Volcano National Park, Rwanda
Mountain gorillas are extremely endangered – according to the latest census just 786 remain in the world, found in localized areas of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Conservation efforts are underway – each gorilla’s health and well being is monitored and poachers are kept at bay by armed rangers – and their population is slowly but steadily increasing.
Gorillas are Rwanda’s primary tourist draw, even appearing on the country’s currency. Only fifty-six tracking permits are issued each day; we were fortunate that there was availability for us.
A driver picked us up in Rwanda’s capital Kigali and brought us to the entrance of Volcano National Park by 7 AM.
The entire operation for gorilla trekking was very well organized – after signing in and presenting our permits, we were served tea and coffee and entertained by traditional dancing. Other people were gathered for different treks in the park – including one to the burial site of famed conservationist Dian Fossey.
Habituated gorillas form groups consisting of silverbacks (older males named for the silver hair on its back), blackbacks (younger males), females, and babies. Not all groups are equally easy to find – one is a half hour walk from the gate, another was rumored to be five hours away.
All of us were assigned to track a group by perceived fitness level. Sarah and I joined a Canadian couple, two American men, and a Japanese woman to find the Amaharo group of 18. An advance team of trackers had been sent ahead and radioed us their location – about two hours from the gate. Before heading out our guide let us know the rules: Because gorillas are highly susceptible to human diseases, we were to stay at least seven meters away from them at all times and if we had to cough or sneeze we would not do so in their direction.
We drove from the lodge to the start of the trek, were joined by an armed scout, and set off on the decent but muddy path. We tried to stay out of the mud but after one bad step filled our shoes we cared much less. What was more annoying were the ubiquitous branches of stinging nettle, appropriately named because any contact stings like hell for five minutes.
The walk was scenic against the backdrop of mountains and our guide pointed out interesting flora along the way.
After an hour and a half we caught up to our advance team of trackers; rounding a corner we found the Amaharo group.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a gorilla in person before (definitely not a mountain gorilla as there are none in zoos) so our first impressions of having one right in front of us was surreal. They were huge - males weighed about 400 pounds – but were very passive, moving slowly and methodically.
We all stopped talking when we saw them and kept our voices low the entire time.
Sarah and I each posed for pictures – but were slightly nervous about turning our backs to them.
A few gorillas stared, but most paid us no attention and went about their business eating celery or lounging about unperturbed.
They clearly didn’t care to follow the seven meter rule and surrounded us.
Our guide hacked away at brush to make room for us. A few times we had to brush up against stinging nettle and grit our teeth silently while the pain abated.
Time passed by quickly as we watched the group; we were only given an hour with the gorillas.
Towards the end our guide started counting down the time we had left - five minutes, one minute, then we had to go. The gorillas didn’t notice as we turned our back on them, bid adieu to the trackers who were to stay with them until nightfall, and made our way back.