Gorilla Trekking in the Rwandan Rainforest

Gorilla trekking… the measure of adventure
Have you ever heard of the human travel gauge? That’s when you tell someone you’re close to like your mom, grandmother, best friend etc. about your next off the wall adventure. The more shock they register, often the better and more authentic experience you will have.
My human travel gauge is my mom and telling her that I was going to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda got a good 8.5/10. It was great news, a sign that I was in for a real dandy. At the same time, this is to be the most expensive hour of my life. To see the gorillas, I’ve shelled out CAD650. That buys me one hour, just sixty minutes of face time with the gorillas. I had a lot of time on the overland truck to ponder this. It works out to $10.83 per minute.

Heading into Rwanda
Perhaps there’s no African country in the world that is so notorious for bad things as Rwanda. It was here that over 1,000,000 people died in 100 days. So when we cross the border from Uganda, everyone on the Tucan Travel truck looks a little apprehensive.

The first thing we notice is the landscape. It’s hilly, green and the land looks well tended. Of the countries we have seen this one is distinct. Gone are the flat plains of Kenya and Tanzania. And it doesn’t have the red soil typical of Uganda. No wonder they call this the Switzerland of Africa. I thought it was a cliché. But as the truck groans its way up and down serpentine roads, it all begins makes sense.

It also makes me realize how much we’ve seen in the past few weeks on this tour. Africa has so much diversity and taking an overland trip, like the Tucan Travel tour I’m on seems and ideal way to see it.

On the truck I read Romeo’s Dallaire’s “Shake hands with the Devil” a book about the UN commander who saw the country fall helplessly into chaos. So when we entered Rwanda, I expect this country was going to carry the scars of this devastation. I expect downtrodden people, with dour, listless looks in their eyes.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As per everywhere in Africa, when we stop the truck for lunch, the first to approach are the children. They look very serious for their age. But after Matt takes some photos of them and shows them the images on his viewfinder, they break out into smiles.

Soon, younger children follow. They whisper amongst themselves and eye us cautiously. Again, after doing some pantomime, it’s not hard to get them laughing. Then, before we know it, it seems that they entire lunch spot is teeming with people. Kids, adults, everyone is standing around, mostly smiling, chatting. They do seem a bit more reserved than in Uganda but as soon as we approach, they smile brightly.

And when we pack lunch up and head back into the truck, they follow us and linger outside. Then, as the truck rolls forward, they follow. Most walk, but one young kid actually runs with the truck for at least a kilometer. I think to myself that maybe here is the reason East Africa produces so many world class long distance runners!

The lead up to the Gorilla Trek
There are only 700 wild mountain gorillas left in existence. That’s it. If these 700 individuals are poached (which is still a risk given the high prices paid for gorilla parts) a whole species will cease to exist. So, aside from the obvious costs of paying the guides and trackers, my 650 will also go to conservation efforts that will ensure these animals persist. It makes the high cost a bit easier to swallow.

Our base for the trip is a nondescript town called Rhuengeri (also known as Musanze) and we’re staying on the grounds of a pastoral centre. Here we get upgraded. Being a camping tour, an upgrade means we get to sleep in real beds, with real mattresses. It’s amazing how luxury depends on what you’ve had before – the dorm feels like a sumptuous palace.

The Gorilla Permit Centre:
Our gorilla trekking day finally arrives, and we’re up at 6:00 to head to the permit centre where we will meet our guide and learn which family we will track.

There’s a palpable excitement in the air, as this is the day we’ve all waited for. The road to the permit centre is beautiful. It seems that the parks name is apt – Parc des Volcans houses five extinct volcanoes and these loom overhead.

The land is verdant. Children meander down the road in packs on their way to school.

Finally, we arrive. After hanging around we meet our guide, and we group together. There eight permits per family and only seven of us so we are joined by Mark, a Brit living and working in Angola.

The silverback gorilla, Charles and his family:

The guide shows us a placard with gorilla faces. He points to the top right photo. “This is Charles” he says. “We’re going to meet his family”.

We learn that Gorilla life is a real patriarchy. The alpha silverback – in this case Charles – is responsible for the entire family.

Charles’ family is known as the Umubano group. The guide explains the history. “Before the genocide, in 1994, Charles was part of a different family,” he reminisces. “We stopped tracking the gorillas in Rwanda in 1994 because it was too dangerous with the war. When we started again in 2001, we found that Charles had started a new family. And because the war had ended, we called the family Umubano.” He tells us the word means peace in Kinyarwanda, the national language of Rwanda.

Turns out that Charles was a renegade gorilla who saw an opportunity to run away with two females and start a new family. And, fortunately for us, this family now has 12 individuals, four of which are infants. The guide tells us we’re lucky. Charles’ family is known to be an active, curious one, which means we’re likely to have lots of interaction.

Preparation for Gorilla Tracking
Each day, before the tourists arrive, trackers head into the mountains to try and locate the habituated families. Trackers believe the family is about a two-hour walk from the centre. We’re told that gorillas generally only move a couple kilometers per day. The hard part is the terrain, since it’s very dense and locating the family can involve bushwacking potentially treacherous terrain.

We load into a small truck and our guide jokes that we’re off to get an African massage – a euphemism for one of the most boulder strewn roads I’ve seen – even by African standards.
Finally, we arrive at the base of a towering, almost perfectly conical volcano. We’re given special sticks that have beautifully rendered gorilla carvings at the handle. And after some initial photos, we begin our walk.

We start walking through farmland. He leads us over a small ditch and says this is where the park begins. It’s immediately obvious, since after the ditch, the terrain changes. Here we’re in very dense bush. There’s a thin trail, but it’s poorly maintained. And soon we realize that mixed into the bush is stinging nettle. It’s a tough balance, because it’s hot, not the weather for long clothing. But, short sleeves can lead to a sting from the nettle.
We start ascending and the path is tough. But as we’re finding our groove, the guide starts muttering to the trackers on his walkie talkie. Apparently, we’ve gone the wrong way. We descend again back to the farmland and traverse along the base of the volcano. After another half hour on farmland, we re-enter the park and resume our ascent.

We climb for a couple hours. It’s a tough trek. We’re a relatively fit group but when I look back I can see some stragglers. The guide stops for a break, and I can see that Holly looks pretty wiped. We start again. And after another half hour the guide stops and points to some of the densest jungle I’ve ever seen.

Matt, who has a 300 zoom focuses in. “GORILLAS!!!!” We look carefully at the scene. And soon we realize there is something there. With my zoom I can finally make it out. There are, indeed, wild gorillas here.

The first thing I recall is that it all seemed absurd. Having a hauntingly human face staring back at you in jungle seems odd to say the least.

The hour begins
At our first sighting the guide sets his clock. We get exactly one hour with the gorillas. He tells us leave our bags, and only bring our cameras as we follow a steep banked trail for the last 5 minutes to Charles’ family.

The next thing I remember is looking down a steep hill. Nick, who is a few paces ahead whispers “Gorillas, oh my god, gorillas!” Below us is a female with a baby and another young male. What amazes me is that my heart is going 1000 miles a minute, while they look so peaceful, so composed. I break out my camera and start snapping madly. This first contact is one of my favorites, because I hadn’t yet figured out the rules for the next hour.

The guide tells us that at all times we should keep 7 meters distance. But, as the young male approaches me, I quickly learn that the seven meter rule is one imposed by humans – this gorilla family obviously hasn’t been briefed!

The guide tells us we need to move, and we struggle up the steep embankment as the male easily gains on me. Finally I reach the flat trail and, unfazed, the gorilla pushes right past me into the bush, only a couple meters from where I’m standing.

The group idles forward to a flat clearing. It’s here we get our first glimpse of Charles. He’s unmistakable, on all fours with his massive knuckles pushed against the ground. It seems that he’s posing, pushing his silver back towards us. He’s an amazing display, and everything about him exudes power and strength. Around him are his family. There must be four or five that are busying themselves. They chew branches, and graze on vegetation, while all the while Charles stays poised on the hilltop.

Cameras are snapping and we’re all trying to reconcile the fact that we’re in a jungle in Rwanda, and that in front of us is a family of wild gorillas. You’d be surprised how often over the hour I thought this must be some bizarre dream.

The infant
One of the little infant gorillas comes towards us. The guide tells us we have to move back – the little guys tend to be the most curious and he is likely to get too close. There’s a strange give-and-take here. We want as close an encounter as possible while the guide has the responsibility to keep us back. But the infant (we later learn he’s three years old) comes closer and stares at Matt in the eyes.

The guide starts making low grunts and waving a leaf. The little guy does an impish twirl, as if showing off his latest moves. He’s like a little kid who knows he’s adorable and is keen to have adults confirm it. He stares at us, with a look of curiosity, it’s not unlike what any kid does when confronted by a strange animal.

But as he almost touches Mat, the guide hollers again. The little gorilla does another roll and then continues down the path.

A few minutes later, we have our best encounter with Charles. He’s been on the hilltop the entire time, but he suddenly gets up and starts walking towards us. It’s now that his size becomes apparent.

Up until now, I haven’t feared for my safety, but suddenly I’m a bit nervous. I mean, what if this gorilla doesn’t want us here? This is after all his home, and we are the guests. And what does a 300 pound silver back gorilla do with unwelcome guests anyway? But the guide doesn’t urge us to move. And soon, he’s right in front of us, only a meter away. And just has he passes, he stands up, beats he chest and walks off into the bush.

We’re all a bit stunned.

The next half hour we stick to roughly the same area. We spot a mother with a tiny baby on her back. This is the youngest gorilla, only 4 months old. We later learn that the gorilla population in Uganda (which has a separate group) is stagnant, but Rwanda has seen 12 new gorillas in 2009 alone.

We also see a gorilla in the trees, who is swinging, tarzan style. It looks like fun, I’m almost tempted to give it a try. Then the guide tells us there are 10 minutes left. We try to argue. It seems impossible that 45 minutes went by that quickly. But, he shows us his watch. For the final ten minutes I consciously put down my camera. I’ve been so busy snapping I’ve hardly had time to appreciate what I’m seeing.

In spite of their size, these are docile, gentle creatures. They are contented to munch on the thick vegetation while the little gorillas play. Perhaps, I think, it’s ironic that it’s me who feared the gorillas. After all it’s humans that have brought them to the brink of extinction.

And then, in the fastest hour of my life, the guide tells us we’re done. All of us try to sneak a few more minutes, but he urges us on.

It’s a tough hike back, but we’re all buzzing about our experience. And there’s one thing that we all seem to agree: $650 was a bargain for the experience we had with Charles and his family.

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