Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda

A pair of mountain gorillas just hanging out27-2-16
Flying Between Kigali and Entebbe

We spent Sunday night in Musanze ready for an early start trekking up to the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, so were ready at the park entrance for pretty much right on 7am, along with maybe 40-50 other people. We headed inside to confirm our trip and our guide, and to get started with the day.

As we handed over the paperwork that we’d picked up in the RDB (Rwandan Development Board) office in Kigali, we were asked if we wanted a short, medium or long hike – the three of us sort of came to a short-to-medium conclusion, and she told us to go off and find the guide heading up to the Susa group.

One of the babies riding into the clearing

As everyone started to assemble, we found our guide and our group of hikers – 2 others who worked for the Red Cross in South Sudan – and then got chatting. As we discussed what the trip would be, the length went back and forth a bit between about 45 minutes of hiking (each way) and several hours! It seemed that maybe the Susa family weren’t the shortish hike that we thought we had. I wasn’t too concerned either way, but Carolyn and Patrick were a bit less keen on the longer trek – after some reassurance from another couple of guides, we concluded this one would be about right, and headed back to the cars to drive up the village where we would begin our trek in earnest.

There are something like 17 different groups of mountain gorillas in the Rwandan part of the mountains (it also spreads into Uganda and into the DRC), so trips can easily vary between under an hour, and potentially up to 5 or 6 hours of trekking – each morning trackers work out where the families of mountain gorillas are, so that trekkers can be sure of finding them. Susa, as it turns out, is one of the biggest – at one point it was 45-odd members, until it split into 3, and has a fairly rare pair of twins, as well as a couple of babies.DSCN0062

After about an hour of driving (back towards Gisenye, where we’d been the previous day), we got to a small village where we parked up and the five of us, plus our guide, began our trek towards the forest and the volcanoes which give the park its name (Virunga is Kinyarwanda for volcano). At first it was a fairly flattish, open trail through the village and then through the farmland behind it – mostly potato fields at this time of year – although meandering around a height of 3000 metres still took a bit of puff out of the lungs!!

Potato fields at the base of the bamboo forest
Potato fields at the base of the bamboo forest

After about half an hour (the 45 minute suggestion that had popped up at the bottom was looking very unlikely now!), we started to get through the potato fields and approached the edge of a bamboo forest. At first this had something close to a proper walking trail, but as we got deeper into the vegetation, and higher up the mountain, the trail narrowed, and more and more we relied on our hiking sticks (provided as part of the trek) and on one of the trackers clearing the way with his machete.

About an hour later, the bamboo gave way to a leafier jungle of ferns, smaller trees, and a significant population of stinging nettles! We continued on up, until finally we paused and watched the trackers clear a path through virgin rainforest. We crept up and just around a corner came across the first mountain gorilla of the family.

Then into the bamboo
Then into the bamboo

From here we crept around an area that was maybe 10 metres square, following the great apes wherever they wandered. For a good ten minutes or so, we were in a small clearing with one of the twins, the two baby mountain gorillas and a mother, and the silverback lounging around off to the side, all quite content for us to stare and photograph them from a metre or two away. The official stance is that you should stay 7 metres back at all times, although the first thing our guide told us in the briefing was that this would be a bit unrealistic – although three metres would be good to aim for. In the end we probably were 2-3 metres back most of the time, although the need for a good picture – or one of the mountain gorillas deciding to have a wander right past one of us – meant it got down to less than that a few times.

A mother and baby nursing
A mother and baby nursing

I got a bit close to a mother gorilla at one point, so got a bit of a telling off (by the gorilla – our guide sort of just laughed!) and Carolyn managed to get one wander right by her and try to kick her out of the way (fairly gently), but generally they were all happy just to be the subject of our entertainment for an hour.

All too soon though, our hour with the mountain gorillas was up, and we had to reluctantly leave them, and begin the hike back down the volcano. While up took us a decent two-and-a-half hours, the way down was barely ninety minutes, so fairly soon we’d clambered back through the nettles, pushed our way through the bamboo forest and walked down between the potato fields back into the village, where a huge crowd was waiting for us – despite the fact that they must see groups a few times every week, year round, the town still pours out to see the muzungus off and to welcome them back! There were a couple of people selling t-shirts and carved gorillas, but for the most part, the townsfolk were just gathered to watch.

Looking right at us!
Looking right at us!

One thing I’ve never used while hiking before is a hiking stick (aside from the occasional trip in the scouts, where we’d find fallen branches along the way and use those). For this trip, they were provided as a part of the service, and I must admit that I got a bit attached to mine – they were all fairly ornate with gorillas carved into the top and patterns around the handle – so as we were finishing up, I asked our guide if we could buy them. At first, she suggested the shop back at the meeting centre, but quickly she offered that we could buy these ones if we wanted – for 7,000rwf (about 7 quid). All three of us snapped her up on the offer, and so got our very own Rwandan Mountain Gorilla walking sticks, which we’d actually used on the trek, as souvenirs – I think I’ll even use it in future when I have walking trips to do!

Sadly, I came to the realisation yesterday while packing, that it’s much taller than my backpack – so I can’t really strap it to the outside for the flights home – and that I’m not all that likely to be allowed to carry it on. I had four flights between Kigali and home, so it’s a bit of a long shot to get it on them all! So sadly I’ve had to leave it with Patrick for now, either so it can be sent on, or shipped back to the US when he finished up in Rwanda, and then I can figure out how to get it home from there…DSCN0089

The trek up to through Virunga National Park in Rwanda to the mountain gorillas is one of the most incredible things I’ve done – there’s a guaranteed hour up there with them and it just flies by in absolute wonder at these furry little bundles, with slightly human-esque hands, feet and even to a degree, faces. The environment is truly wild, and truly theirs – all along you clearly feel like an interloper in their world, but it’s one of the great experiences in life. While the price is a bit steep (for the region) at $750 (US), it’s worth every penny to get up there and spend just a few minutes with them.

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