four people to spend an hour with keepers, getting to know their gorillas. Both organisations are big on gorilla research and conservation, part-funded by tourist fees.