I still can’t believe this trip actually happened!! Beyond being a major bucket-list item – this was something I always dreamed of but never thought could actually happen. Aside from the financial barriers of hiking with the mountain gorillas – I honestly just didn’t believe that we could be lucky enough to really see them. Surely they would be impossible to find or we would just be looking at them far away in the trees. The real experience blew my expectations out of the water completely!
The trip started off with Garrett’s parents visiting us in Gabs. After a week in Tau Pan and Nxai Pan camps in the Kalahari, Barb and Gary spent a few days getting a feel for Gaborone. Garrett also took them for a memorable night in Jaci’s Tree House Camp in Madikwe. Then we set off for our big family adventure!
First stop Kigali! We drove directly from the airport to Kinigi – which is the nearest town to Volcanoes National Park and about a 3 hour drive from Kigali. We had arranged for a driver to be with us the whole trip – which is recommended because there aren’t really public transportation options to/from the trail heads at Volcanoes National Park. We stayed at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge which was lovely. We had individual chalet type rooms with stunning views out to the volcanic mastiffs. The main lodge was traditionally decorated and very homey. Food was served via buffet for all meals and included a great mix of local dishes to sample. The biggest surprise was how cold it was! I feel so stupid that I didn’t realize how mountainous Rwanda is! Our lodge was at 7,000ft and the highest peak in the country is 14,787 ft so temperatures got down to the 40s! Garrett and I are just so used to hot flat Botswana that we forget how cold other African countries can be!
Gorillas trekking starts with a freezing 6am departure to meet at a central orientation site where all the trekkers get divided up into groups and review safety precautions/etiquette. There are currently about 480 mountain gorillas that live in the Virunga complex which includes Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. On the Rwandan side there are 10 habituated groups of mountain gorillas that you can trek with. Groups of eight people can visit each gorillas family for a maximum of one hour each day – that means only 80 people have the opportunity to see the gorillas each day. During orientation, trekkers are divided up into groups and assigned a family to visit for the day. Although the locations of the gorilla families vary day to day, the guides have a rough idea how far out the hike will be to find them. Some families are a 30 minute trek and some are a 7 hour trek!!! You honestly don’t have much of a choice of what group you get put in, they allocate you based on how fit you look. I was terrified of being assigned to one of the long trek groups – my hiking abilities are severely limited these days due to my knee problems and I wasn’t sure I would even be able to enjoy my time with the gorillas after such a difficult hike. Garrett’s dad has had both knees replaced and would have also struggled greatly with a long hike. We were able to convince our driver to advocate for us to be put in a shorter hike group – thank god we did this! It made the hugest difference in our experience!
On day one we were assigned to the Kwitondo family. This is one of the larger families of 23 gorillas which migrated over from the DRC in 2003. They live in the thickly forested base of Mount Muhabura. We had to drive about 30 minutes to get to the starting point of our trek. All of the gorilla families are closely monitored by trackers who set out at 6am daily to find each group. They have an idea where to look based on the location of the
families from the prior afternoon. Usually by 9-10am the trackers have located the families and radio their locations to the guides. We hiked for about 1 hour before we met our trackers who would lead us the last part of the way to find the family. We followed a trail of rocks and mud that was made quite slick and treacherous from rain (the downside of coming in the rainy season). There were a few steep inclines and areas of deep mud but overall a fairly easy hike.
We each had a local porter to carry our bags and keep us from falling when things got really slippery on the trail. We didn’t actually need help with our bags – but hiring a porter is a great way to encourage local villagers to support conservation efforts. If they don’t benefit monetarily, they really have no reason to support protecting the mountain gorillas and their habitat. Before the tourism industry was introduced to the area, the only sources of income for the villagers were farming and poaching….and almost everyone participated in poaching.
Before making our final path to find the Kwitondo family we had another orientation to learn a few last minute rules – particularly that we must stay at least 7m away from the gorillas to protect them from contracting human diseases (and vice versa). And we would have to leave all our belongings except cameras while with the gorillas. To reach the family, our guides used a machete to clear a trail through the dense forest. I had no idea when or how we would see our first gorilla. Then suddenly I hear – “above you, look up!” A young gorillas was perched high above in the canopy – but not for long. He crashed down through the trees – then in almost an instant he was right in front of us. I didn’t have time to even process what an incredible sight it was – because we were told to keep walking. I was a little disappointed because, of course, I wanted to sit, stare and study him….little did I know what was to come!
The forest was so thick, all I could see was green at first, but slowly I started to realize what was all around me – gorillas! In the trees and on the ground in every direction! Right below me a young male was stretched out lounging on the ground – the human-like quality of his pose was fascinating. We then stood 2 feet in front of a large female breastfeeding her baby – she looked at us with a calm curiosity but without any fear or anxiety. She held the baby in her arms so tenderly – it was beautiful.
The dense bush and poor lighting made photography difficult so I focused more on soaking up the experience of being so close to the largest living primate. We were lucky to find a small clearing where a number of gorillas were gathered to munch on a fallen tree trunk. You could see the whole spread of family members from babies, toddlers, teenagers, young adults, older adults and the elderly. We observed a spectrum of behaviors and interactions all of which were so human-like! Our favorite part was seeing the boisterous and unpredictable behavior of the little ones. It was so incredible I kept getting the feeling like this must be fake. No way I could be this close. No way they could look this much like humans!
Then the moment we had been waiting for – we found the silverback! Adult male gorillas develop a patch of silver hair on their backs around the age of 12 – giving them their special name. Mountain gorillas families have a very strict social structure. The eldest silverback is the leader of the family – he makes all the decisions, mediates conflicts, determines the movements of the group, choses which females to mate with, leads the others to feeding sites, and takes responsibility for the safety and well-being of the troop.
They are also HUGE – on average 350 lbs and 5-7ft tall! Our family’s silverback was found sitting in an area of thick brush eating berries. He was carefully selecting only the ripe red berries and daintily eating them one by one. Despite his grandeur and imposing appearance – he was so gentle!
We got our biggest surprise when out of nowhere I hear “MOVE! Step aside!” I looked back to see the silverback walking straight towards me! I was in a small ravine so there was really nowhere for me to move out of his path. I tried as best I could to flatten myself against the side. The massive silverback couldn’t care less about my presence, he casually walked by and brushed up against my back! He could have easily crushed me if he wanted to! It wasn’t until I saw the silverback walk that I could truly appreciate the beauty and grandeur of his physique. What an amazing experience!
Before we knew it, our time was at an end. The hour went by fast – but I did feel like we were able to see an incredible amount during that time. Of course, I could have spent all day watching them, but I am glad they limit the time. It is a definite stress on the families and an impingement on their natural way of life. However, from our time in Rwanda it became clear that tourism is probably the only reason the gorillas still exist. Without the large cash stream that comes with gorilla trekking – there would have been no way to guarantee their protection. Prior to gorilla tourism, gorilla numbers had dwindled to less than 250 and would have surely continued to decline without the strict protections held in place today via tourism funds. Now populations have been growing by 3.7% per year for the past 10 years. Gorilla trekking is incredibly expensive (permits alone cost $750 per person/day), but at least you can see direct positive results from your money which is not true with many expensive travel destinations.
On day two we were assigned the Sabinyo family which is one of the easiest to visit because they live on the lower slopes of Mt. Gahinga at the edge of the park. This family is made up of 19 members including 3 silver backs. The dominant silverback is actually the largest and oldest silverback in the whole national park, he is 42 years old which is 7 years more than average for silverbacks. He has become too old to effectively lead the group, so he has been training the next in line to be the active leader. The trek took about an hour. We were struck by how different the environment was compared to the Kwitondo family’s habitat. The foothills were thickly covered in bamboo forest. In some areas the branches bowed over to create rounded cave-like canopies and the way the light dappled through the bamboo stalks was stunning. The only downside was that this area was covered in stinging nettles – something I had only encountered in textbooks studying for my derm boards! Agh these plants are terrible! You innocently brush up against one and get the feeling of being stung by a wasp which lasts for hours!
Our viewing was completely different than day one. Instead of being surrounded by trees, thick brush and sprinkling rain – we were lucky to find the family is an open clearing with bright sunny skies. Our first sight was “Guhonda” – the eldest silverback who’s name means “chest beater.” He was hidden in a large bush but you could tell how ancient and massive he was. Then we found the rest of the family! Things started slow with just one mom and baby but slowly the rest of the family came out to join! I was overwhelmed with how much was going on around us. Every gorilla was doing something amazing and you could hardly decide where to look. I concentrated on hanging out with the youngsters.
A 3 month old was bobbling around close to mom practicing feeding and walking on its own. The absolute highlight was two juveniles that were acting up just like you would expect from a pair of 5 year old brothers! Playing hide and seek, tripping, wrestling, kicking and beating their chests – they were very naughty and trying to show off for us!
The dominant silverback made several appearances walking straight through the middle of the group (and right at me again!) – his power and prowess was truly awe inspiring! We got to see all 19 members and again the hour went by in a flash. I was so grateful we had this second day viewing – each day was so unique and special but the second day was just spectacular!
On our 3rd day we did a shorter trek in the same bamboo forest to see golden monkeys. I had never heard of these before and was excited to see a new species. These little guys were hilarious! They have incredibly animated faces that make them look like something out of Dr. Seuss. I’ve also never seen a creature eat so frantically – they stuffed their faces as if they were in an eating contest. The strangest thing was that they eat stinging nettles. Apparently they are delicious!
At the end of your visit to Volcanoes National Park – you are awarded with a certificate to commemorate your gorilla trek. They make pretty cheesy tshirts to say which family you hiked with so of course we had to get those too! The best part is the back of the shirts which says “Mizungu In the Mist” …..which roughly translates to “white people in the mist.” So hilarious!
This experience was out of this world INCREDIBLE! I would recommend it over anything else we have done in Africa for those who truly love wildlife. I am forever grateful to Garrett’s parents for making this trip possible for us. A top life experience for sure – made even more special because we were able to share it with people we love!