Day 58 Fri 25th Jan Gorilla Trekking, RWANDA
After flying into Uganda from Nairobi and spending a night in the capital, Kampala, we had another long day of driving and border crossing into Rwanda - where permits had been pre-arranged for us to visit the rare and captivating mountain gorillas (Gorilla Gorilla Berengei), of which there are only about 700 remaining in the world.
My visit to these gentle giants in their natural environment was a unique and wonderful experience - one I'll never forget. In fact, I think it has nudged down Galapagos, swimming with a manta ray in the Similan Islands, Swaziland and Etosha and to hold the title as my No. 1 most favorite world travel experience.
My day started early when I was picked up and taken to the Parc National des Volcanos main office at 6am where 55 other excited tourists waited to be briefed on the Gorilla families we'd be visiting. I was introduced to my ranger for the day, Edward and he provided our group of seven with some background information on the Amahoro gorilla family we'd be meeting. There are 7 habituated families in the park that are visited each day for a maximum of 1 hour, and 56 visitor permits issued daily. Two other large families share the National park that extends into Congo and Uganda, but they are not visited and are part of the research project.
The limited number of tourists trekking each day plays a vital role in the gorilla survival. 90% of the $500 USD gorilla permit cost is used to by the parks authorities to finance patrols that are instrumental in protecting the gorillas from poachers and their lethal snares and on promoting these wonderful animals. The remaining 10% goes to supporting the local communities.
The Amahoro Gorilla family has 16 members including several females, blackbacks (8year old males prior to becoming silverbacks), juveniles (2 - 6 years old) and babies (<2 years). The dominant, 200kilogram silverback "Ubumwe" leads the family and is the only male allowed to mate with the females. Another handicapped silverback, Gahinga lives as part of the family, whose arm was amputated by a butcher.
We listened attentively to the courageous efforts of Diane Fossey - the American who brought global attention and protection to these gentle giants and who died protecting the animals she loved so much.
After our briefing, that included instructions on how to behave when observing the family (see below), our ranger led us on our journey which started with an hour walk through the cultivated lands of the neighboring village at the base of Mountain Bisoke. The scenery we crossed through would arguably be the most stunning I have ever seen and it was joyous to see the occasional local child pop their head up through the potato plantations or large fields of daisies.
We reached and climbed over a stone fence and were met by the armed guards responsible for protecting the forest boundary and the Amahoro gorilla family. We plunged into the dense rain forest and the really hard work began.
We climbed along muddy paths, crawled through bamboo forests, tried to out run biting ants and breathed deeply as we ascended higher and higher on the mountain. My light weight long pants were barely adequate to prevent the worst human enemy in the jungle - the stinging nettles. Whilst any light brushing of unforgiving stinging leaves (which are everywhere) is very painful, the pain and any sign of their contact only lasts a couple of minutes.
I was very thankful I had opted to pay the $10USD for a porter - who not only carried my backpack and water bottle, but provided a needed hand up some of the steep rocky and muddy inclines. Trekking for the gorillas through the dense, hilly rainforest is strictly for the fit and determined - they don't call this the Impenetrable Forest for nothing!
After 4 long hours of hiking we reached another three heavily armed guards and were asked to deposit our bags and walking sticks and remove any food items from our clothing. The family was only meters away.
These guards responsibility is to stay in close proximity to the family in day light hours before the family nests and stays put for the night, to ensure poachers don't locate them or set traps. For years the mountain gorillas have been ruthlessly hunted for their hands and heads, which have been sold as ashtrays and lampshades! In addition, large numbers have been killed whilst trying to stop poachers stealing the babies for sale to zoos, where they have never lived long. The protection pretty much ensures that finding the free roaming animals is guaranteed.
With my first glimpse of the gorillas in their mountain kingdom all the
hardships of my journey were forgotten in an instant. The powerful strides of the silverbacks, the playful tumbles of the juveniles who practice pounding their chests and the noise we all make to inform the gorilla's we come in peace, fill my eyes with tears and send my pulse racing. Magical as the photos you can see are and the video footage I captured displays, no words or film can adequately describe the overpowering and overwhelming magnificence of this experience.
You're not allowed to get quite as close to the gorillas as Attenborough did and are suppose to remain 7 meters away whenever possible. But you can't help it if they come to you, or take show an interest in your camera bag, as one female did with me as she walked straight by me and put her hand up on my bag.
When the family moved into dense forest, our machete man carved us a path into the forest, where again we were able to observe the animals feeding on bamboo and the juveniles playing in the trees. Only once did the Silverback let off a challenging roar, (that sent me running backwards and then crouching submissively) when he was unable to determine who/what was approaching through the dense foliage. We swiftly started making our guttural "Um humm" noise and waited for him to return the call to ensure we were all friends again, then proceeded to join the gorilla family again where we watched in awe.
To ensure the gorillas do not get too used to the presence of humans the maximum time permitted to spend with them is 1 hour. Our 1 hour flew by all too quickly, and whilst I had plenty of time to observe these magnificent creatures, it was never going to be enough time and it was very hard to leave.
I am filled with gratitude that I could be a privileged guest of the Amahoro family, and for the efforts of so many who have ensured these animals are still on the planet for us to observe and enjoy.
Rules of Engagement with the mountain dwellers ...
* Trekking is also only open to people over 16 years old.
* Anyone with any illness cannot track the gorillas. Shared biology means shared diseases.
* No Eating or smoking anywhere near the gorillas i
* No flash photography
* Don't point - they may become paranoid
* Leave nothing in the park
* Keep ~ 7 metres away....
* Never run. crouch down if being challenged.
DAY 2 - 26th January, Australia Day, Rwanda
After a heavy sleep and thinking long and hard and asking fellow traveler Alison for a loan of some more US dollars, I decide to divert funds that were going to be spent on future activities and 'attempt' to visit the gorillas again.
I wrestled with the decision because $500 USD is a sizable fee, and I felt uncomfortable about indulging in something twice that so few people can afford to do once, if ever.
I decided to leave the decision in the hands of the gods and go to the National Park entry and ask the question - Has anyone cancelled at the last minute or not turned up? I was told to wait and perhaps I might be lucky. I waited. People were formed in their 7 groups and briefings were starting. Still I waited, but completely happy whatever the outcome. I was content with the thought that if it's meant to be it will be, if not, I'll enjoy visiting the local town and catching up on some journal time.
"Quick - talk to this man" (My guide from the previous day hurried me into the office. I was IN ! I happily handed over every last US$ I had and became person no. 7 in a group visiting the Titus family of 12 gorillas.
My second visit is dedicated to all of you reading this journal and especially those of you who I know are not able for various reasons to ever get to Rwanda and attempt the grueling trekking to visit with the gorillas. I tried very hard to capture some beautiful video footage and was blessed with not only having a wonderful guide who positioned me much closer than most visitors are able, but also by the gorillas, especially the two one and a half year old babies - Sigasira (female - who's name means 'take care') and Sugira (the male, who's name means 'Happy growth'), who played and let me share their piece of the forest.
Excited, we introduced ourselves: I'm Alison and today is Australia Day - our national day. From that moment I was re-named "Sheila" by the group. We had our briefing and drove to the point we started walking from. Todays hike was to be shorter - only 3kms there, but it was uphill and a steep incline the entire way. Ouch ! My muscles were still aching from the previous days climbing and I really hadn't eaten enough breakfast or brought sufficient water, but the gratitude and excitement of having another visit with the gorillas banished such trivialities from my mind.
After the climb, the routine was repeated. We deposited our belongings with the security guards and headed in to join the family. Being earlier in the day than yesterday, the 200kg Silverback leader was resting - but anytime of day is a good time for the youngsters to play. We watched a mother with her little baby, 2 slightly older babies copy the 5 year olds play fighting and swinging from trees, play biting in each other and rolling around.
I approached a large tree that the two 5 year old gorilla's had started playing in it. I filmed them play fighting with each other then one decided to move to the other tree where other members of his family were. I was standing directly between both trees on his path. He ran down the tree, brushed by my legs and waited on the other side for his playmate. Busy still filming him, Dijorn our guide, who was standing a couple of metres away from me watching this scene unfold, alerted me: "Alison, the other ones coming down". With the film running I turned back to the original tree, I looked and smiled at the gorilla. With that he came running down the tree to join his friend and deliberately grabbed my legs in a playful way as he run past. He joined his friend and looked at me as if to say "you're it!" I laughed out loud and spoke to the cheeky bugger as they both sat their observing my reaction.
On both my visits with the gorillas, I was the only person in our group that was touched in this way, so I feel extremely spoiled. With or without a physical contact experience with the gorillas, no-one was unconnected or untouched by this once, or in my case, twice in a lifetime experience.
The moments I hope to replay in my mind for the rest of my life include:
* the moments when I looked into those dark, sometimes auburn red eyes and felt them looking and studying me as much as I was them, sensing them saying "thanks for coming and visiting me, come back soon"
* The 2 babies Sigasira (meaning take care) and Sugira (Happy growth) playing less than 1 meter from me.
* The 4 year old beating his chest and staring at me upside down from the top of his tree.
* My close encounter with the juvenile who tried to engage me in play as he ran between trees.
* The grandeur of the salt and pepper backed Silverback leader, who like a opulent king laid back and had the female members pick nits or fleas off his belly.
* The empathy I had for handicapped Gahinga
* The views on our walk to the forest through the village
* The happy smiley faces of the waving locals we passed in our vehicle
I look forward to sharing my video and photos with you all, and with those I spent these 2 magical days with.