We are warned not to get too close to the mountain gorillas. Or touch them.
But the great apes are not bound by any such restrictions. Guhonda, the largest silverback on the planet, lies on his belly, staring at us intently. Then he heaves up all 400 imposing pounds, and strides purposefully to a 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.
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.
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 that Dian Fossey devoted 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.
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.
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.
In the meantime, our choice of accommodation in Musanze – the lovely and relatively reasonably priced Jack Hannah Cottage – became unavailable. The culprits were part of our group on the trek and were our co- passengers on our 12 seater plane ride to Tanzania! We drooled over the views from the gorgeous Virunga Lodge, but settled for the Mountain Gorilla View lodge, which at a fraction of the cost was basic but bearable for one night. The delightful Serena in Kigali on our first and last nights was all comfort.
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.
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.
The National Geographic article on Diane Fossey I have linked to (here & above), gives a fascinating insight into the social interactions of the gorillas, and the hardships they face in order to survive.
More from Rwanda:
The Extraordinary Renewal Of Rwanda