Written by Björn Persson
Many people think that going on a mountain gorilla or chimpanzee trek is like running a marathon, or taking on Mount Everest. Well, the good news is that to hike for mountain gorillas or chimpanzees you simply need to be moderately fit for outdoor walking. The pace is gentle and you will rest often during the trek. And you will have willing luggage porters who, for $10, will carry all of your food, water, extra clothing and camera equipment. So, trekking is not a major sporting challenge. BUT, being properly prepared for the trek is always a good idea – because you will enjoy this incredible experience more, and it also means that you are ready for that rare occasion where the trek lasts far longer than usual.
To make things easier for visitors, trackers are sent out in the morning to locate the primates, so in most cases the guides already have a good idea where they are when you set out. Usually the hike doesn’t last more than a few hours. And in most cases it’s really just a pleasant walk through the most amazing rainforest you could ever imagine. But on the odd occasion the gorillas are far away or on steep slopes, and the trek is tougher as a result.
But for sure, the African rainforests is not a zoo. I’ve heard of people having to hike more than four hours to get to the gorillas, and two hours to get back. And if you are really out of luck, it’s uphill all the way. Remember that these are mountain gorillas, so be prepared for some form of uphill walking and to slither and slide down some steep slippery slopes.
And then there is the chance of rain. It’s a rainforest, right? So don’t be surprised if it suddenly starts pouring down. Your nice little stroll can turn into a slippery, muddy roller coaster, with most people ending up on their bum at some point!
So, how should one prepare for a gorilla or chimpanzee trek?
• First of all, get off your sofa and get active outdoors. Start walking on a daily basis and increase your activity levels as you go. Start this gradual conditioning process about 3-4 months before your trek. Begin with 15 minutes of walking a day, and increase the pace and length gradually until you are able to walk for a few hours in one go. Other tips include taking the stairs, parking in the far end of the parking lot, watching your diet and drinking lots of water. Think about your overall health and fitness. The last thing you want is to have a health problem on the side of a mountain in a remote area.
• You will also be trekking in climates that you are probably not used to (hot and humid, but sometimes also cold and wet), and navigating up and down steep terrain at high altitude (1,500m to 3,000m). These combined factors will increase your heart rate and result in the build up of lactic acid in your muscles – leading to you being out of breath and wanting to rest often. To counter this, do your part to prepare your body as best you can – you want your trek to be an enjoyable and memorable experience. Find a few steep hills and climb them often – this will get you used to the increased heart rate that always comes with climbing, and to using those muscles that are usually ignored during our modern-day sedentary lives.
• Dress in layers. To counter the large fluctuations in temperature that can occur within the space of minutes, dress in layers and add/remove items as the circumstances demand. Those layers should include both long and short sleeved tops and cool and warm clothing. Start with with a shirt made of a synthetic material that dries quickly, and add a light fleece layer for when you stop walking and your accumulated sweat starts cooling down. Then add a waterproof rain jacket or canvass poncho. For your legs wear long pants, also made of a synthetic material.
• Proper rain gear, for you and your camera equipment. Even if your day starts off sunny, bring a rain jacket. They don’t call it gorillas in the mist for nothing, and the temperamental climate can change quite quickly. I’ve experienced intense heat, humidity, sun, soft rain and one bout of heavy rain all in one trek. You can always take your rain gear off while on the trek once the weather clears, and hand it to your porter. Water-proofing for your camera equipment is essential, as is a dry cloth to clean the water vapour from the lens and viewfinder.
• Make sure you have good boots. They need to be waterproof since you are almost guaranteed to get muddy. But remember, you’re in the tropics so it’s going to get hot. Gore-tex is a good fabric, allowing your feet to breathe and stay dry at the same time. Running shoes will do the job, but not as well as hiking boots.
• Almost just as important as shoes are a pair of long socks or gaiters. They prevent plants and critters from making their way up your legs. Getting bitten by a fire ant is not a nice experience, so make sure to tuck your pants into your socks. A pair of extra socks is also a great idea – it will feel amazing after the long, wet hike to slip on a pair of dry socks – your feet will thank you. Some people wear light gloves to protect themselves against stinging nettles.
• Headgear is very important. Anyone that does a fair bit of hiking will know that you should have some sort of headband or bandana to help wipe away the sweat, and provide warmth. A wide-rimmed sun hat can also be useful in blocking out the sun and rain from your face and neck.
• A walking stick (usually readily available) is good for maintaining balance during steep slippery descents and to keep plants and spider webs away from your face.
• Last but not least, water and nutrition are very important. Your lodge will give you a lunch box and water – but be sure that the quantity and type of food on offer will provide enough sustenance for what could be a long day. Include a few snack bars and nuts in your pockets for munching along the way and be sure to take regular small sips of water as you go. Add an electrolyte to the water, if you suffer from excessive sweating and loss of minerals.
These basic tips are definitely something to keep in mind when preparing for your trek. Though, after encountering wild gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild, you’re probably going to be so thrilled and seduced that you won’t even care about the rain, the mosquitoes, or how tired you were. Just keep the passion and have fun!
First Published by African Geographic