East Africa 2011: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda & Rwanda travel blog

Gorilla Trek Photos

Group Dinner Ruhengeri Photos

I woke up long before my alarm this morning, in part because the dorm room bed mattress was horrendous and in part because this was the day I would be seeing Gorillas.

If you were to ask anyone in the group they would all have told you that this was the day that made them book this trip. It was the highlight for all of us.

Putting on my hiking clothes and boots felt very familiar and after all these weeks on the truck and eating, eating and more eating, I was pumped to get some exercise. We knew that we would be split up into smaller groups. The regulations for the Gorilla visits are that no more than 8 people visit a Gorilla family and once you have found the family, the clock starts and you can only stay with them for one hour.

We were going to be trekking in the Parc National des Volcans in the Ruhengeri region of Rwanda. There is a natural chain of seven Volcanoes that form a border with Uganda and the Congo and the remaining population of the mountain Gorillas is found in this region – Virunga Volcanoes. All three of the countries offer trekking and visiting with the Gorillas but generally you need to secure a permit months prior and they are not cheap!

This area is known by most of us because of Dian Fossey and Gorillas in the Mist and that is exactly what they are. The volcanoes are almost permanently swallowed up at their tops with a mist.

Throughout this area there are 11 families of mountain gorillas but only 7 are visited by tourist groups, the others are purely for research purposes. The most famous of the families is the largest group – the Susa family. This family has three Silverbacks amongst their 35 members and includes the only set of twins born to mountain gorillas that have survived, they are now 7 years old and named Byishimo and Impano.

Just this year another set of twins was born and they will have to wait to see if they both thrive. The story is that because the babies are carried around by the Mother and she needs one arm for moving and eating, that often one of the twins will get left behind.

For people who have come all this way to trek with the Gorillas, the Susa family is often the group they want to be assigned to. To trek in and visit this family you head up the Karisimba Volcano that has a height of 4,507m and you often have to trek anywhere between 2-4 hours to reach the family at an altitude of greater than 3,200m. Since you have all read my account of Mt. Kilimanjaro you know that the higher you get the harder it is so this is not an easy trek by any means.

I had been telling anyone that would listen that I was going to do anything I could to get on the long trek for the Gorillas. At this stage I didn’t know the size and notoriety of the Susa family, I just knew that I wanted the trekking portion. There are stories of groups wandering for 15 or 20 minutes and coming across the family and I didn’t want that. I felt like I needed to earn it and the further we went the more special it seemed – in my mind anyhow.

Most of my group didn’t care, they didn’t want the long trek but what I didn’t know was that I would have to contend with other tourists as well.

The selection process is not very scientific. They gather all the tourists in one spot and we sit around in our hiking outfits (some of which are very entertaining). The Rangers look around at everyone and try to assess. They have a look at what shoes we’re all wearing then gather together and chat and somehow from that point they pick groups – or at least that was what I was told.

I had whispered in Kevin’s ear that anything he could do so that there was a better chance that myself, Ru and Claire could get the longer trek would be appreciated. I do not know to this day if he said anything or not but the way things worked out was that as we were all sitting in a group one of the Rangers walked up and said – “Who is strong? We need six people for the Suicide trek”. My arm was up so fast and so high coupled with me vocalizing my interest with a very loud “Me!”. I didn’t care who wouldn’t get to go that wanted to, I didn’t care who else had their hand up fast enough. I only cared that I was in the group.

In the end, Kristella, Ru, Claire, Jess and Dan were with me and we had a couple that were on their honeymoon with us. I was extremely confidant that I would be perfectly fine with the difficulty of the trek and the altitude…I had just climbed Kili for goodness sakes! I should know better…

When I packed my day pack for the trek, I put in my three litres of water and my rain gear – just in case and the energy snacks plus I was taking my DSLR camera and both lenses on this trek unlike Kili where I left that extra weight behind. In short – I was not very cautious about how heavy my bag was.

The eight of us had a mini briefing from our guide and then had a chance for a pee stop before getting into our 4WD vehicles and heading off to our starting point. This was a good hour or so drive up a very bumpy dirt road to the base of the volcano. We were entertained on the way as we passed lots of children in the streets who screamed out at us as we passed. The road up reminded me a lot of the bumpy steep road I traveled way back in Moshi when I went to Marangu for the day.

We stopped at the base of a hill with lot of fields of various crops. There were kids and goats in the fields as we walked up and I was able to use a tiny bit of French as we passed by and said Bonjour, comment ca va?

Before we headed off we were asked if we wanted to hire a porter for our pack and given some hand carved wooden walking sticks to help us on the way up. I opted to carry my own pack and for those of you that read about my unwillingness to have the porters help carry my pack on the way down from the Kili summit, you know that this is purely a stupid pride issue with me. To be quite honest, I can’t believe that I didn’t learn my lesson on that mountain.

Our starting point on the side of the Volcano was at an elevation of 2,600m. Within five minutes I was huffing, puffing and regretting my decision. When we started heading up through the fields it was steep right away and the pace was about 3x (if not more) the pace we’d been keeping on Kili. People…anyone can walk up a mountain if it’s done slowly. This was not slow!

My ego was crushed when it was apparent that I needed to fall back and move at my own pace or else I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t have to slow my pace too much, but I moved to the back of the line so that I wouldn’t feel pressure to go faster because there was someone behind me. I started to settle into the hike after about 40 mins or so but that was pretty much at the top of the fields and at the stone wall that was the beginning of the Park.

One of the guides that were with us to help bush whack (literally…he had the machete) would come up beside me and hold onto my hand whenever we were at a slippery or steeper area to help give me that extra boost of energy and power. Normally I would have been too proud to accept the assistance and I could have made it through these sections without it but seriously…my bag was extremely heavy!

His name was John – have you noticed the theme? I think this is the third or fourth John that I met on this trip. He spoke a bit of French so we used that to communicate.

Once we passed by the stone wall we entered the rainforest. We were ducking under tree branches and stepping over logs and avoiding holes in the ground hidden by crushed bamboo branches. We were all in long pants, long sleeves and gaiters, not because it was cold but to protect us from all the stinging nettle we were walking through. The sting wasn’t too horrible, you could feel it through your clothes but most of it went away quite quickly.

We started to see Gorilla droppings and areas where they had obviously passed through since you could see the crushed vegetation and nest areas. We would stop every once in awhile and the trackers would go ahead or speak to each other and then we’d carry on. As we got deeper and deeper into the rainforest we were pushing our way through the bushes and there was no longer beaten down trail markings.

We hiked up about 600m in all to approximately 3,200m in just under 2 hours when we were told to put down our packs and walking sticks and to pull out our cameras because we were close. We had only wandered a short distance further when we came upon our first Gorilla. He was in the bushes eating and we had walked to one side of him so had to spin around and retrace our steps which meant the people at the back – myself and Ru were the ones that led the way and saw him first.

We were all muffling our excitement and our hearts were beating fast and you couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. There was a mountain gorilla less than 10 feet in front of us. He was looking right at us as we snapped away quickly with our cameras and all tried to shift in and around the bushes so everyone had a view.

The trackers will make their grunting call to let them know that they were coming because they don’t want to startle any of them. As one of the trackers started to grunt away he got the attention of the guy we were watching and he paused mid bite and turned his head to listen. It was incredible.

After a few minutes of watching we turned back around and kept going. We came across a few more gorillas that were off the path on their own eating away. The trackers made sure to place us in a spot where we could see and take photos but that didn’t make the gorilla feel trapped. There always needed to be an escape route for the Gorilla and when we didn’t provide that we were scolded.

We were all standing in a single file line on a path taking photos of a gorilla that was across the way in the bushes when the guide quickly put out his arm to have us take a step back. I turned my head to the side to see why he was doing that just as one of the three large male silverbacks was storming up the trail behind us. I had just lifted my camera up and started to zoom out the lens hoping to grab a photo as he went by and I didn’t get the lens all the way in when he was directly in front of me and turned his head and looked directly into my camera.

The Gorillas have a commanding presence but they weren’t as big as I had thought they would be. I think maybe because they are always hunched over so you don’t get the feel for their full height. The silverback that walked past us came up to about my shoulders but his body was bigger than mine, obviously. Their size is more in the size of the body rather than height which would be opposite to the Chimps we had seen in Uganda.

We kept walking just a bit more and then we saw the clearing. There was a large area where the vegetation had been mostly crushed down and there were about 8 Gorillas in there. The other two silverbacks were eating and hanging around as well as the twin 7 year old Gorillas. A few other adolescent aged ones (as far as I could tell) and a large female and a 3 month old baby.

Even though the park and the trackers try to keep the Gorillas safe from poachers, there are still other threats to the Gorillas, not the least of which is disease. The Gorillas are susceptible to any of our diseases which is why you are not supposed to get closer than 10 feet or touch them. They also say that if you are visibly ill or have a cold that they won’t let you participate in the trek. Aside from disease, obviously the other threat is the loss of their habitat.

We stood around and took photos and watched them eat and hang about in the clearing. The younger ones were playing – wrestling with each other. I think the funniest and cutest thing is how the younger ones move around. Rather than walking, sometimes they’ll just somersault down a hill or to wherever they are trying to go. Of course to capture it well on film was a challenge.

To be honest – since I am still learning how to properly use my camera I was having a frustrating time taking photos of the buggers. We couldn’t use a flash (obviously) and I wasn’t confident in which settings would ensure it wouldn’t go off so I didn’t play around with options and kept it pretty basic, but this meant that sometimes on auto focus my camera would focus the bush or branch in front of the Gorilla and not the Gorilla!

The hour with the Susa family went by so quickly! When we were ushered away back to our packs and took a rest to eat our packed lunch and talk about what we’d just witnessed, all of us had the exact same expression – we were giddy! I don’t think any of us could really believe how close we were to them and even though we’d all read about it and knew what to expect and had seen other photos; it was still so magical to be there yourself. We would all be leaving Africa soon and this by far was going to be on the list of highlights. How could you ever top this?

We headed back down the mountain the same way we came up but double time. We were speeding our way back through all the bushes and sliding down all the muddy areas we’d climbed up earlier in the day and we made it back to our vehicle just before the skies opened up and the rain came down.

Our guide handed everyone their certificate and then we headed back to our dorms to find out what the other groups saw and hopefully find a hot shower.

Back at the camp I passed Wycliffe and Kevin and told them about the trek and was given a surprise when I asked what time we were supposed to be back for dinner. Although in hindsight I probably should have clued in to the fact that Wycliffe wasn’t doing any prep work.

We would be meeting and walking into town for a dinner out and then dancing for our final night together. Wycliffe had arranged a meal at a local restaurant for us and then afterwards if we wanted to, we’d head over to a local night club with a live DJ and band for the rest of the night.

The weather cleared up for our walk into town and over dinner we were all sharing our Gorilla stories. The rest of the group was split into two groups. One of them didn’t have to walk very far to get to their family, I think under an hour. The other group that had been hoping for a middle of the road trek ended up having to hike as high and almost as long as my group. I felt a little bad for them because about half of that group didn’t have very good footwear to be pushing their way through all the vegetation and I think they were all a bit worn out by the end of the day.

Overall though the entire group felt the exact same about the experience, they loved it and would recommend it in a second.

The rain started back up when we reached the night club so rather than walking home, Kevin put us in cabs when we were ready to bail. I pulled the plug earlier than the rest and just as I was finally falling asleep I heard them all stumble back to the camp as Dan let out a loud “Bonsoir!”

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