Africa 2016 - Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania travel blog

This is the mountain we climbed to see the gorillas

Looking down on the town from our starting point

An adolescent gorilla - the first one we spotted

Grabbing grass, not pushing Lois & her guide away

Eating lunch

These guys were wrestling

Lois with her porter, John

This is John writing:

First let me give some background. Here in northern Rwanda there is significant altitude: 6,000 – 7,000 feet in the valleys, so although the vegetation is very lush, the temperature is in the mid 70's, and there are almost no bugs. The mountains, where the gorillas are, are volcanic, very steep and covered with vegetation. In Rwanda the government has set up a buffer zone between Volcanoes National Park and the people. The land is used for agriculture, but there are no homes on that property. This buffer zone is on the flanks of the mountains, quite a distance above the town.

The day begins with a very early breakfast and leaving the lodge at 6:30 AM for the trekking center, which is run by the park. The weather gods smiled on us because the day dawned with bright sunshine. Once at the center, your guide takes your passport, goes in to check your permit, and confers with the rangers about your general fitness. People are then put into groups of eight, assigned a gorilla family, and you are introduced to your guides for the day. Because Lois had been sick, and was still weak, we got assigned a family that lives relatively close to the edge of the park.

We then boarded our Toyota Land Cruisers for a drive through the fields in the buffer area. We stopped a short distance from the forest, and had a chance to hire porters. The porters carry your day pack and generally help you through the rugged terrain. If you don't have a five foot vertical leap, you need a porter! Remember you are starting at 8,000 feet and going up from there. It is hot hiking up a mountain in 70 degree temperatures, so not having a pack on your back feels good. The first fifteen minutes we were walking in the fields, so we got a chance to see the crops (potatoes and cabbages), and we got magnificent views of the mountains and the valley below shrouded in fog.

Soon we were hiking through a bamboo forest which was easy walking except for the occasional six-foot ditch which had vertical sides covered in mud. After about 75 minutes of walking, we approached the area of our gorilla family (the Hirwa, which means Lucky Ones in the native language). At that point, we had to drop our packs and walking sticks to be watched by the porters, and put our cameras around our necks. Depending on the thickness of the vegetation you can see between 2 and 50 feet ahead. This is no place for a telephoto lens. We still had at least three guides with us, and one stayed with Lois all the time. He never let go of her, and sometimes in steep spots she leaned on both of his shoulders. She said she never could have done the trip without the extra help.

We first came upon a pair of adolescent gorillas rough-housing. They ignored us, and continued their play. Officially you are supposed to get no closer than 15 feet to the gorillas, but they can't read. If you are standing where they want to go, they just brush you aside. At one time or another, everyone was within inches of a gorilla. What makes this activity so taxing is that the gorillas do not stand still. They are constantly on the move, and eating all the time. Our gorilla family decided to drop into a 100 feet deep canyon, and we had to follow. The walls of the canyon are almost vertical and are covered in mud and vegetation.

At one point Lois was making her way through the canyon on the trail that our guides had hacked out with machetes, and a mother gorilla decided to go up the same trail. I was watching this develop from across the canyon. When the gorilla rounded the corner, and came face-to-face with Lois, the gorilla casually stepped into the bushes, found a comfy spot, and started eating bamboo leaves. Lois just stood there and watched from four feet away. I made my way over to her in hopes of getting a memorable photo, but the vegetation was so thick, and the shade so dark, it was hard to get a good shot. We eventually reached the huge silverback, and he just sat there eating like a king on a throne. Someone spotted some youngsters playing at the top edge of the canyon, so we all headed up there. There was a group of youngsters about the size of adult chimps playing. They would get into a big ball and just roll around. Finally, our hour was up, and I thought, "How in the hell are we going to get back to our packs?" Our guides started leading us back, and magically, our porters joined us, with our stuff! The walk back was easy compared to what we had just done.

We really lucked out! On Wednesday several guests from our lodge went out to find a gorilla family that was supposed to be close by. The problem was the gorillas just kept moving, and the people spent about four hours just getting to their gorilla family. The guests didn't get back until four in the afternoon. They ate an early dinner, and went to bed!

We got back at about 1:30 and had a big lunch. Soon thereafter, I got really sick, and my entire digestive system was in turmoil. This morning I had a half a piece of toast and some watermelon for breakfast. Unfortunately, both Lois and I were too weak to go gorilla trekking again today. We had to pay for the non-refundable permits ahead of time, and travel insurance doesn't cover this sort of thing. So we will just consider our second set of permit fees a very large donation to the local economy.

Luckily, today the weather is gorgeous once again, so Jocelyn has another great day to chase gorillas through the forest. Tomorrow we tour Kigali, and then fly to Nairobi.

Gorilla trekking is something most people would love. The problem is that it is expensive, and when you are old enough to afford it, you may not be in physical shape to do it.

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