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Mobility and Gorilla Trekking

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I have been reading with great interest the reports on gorilla trekking. I'd love to find a way to make this happen for my husband and budgeting will have to start soon!

I do have a bit of a question / concern - my husband is a below-elbow left arm amputee. He has some issues with walking down stairs from a balance / left side coordination issue. We are not by nature active hikers by any stretch but can keep at a moderate pace.

in reading some of the reports, it sounds like it could be an hour's hike to a gorilla or 2-3 hours+ . For those of you who have done this before, is there a favorable difference in the terrain in Rwanda vs. Uganda, some sites vs. others? I presume it would be better to go when it's less likely to rain, as this causes some slippage. And in all cases I think we'd go with hiring a porter just to have an extra set of hands - we had some challenges getting to and in/out of devils pool in Livingstone, but honestly the enthusiasm the guide had to make sure my husband got to experience it was absolutely heartwarming.

Any advice or thoughts would be really helpful to know if it's even something we should consider. thanks!

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    I've done treks in both Uganda and Rwanda, and, at least based on my single treks in both countries, Rwanda seemed hillier and more verticle, since we were climbing up the side of an extinct volcano. I was also very lucky (or unlucky depending on your view) in Uganda -- we had a relatively flat hike of an hour or so, but had a longer hike in Rwanda.

    Porters are very inexpensive, and it may make sense to hire two -- one to carry backpacks, etc. and one to assist with stability (I don't recall, but I don't think the cost was even $20 per porter, but I went in 2003). Like the guide you had in Zambia, I expect the porters will make sure you have a wonderful and safe experience.

    Also, I believe the parks gauge the hikers and attempt to classify the visitors based on perceived ability, so you likely won't be put in with the speed demons.

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    It is definately something you should consider!! I cannot give you any info about Uganda as we have only been to Rwanda. If you search under my name you should find some info about our Rwanda trip. If you read that you will see that we took 2 gorilla treks & the first took 7 hours! However the next day it took us only 1 hour to get to the group we went to that day. We did request to go & see the group that took 7 hours so that was what we wanted to do. What happened when we went was that once you got the the ranger station your driver or guide went up to the rangers & a huge discussion occured as to who would go to what group. I would be pretty sure that if you had a driver he & let him know you wanted a short relatively easy trek he would make sure you got it. There are of course no certanties as to where the gorillas will be but some of the close groups are very predictable. Get yourselves as fit as you can before you go so that you are in good shape, hire a porter & lets see what other folks here say. It is an expensive thing to do so you should think about how you would feel if you couldn't make it to the gorillas. It would be a huge disapointment of course but it could potentially happen. On one of the days we trekked a woman had to be carried down by porters before ever seeing a gorilla. She was in a different group to us so I am not sure what the situation was but it does happen. It is an incredible experience & given the chance we would do it again in a heartbeat!

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    I think the first thing to be aware of is that gorilla treks are highly variable in their length and difficulty based on the gorilla groups' movements. A group that is easy to reach this week may climb way up a mountain and take 4 hours to reach next week. This makes it difficult to make generalizations about where it is "easier" to trek, as between individual groups or as between Rwanda and Uganda. However, because Rwanda has more groups to choose from, my guess is that in Rwanda you have a greater likelihood of getting an easier/closer group if you want one.
    Rather than trying to make a judgment about whether this is something your husband can do or not, I will try to describe our four gorilla treks and let you make a decision based on what I and others tell you. My gut feeling is that he probably can do it, and that you would want to go to Rwanda and request a close/easy group and explain any limitations he may have when you show up at the park HQ in the morning. But with that aside, here is what we experienced (from the perspective of someone who was 35 years old at the time and in pretty good physical shape):

    Rwanda/Amahoro group: 45-minute hike on gently sloping farmland up to stone wall. Climb over stone wall (approx. 4 feet high) with guides' help; jump down other side of wall which was about 6 feet from ground, again with guides' help. 15-30 minutes up the side of the mountain on very uneven terrain and with lots of vegetation to reach gorillas. Then, during hour of observation, movement up/down slopes to stay in position with gorillas. Hand-holding onto vegetation necessary at some points in time because slopes were steep and balance difficult. Hike back to vehicles roughly one hour, in the reverse of what I just described.

    Rwanda/Hirwa Group: 30 minutes on level ground to wall, get over wall (which was a lot easier than the previous day because the ground was level). Gorillas were in dense, but very flat, bamboo forest. Lots of ducking under tree limbs to move through forest, but no climbing or significant uneven terrain. Gorillas moved rapidly during our observation of them, requiring speedy movement through the dense forest to follow them. Overall, much easier than the previous day.

    Uganda/Nkuringo Group: start with steep, 30-45 minute descent from the ranger station. Find gorillas at bottom of valley; then they climb up an incredibly steep slope and we follow them. Hand-over-hand climbing necessary because slope was so steep; one guest literally lost grip and rolled down hill and was stopped only by one of the rangers. Very strenuous climbing and both hands were really required. Finish with gorillas, eat lunch and then climb back out on steep trail that we came in on. Overall very physically strenuous.

    Uganda/Habinyanja Group: This is literally the most strenuous thing I have ever done in my life. 2.5 hour hike on very steep and heavily overgrown trails -- extensive use of trekking pole necessary to keep balance. Lots of bugs and ants and uneven footing. Found gorillas in beautiful open, sunny field and took my best pictures of the trip. Trek out back to the vehicle -- I was not sure I was going to make it. My porter was helping me along at times and the descent retracing our initial climb (which by itself was over 1,000 feet) seemed to go forever. Trekking pole absolutely essential to keeping balance. Had to rest several hours before wanting to move again!

    Before you react to any of this, keep in mind that because we were in good shape, the rangers were purposely assigning us to the harder groups (except Nkuringo, where there is only one group anyway), and others who were there at the same time in Rwanda reported very short, easy and non-strenuous hikes (like 15 minutes of walking on level ground and there the gorillas were, outside the wall). So I doubt that my experience is anything near universal.

    In conclusion, I would say discuss your husband's situation with whatever tour company you are contemplating using -- Volcanoes Safaris is the company we used and they are excellent. They are probably the best source of information to help you make this decision. You can talk to other travelers about their experiences, but I think the tour company will have a broader based of knowledge and can give you better advice.

    Chris

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    My husband and I spent no more than 15 minutes hiking on mostly flat terrain to see the gorillas in Bwindi, Uganda. We were the only 2 in our group and our entourage included 1 guide, 2 porters, 2 machetti-yielding guards, and 2 AK-47-yielding guards--all for the 2 or us. Although there are more difficult treks, we asked for and received the "easy" one. We are "seniors". Grey hair has it's privileges! This was in April, 2008. There was no rain while we were in the park but there were short showers later in the afternoon. I don't think you will have ANY difficulty with a visit and you will LOVE it!

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    I think your husband will do fine. I've visited gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda and it all depends on where the gorillas are as to how easy or tough it might be. But as mentioned by Chris, Rwanda has more groups to choose from so you could be assigned one that is closest.

    If I were you, I'd hire two porters for your husband instead of just one to carry your stuff. Maybe you won't even need Porter #2 but the cost is $10-$20, it employs another person, and it is great insurance if you need the porter. The porters are very helpful in steadying all climbers and pushing or pulling them along as needed. You seem to understand the importance of a helpful porter.

    I agree to go in the non-rainy season. Will I see you in Rwanda in August perhaps?

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    There was a gentleman (he wasn't in our group, but I saw him at the park station) with a broken neck. If a man with a broken neck can make it, I'm sure your husband can. Tell your guide about your husband's limitations and they will find an easier group for you to visit. We did two treks in Rwanda, the first one was six hours (Susa group) which was very difficult as the climb was very steep and the distance to get to the gorillas was long and the other trek was Umubano which wasn't as difficult but was just as time consuming due to going through dense vegetation. The porters are fantastic...they'll get you up that mountain no matter what!

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    kak113-
    Definitely talk to your outfitter about your husband's situation. You and your guide should also talk to the folks at the ORTPN (park headquarters) when you check in the morning of your first trek. They will be the ones that will be the most knowledgeable about the different treks and what to do.

    I've been privileged to visit the gorillas for the past four years and their locations are unpredictable as they do move around their respective volcanoes. As others have stated, whatever gorilla group is close one day, could be a far trek the next day. It all depends on where they're nesting.

    You don't have to be in great shape, but it does help to be in decent shape and if you can get some walking and hiking in prior to the treks, it would help a great deal.

    I have heard situations where folks have been carried up and/or down when necessary and the guides and porters are there to do just that; lend a helping hand when needed.

    Porters cost about $10 each so do use them. You'll be helping them and the economy and they'll be of great use to you.

    It will all work out. Have a fun trip.

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    We trekked last August (no rain) in Rwanda. The first day we went to the Kwitonda group: 5-10 minutes across a field to the wall, then 35 minutes through vegetation, mostly mildly up hill...a bit steeper the last 5 minutes. Almost disappointingly easy, given that I had psych'd myself for a TREK!

    The next day we had the Hirwa group, but contrary to their usual pattern (and Chris' experience above) they were not in their usual low fields, but rather a 3-hour hike UP the mountain in a narrow ravine. They apparently head uphill about once every 18 months for a couple of days -- we just happened to hit one of them. Fabulous experience but definitely more work! We're in our early 60s, but we had told our guide (who negotiated our group assignments each day) that we were up for something more vigorous than the day before. (Be careful what you wish for!?)

    They seemed to make assignments based on age and language -- but if you tell your guide what you think you can handle -- or any concerns you have -- they'll place you accordingly. Definitely hire a porter (or two?) -- they are invaluable and will do everything in their power to get you to the gorillas and back. Mine was fabulous -- anytime I started to slow down or hesitate, he was there to take my hand and get me through the rough patch. Going rate last summer was $10 (in pristine bills) -- I gave mine $20. This was the highlight of our 3-week trip!

    I'd concur: get in the best shape you can beforehand, tell them clearly what you can and can't do, and have a magnificent experience.

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    I agree with the above posts -- talk with your outfitter ahead of time, and also with your guide before you go to the office to get your gorilla group assignments; you will be assigned a group based on the location of the gorillas and your own physical circumstances; you'll be amazed at how great the porters are and how much they can help during the trek. The one thing I would add is that as of October 2008 in Rwanda, all the porters for our group were definitely asking for $20 each, not $10. (Maybe you generous folks have raised the going rate! ;)) Still, worth every penny. We did not need a porter's assistance with the hiking, but some people in our group really appreciated it. And we were happy to have somebody carry the backpack with the heavy camera gear.

    My husband and I asked for difficult treks and were very happy with our experiences (in our case, it was Group 13 and the Umubano group) ... but we were traveling with a diverse group of people in terms of age and fitness levels, and some of our group preferred something easier. The guides were very good about sorting everyone out into the groups of 8 so that we could all make it to the gorillas, and we all had a fabulous time. One woman had injured her foot right before the trip and was still able to do her gorilla trek in her "boot." I'm not trying to make it sound like a walk in the park, but these folks are very good and trying to arrange the best experience for everybody.

    Gorilla trekking was the single best thing I've ever done in my travels, and one of the very best things I've done in life. It is worth every ounce of effort it takes! :)

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    Wow, MDK...from 10$ to $20 in less than a year. I didn't know that. I trekked in Jan/Feb of '08 and it was only $10 then. Thanks for letting us know.

    They've gone up from $5-$10 in early '07 to $10 to $20. That's quite a hike in a couple of years. I sure as heck hope the permit costs don't go up to $1000 each because I'm pretty sure they'll be pricing themselves out of my budget. But more power to those who will be able to afford it.

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    thanks everyone. I really appreciate the thorough responses. and atravelynn - we'd love to come this August but I think it's more in the cards for next August, since we are heading to Egypt in November thanks to more advice on Fodors!

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    It's not that big a deal to pay a porter $20 if you've already shelled out $500 for a gorilla permit (obviously), but we were a little surprised -- just based on what I'd read here and in our guidebook, I was expecting to pay around $10. Basically the porters were just waiting near the start of the hike and walked up to people in our group and said, "$20." For all I know, some porters closer to the other trailheads might expect less. The only downside was that I had a little less cash on me then for tipping the trackers at the top. And, I do I agree that our porter was terrific and he certainly earned $20, so I don't mind at all that we paid him that. Also, after the trek our porter sold us the carved gorilla walking sticks for $10 each, but then another porter told my friend that hers would be $20 (which really bothered her, so she decided not to buy it). So there are clearly no "set" prices for these things.

    None of this has any bearing on the original topic of this thread, I know, but it's helpful to have some idea about how much cash to bring for anyone planning a gorilla trek. I wasn't expecting to need cash for tipping two guides, for instance (on our first trek we had 2 guides, but only 1 guide on our second trek), and I didn't know that we would be tipping the 3 trackers on the mountain, too. I ended up having enough cash with me to cover all these tips, but was not able to give as much to each person as I would have liked.

    kak113, I hope you are able to have your own heavenly day with the gorillas next August!

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    MDK...you're right, there is no 'set' price on tipping. But it is good to know because like you, I carry a minimal amount of cash with me on the treks.

    I'm surprised the trackers are now getting tipped. Granted, it's all a personal decision but when people do start tipping trackers, guides, porters etc., they will learn to expect it and that shouldn't be the case, except for the porters. And I've heard from the folks at ORTPN, it can get out of hand.

    One of the top guides at ORTPN once told me that they really shouldn't be tipped because they make a decent enough salary already working for ORTPN. But it's become so frequent, it's almost become expected.

    In just a few years, I have not only seen the permits skyrocket in price but now also the tipping.
    If you tip $20 a porter(s), then say $5 a tracker x 2, then the guide(s)at least $10-20 each, it can easily add up. If you're there doing multiple days of trekking, it can become very expensive, not only on the front end paying for the permits, but also on the back end with the tipping.

    IMHO, I do think it needs to become a little more regulated.

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    I have a friend, well, he was my guide and runs a tour company, but has since become a friend, that is from Uganda but lives in Rwanda. Ossy was educated in Germany and speaks fluent German and English. He is well versed in both Uganda and Rwanda. He is a most caring person and I would suggest you speak to him. His email is accessrwandaprimate@yahoo.com. Tell him Carol referred you. He will be able to put together a trip that is cost effective and be mindful of any disabilities. He gave me the trip of a life time, and as I said, has now become a life-long friend. I would suggest you see the entire country. It is small and it is easy to see the entire country in a two-week trip. I found it extremely safe, clean and incredibly beautiful. To go and not see Nyungwe Forest would be sad.

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