Rwanda – Rubbing Shoulders With Silverbacks!

UPDATED – 03 APRIL 2021

We are warned not to get too close to the mountain gorillas on our trek. Or touch them.

But the great apes are not bound byΒ any such restrictions. Β Guhonda, theΒ largest silverback on the planet, is lying on his belly, staring at us intently. Then he heaves up all 400 imposing pounds and strides purposefully to aΒ clump of bamboo shoots right behind us as our group scrambles into a submissive huddle.

“Don’t look the alpha male in the eye if he approaches”.

We don’t dare.

Guhonda, the largest gorilla on the planet, lying on his stomach with face resting on hand and staring straight at the camera!
Guhonda, the patriarch of the Sabinyo group in a pensive mood.

He sniffs at my hair as he brushes past, (so R tells me later, I have my eyes downcast and chin tucked firmly into my knees). The females follow, one with a clinging infant, saucer eyes focused on us. Juveniles playfully finger shoelaces. Two sub adults startle a couple of trekkers from behind, while a red shirted human is playfully cuffed by the second silverback! (Who wears signal red into the jungle???). We clumsily stumble around the thick vegetation, watching them forage, eat, rest, play, fight. For one singular life-changing hour.


Read Next: Complete Guide To Gorilla Trekking In Rwanda


480 endangered mountain gorillas inhabit the slopes of six volcanoes that comprise the Virunga range. The contiguous mountains across the border in Uganda, are home to an additional 400. The last of the majestic species Diane Fossey dedicated her life to study. Only ten of the family groups are habituated to human interaction. Groups of eight visitors are allowed exactly one hour with any one of these families per day. This limited intrusion into their habitat is a conservation policy that makes the visit prohibitively pricey. The park fee alone is $750 per person ($600 in Uganda, but the distance to that park requires an extra night’s stay).

The visit is beautifully organised. We are driven to the visitors centre of the Parc National des Volcans at 6.30 am, where we are entertained by Intore performers over coffee and biscuits, while the park guides match gorilla families to visitor groups and try to accommodate requests for easy, medium or challenging treks. Treks depend on where the gorilla families decide to picnic on any given day of course, and an easy trek could sometimes turn into the most challenging.

A seated young male silverback gorilla chewing on a bamboo shoot.
A baby gorilla playfully nibbling on a fern

Kris – our travel planner – had suggested we opt for the easy trek to maximize our chances of spending quality time with an active group in the morning, since there was a likelihood of rain that afternoon, and “wet gorillas aren’t too much fun”. A park naturalist and an assistant guide sit us down and introduce us to the family we will be visiting, before we get back into our vehicles for a half hour drive to the start of the trek.

We set out towards the volcanoes over potato fields and farmland, quickly ascending a forested slope. As we slip and slide, and skirt stinging nettles and buffalo poo, we are glad our backpacks are being lugged by our individual porters. We are preceded by trackers who radio in the location of the gorillas, while our guides coach us on gorilla etiquette at every ‘catch your breath’ stop.  Four more machete wielding trackers chop away at obstructions in our path. And two rifle toting guards follow behind. Just in case.

Ninety breathless minutes later, we make our breakfast date with the Sabinyo family. All eight of them.

Large male Silverback examining a bamboo shoot.
Baby gorilla seated on mother's lap.

We had see-sawed over the Rwanda add-on to our Tanzanian safari. We even cancelled our bookings mid way, when our budgets seemed to spiral out of control. The desire to include as much from our Africa bucket list as possible while our yellow fever vaccinations were current, and our travel funds not completely exhausted, put it back on our itinerary. But pruned to three nights.

There are lots more things to do in Rwanda. More national parks, more endangered primates: chimpanzees, golden monkeys (easily clubbed with the gorillas if you have more time), colobus monkeys, owl faced monkeys – the list is long. But given another day – and plenty more cash – to spare, I would opt for the privilege of one more precious hour with the magnificent gorillas.

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All about trekking with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. A life changing hour that is one of our most memorable travel moments. #Silverback #Gorillas #Safari #RwandaTravel
Details of our memorable trek with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. One life-changing hour with the silverbacks that is among our most memorable travel moments. #Silverback #Gorillas #Safari #GorillaTrekking #RwandaTravel #WildlifeTravel

The logistics of our trip was handled efficiently by Kristofer Zachrisson of J K Safaris. and our driver/guide on the ground Sam Twizere, from the moment we landed in Kigali until our dawn departure to Tarangire on the final day.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

123 thoughts on “Rwanda – Rubbing Shoulders With Silverbacks!

  1. What an experience! Did you really brush against them? I can’t believe. I don’t know if I would be petrified or exhilarated with joy. Thank you for sharing this Madhu.

  2. What a beautiful and incredible experience! I didn’t know you could do this kind of adventure, getting so close to them! Definitely adding it to my bucket list!
    Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

  3. The baby gorillas is sssoooo cute. I am in awe of this adventure. I am happy to enjoy it here with your images and wonderful descriptions. Unfortunatey, I wasn’t born with a courage bone. I would have been quite fearful despite how gentle they appear. Thank you for taking me along on your travel. 😍😊

    1. Happy to have you on board Isadora😊 Thank you for your visit and the lovely comment.

  4. Have to say I’m more than a little envious, although I’m always a little wary when I read about bloggers animal encounters/ This, however, sounds like it is organised responsible. It would be a tragedy if the world lost these majestic creatures for good.

    1. The gorilla safari, at least in Rwanda, is indeed organised very responsibly Kat. That gorilla numbers have been rising steadily is an indication.

  5. What a fabulous experience. Thanks for sharing! πŸ™‚

  6. Hello Madhu,

    So nice to see this travelogue, very catchy narration and interesting images.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your adventures πŸ™‚

    Have a great time…

    1. Glad you found this interesting Sreejith. Thank you for reading. Have a great day πŸ™‚

  7. This is so incredibly generous of you, Madhu, to give a share of an absolutely amazing adventure to those of us who will never have that opportunity. Your photos are grand, and the text even better — so vividly describing the highs and not neglecting the scary parts. I am nowhere near as brave as you are, and so I am doubly grateful to you.

    1. It is my pleasure to share our experience with the mountain gorillas Judith. Thank YOU for reading and for the generous comments.

  8. Sounds like a fantastic experience Madhu. Hope to do it myself, one day πŸ™‚

    1. You should Kan. It is a moderately high altitude trek, so don’t wait until you get to our age😊

  9. Wow, what an experience… It must have been something to have a big silverback standing right beside you. Great write up & photos ~ and it is great hearing that there are such positive measures protecting these creatures. I also can’t help but imagine if I was there, and while knowing it is not smart ~ having a staring contest with the dominant male silverback πŸ™‚

    1. Ha, a staring contest with the dominant male might lead to your missing a limb or two Randall!πŸ˜„

        1. πŸ˜€ Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed by the way! I can’t think of anyone more deserving.

        2. Thank you Madhu ~ it sure impacted my site with new followers, a bit more work than I expected πŸ™‚ But I think you know it is a good type of work. Cheers to you!

    1. These looked scarier than they actually were Cardinal. Not sure how dangerous the unhabituated ones are. I am guessing just as gentle as long as they do not percieve a threat.

  10. Thanks for sharing the photos and the experience, Madhu.

    The Silverbacks are magnificent creatures. How awesome would it be to see them upclose. I do hope that their population recovers. Kudos to the Ugandan government for its efforts to protect the gorillas.

    1. My account does not begin to do justice to their magnificence Imelda. I hope their numbers mutiply enough to make it affordable for more people to get close them.

  11. Eeek! That’s wild. Experience of a lifetime I probably won’t have. That price is an eye-popper. πŸ™‚

    1. Yes, that price stings hard Rommel. But like you said, it was a once in a lifetime experience.

  12. I had no idea that tourists were allowed to get that close to the gorillas. What an experience!

    1. An incredible experience indeed LuAnn. I doubt anything will come close, ever πŸ™‚

  13. Oh Madhu, what an incredible adventure you had here! So glad you had this opportunity. I really enjoyed this.
     
    Seem to be getting an error message every time I try to comment here so will try again. Hope this works. πŸ™‚

    1. Came through just fine Kris. Must have been a temporary glitch. Glad you enjoyed reading about my adventure. Have a great day πŸ™‚

  14. What a completely unforgettable experience. You really took me there with your wonderful writing. When we did our Serengeti safari, we also see-sawed on the gorillas, and ended up not doing it. One day when money is no object, we’ll go back! πŸ˜‰

    1. We almost didn’t Shelley. Tanzania was expensive as it is. But we decided we weren’t getting any younger πŸ™‚ Hope you do get to do it someday.

  15. witnessing those beautiful creatures in their true habitats must be something you’ll always cherish. i would feel so limited and lacking to be so close yet unable to communicate with them.

    thank you for sharing this experience w/us. z

    1. Always! And the experience is indeed very humbling Lisa. Thank you for reading πŸ™‚

  16. I had no idea that this was even possible! What a totally amazing experience, Madhu. And what a fabulous share! Thank you πŸ™‚

    1. I stumbled upon it while researching the Tanzania safari! Thank YOU for reading and the share Jo.

  17. That baby gorilla is just adorable. You are a lot braver than I am, Madhu. I’m glad that efforts continue to be made to save endangered species. πŸ˜‰

    1. Isn’t he just? I might not have been as keen on this adventure if I had been aware beforehand, of how close the encounter with the gorillas would be Judy πŸ™‚

  18. Wow, Madhu. Those photos are incredible and as usual your writing is beautiful. What an experience…. The debate about tourist safaris is a interesting one – does habituating primates to human presence expose them to danger? Possible. Having said that, I think that the support gained for protecting these species and their environment is an essential factor for their survival.

    1. I am convinced it is MM. Especially in the third world where governments would have no incentive to save endangered species from poachers and trophy hunters without revenue from tourism. I truly believe that the Bengal tigers would have fared much better if India depended more on safari tourist dollars. As also our historical monuments!
      Thank you very much for the lovely compliment. Much appreciated πŸ™‚

  19. Thank you so much for taking me with you with your photos and words to a place I will never visit and an experience I will never have.

  20. Yet another beautiful post and narrative…Madhu, thank you for bringing us stories of your travels.

  21. I don’t think you will ever forget this hour Madhu, it must have been incredible, I can imagine you holding your breathe. Do you know if the money is used towards conservation? I hope so. I can’t believe that crazy guy wore a red shirt, I find that disrespectful and ignorant.

    1. Never Gilly. From our experience and from all that I have read online, the money IS used for conservation, and numbers have doubled over the last decade. Plus the gorillas are their greatest asset and so it is in their best interests to ensure their survival.
      Unlike in the Savannah, there is no fear of scaring away wildlife – the gorillas are masters of this jungle with the absence of big cats – so the stress on wearing neutrals doesn’t really apply. But that red shirt was just so incongruous!! πŸ™‚

  22. Madhu, this post is worthy of being Freshly Pressed – you had me completely captivated at every word and picture. I am just amazed those silverbacks came so close, and what an incredible wildlife encounter you had! Sad to see the mark of a poacher on the alpha female though…

    1. Ah, that is a lovely compliment, thank you James πŸ™‚
      The stub at the end of that female gorilla’s arm broke my heart. The guides assured us she had adapted very well and wasn’t handicapped in anyway. Still, imagining her terror makes me feel sick. The snares are apparently laid for small game, perhaps for food by local people. They tell us the incidences have come down. Not sure if they really have. Keeping poor villagers out of wildlife habitats is an enormous challenge even here in India.

  23. Wow, I didn’t know that you could actually walk side by side with the gorillas. What beautiful creatures they really are, and Madhu, I’m glad you decided to put a visit to Virunga back to the itinerary. Well worth the money you spent, it seems. I believe seeing animals in the wild is always the best way of seeing them, as I know they’re in a place where they’re adapted to.

    1. We don’t actually walk side by side Bama. We are technically supposed to maintain a distance of twenty feet or so and watch from a distance. But the gorillas were spread out in the clearing and some of them would suddenly turn up behind us without warning! Yeah, quite the experience and like you say, well worth the money πŸ™‚

  24. Oh wow, your experience was like in a documentary, certainly a dream come true to see silverbacks! Great pictures and love your post very much.

    1. Way too pricey Niranjan. I understand the need to price it high, but this seems a bit over the top. Heard they upped it from $500 just this May 😦

  25. Wow, Madhu, what an amazing experience. I’m sure it was worth every penny. I have spent so little time in Africa; I would love to explore there a lot more. πŸ™‚

    1. It certainly was Cathy. My Africa wishlist is long as well. But the distances and costs are challenging.

  26. Brilliant write up. I think $750 is a little steep, but it must be a life-changing opportunity to see these creatures up close. πŸ™‚

    1. ‘Steep’ is rather an understatement Lee!! πŸ™‚ We worried we might regret the decision, but it was worth every penny for us.

  27. What an unforgettable experience that must have been – A few colleagues have done it and loved it. There are too many amazing experiences to live and not enough time and or $$ –

    1. True. This required aborting a couple other travel plans, but we have no regrets whatsoever.

    1. Magnificent is the right word Marina. It was a singular privilege. Thanks for the share πŸ™‚

  28. Now that is one heck of an experience πŸ™‚ How utterly memorable and special to be able to witness these animals in their own environment. This is very much on our to-see one day! Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. I hope you do get to see them. It is totally worth saving up for. I would return if it weren’t so pricey!

    1. I wouldn’t have dreamed I would be so close before I went either Juliann! But it never really felt terrifying. Our guides were naturally wary, and we were extra cautious, but these gorilla families have been habituated to people and mind their own business. Unless the big man perceives a challenge πŸ™‚

  29. What a spectacular landscape! I had no idea such safaris existed and do hope the gorillas benefit from the protective practices of keeping numbers down!

    1. They do Patti. Rwanda is an aid based economy and unlike its neighbours it has few resources of its own.The Gorillas are a huge asset, and it is in their interest to ensure their survival. Their efforts seem to have paid off based on increased numbers, although they are still endangered.

  30. That’s quite a unique and interesting experience. It’s interesting that they mostly just ignore you. I think it shows just how peaceful they are. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t be the case if a group of gorillas just showed up in some town and hung around, watching. πŸ™‚

  31. Wow Madhu! what an opportunity of a lifetime and an adventure. You are one brave woman! Great post and pics as usual!

    1. Thank you Sandhya. The gorillas are the gentlest of creatures (unless provoked), so bravery isn’t a prerequisite. Just a fair level of fitness to be able to trek in moderately high altitude. And disciplined saving πŸ™‚

      1. I would be very nervous and fidgety around the gorillas but it is so nice to read and learn from you about how gentle they are. What an awesome experience you have had! It does cost quite a bit! Good for you that you made it happen! Stunning pictures as usual!…

  32. It must have been a unique and absolutely fantastic adventure…
    but honestly, I consider this a sort of “invasion” (albeit controlled and verified and prohibitively expensive) that is not in favor of the gorillas but to whose who pockets the money.
    The Story of Dian Fossey has become a film that tells the story of passion and adversity… about as sad as it may be experienced… especially when the animals become an attraction that only furthers the profit and trade of prohibited goods.
    Unfortunately, even there, the beautiful woods, those poor gorillas are an object of curiosity… will eventually be contaminated by the presence of man, as it was elsewhere. Sorry Madhu… but I don’t approve of this kind of “safari” that shoud hopefully be only for anthropologists and biologists…

    1. Claudine, your comment brought to mind a conversation I had with a friend whose response to my “I want to see a tiger in the wild before I die” was “Are you sure he wants to see you?’ πŸ™‚
      The ethical dilemma of safaris in general is something I have given much thought to Over all, I hope that the benefits to wildlife and local community balance the damage generated by tourism.
      In this case, only about 20% of the gorilla population is habituated (the rest are study groups with limited access) and the revenue they generate, I do believe, empowers local communities giving them a sustainable livelihood without having to resort to encroachment into forest land, and/or support poaching. The fact that the gorilla numbers have increased steadily since the time they were ‘discovered’ and continue to do so, is proof of the success of this project.
      The price, I agree can be viewed as giving the privileged an unfair advantage. But it does keep numbers down. Just so you know, we don’t fall under the uber luxury bracket. We scrimped and saved and sacrificed many things to make this possible. So it boils down to priorities.
      I do appreciate your taking the time to express your reservations Claudine. Many thanks.

  33. What a precious family, and so sad about that mommy’s hand. Poachers are such a cruel curse to our dwindling wildlife. Thanks for sharing your amazing experience and photos here. πŸ™‚

    1. The adults seem so comfortable with each other don’t they? Like a much married couple! I guess they are πŸ™‚ Poachers ought to have a special hell reserved for them Sylivia. But these snares might have been meant for small game and set up by local villagers. That encroachment is what their conservation project hopes to address.

  34. Wow, Madhu, what a privilege to be so close to these gorillas! Worth every penny, I would think….

  35. Oh my, Madhu. Your first sentence got my attention, of course, and had me spellbound throughout your encounter with these marvelous creatures. Pricey indeed, but worth every bit of it. Being matched with gorilla families is interesting. Just getting to spend time with them in their habitat is thrilling and rewarding. What an adventure.

    1. The price was the main cause of our dithering Lynne. I put off purchasing a decent lens for my camera and even cancelled a solo trip to Ladakh scheduled for July, just to be able to include this. It was worth every penny and more.

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