Updated: Dec 12, 2022
I heard the grunts before I saw him. Slow, deep, throaty exhalations. A quick turn around the corner and in what was definitely a “jaw-dropping” moment, I gasped in awe. Less than fifteen feet away, a giant Silverback gorilla serenely fed on a braided mass of leaves.
My journey with my husband and 17-year-old daughter to Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda began 14 years earlier after reading the book Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey. Known by the locals as Nyiramcibiri, “The woman who lives alone on the mountain,” Fossey researched and courageously fought for gorilla conservation for 18 years until her brutal murder in 1985. She is credited in large part for the increased gorilla population from merely 250 to approximately 1,000 today. Instantly drawn to her gutsy, independent nature, I vowed that one day I would travel to the spectacular land of Fossey’s gorillas. That September marked the 50th anniversary of Fossey’s life among the great apes. Since I’d just passed the 50th mark myself, I decided to follow my dreams to the misty mountains.
Gorilla trekking begins at 7 am at the Rwanda National Park Visitor’s Center. Each morning before the first rays of sun cast their streaming light on the mountaintops, trained trackers set out in search of the gorilla groups. Using two-way radios, they relay the locations. The guides divvy up visitors to the different troops based on physical ability. Treks can last as long as thirty minutes to four hours and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous.
The Rwanda Government regulates gorilla trekking. To keep the gorillas from getting stressed, only 80 people in groups of eight are allowed to visit the gorillas for a strictly monitored one hour each day. There are a number of habituated gorilla groups (groups that have been introduced to humans. The process can take two to three years) to visit and the groups are rotated so no one group is visited every day. We were assigned a group and met our experienced trek leader, a Park Ranger named Placid.
The mountain gorilla tourist industry is heavily regulated and brings a steady income into Rwanda and nearby Uganda. The Congo, also home to the gorillas, sees less tourism due to instability. Not topping any budget travel lists, permits in Rwanda run $1,500 per person and in Uganda $750. A plus to ease the ouch to your wallet is the strong tourist industry helps the local economy and gorilla conservation. Tourism revenue sharing gives ten percent of the profits to districts districts that border the national park. This money is used by communities to build schools, health centers, and housing.
Like soldiers in a straight line we followed our ranger, Placid, on the narrow path up the steep slope. Like a bushwhacking pirate, his 25 years of experience showed in his skilled machete hacking through the verdant, lush bamboo, ferns, and Hagenia trees. Behind Placid, two gun-toting scouts (guns for warning shots only) used walkie-talkies and a cell phone to communicate with the gorilla trackers about their location. With gloved hands, I dodged stinging nettle plants and hoped the gators covering my shoes and lower legs would protect me against the red ants known to swarm hikers feet and calves. Luckily it was late June and the dry season (June through September), so we avoided sledging through the mud and slippery slopes visitors often encounter.
On a rest break, we savored the endless view of small farms leading down to a valley bordered by rolling hills and freestanding volcanic mountains dominating the skyline. Placid briefed us on the dos and don’ts of gorilla trekking. “It’s like someone coming to visit you at home… like knocking and you make kind of hello.” “Ahhh-mmmm, Ahhhh-mmmm,” he demonstrated a gorilla hello making us repeat him. Other tips: to protect gorillas from human diseases, stay 22 feet away, use whisper voices, don’t gesture or point, and don’t run if a gorilla charges. Crouch down in a submissive posture and make happy sounds (gorilla hellos).
We hired local porters for $10 to assist the hike through wrangled branches. They provided just the needed assist in carrying our daypacks and pulling and pushing us through some tight, steep, overgrown jungle terrain. Hiring them helps the local economy and gives jobs to many who might be tempted by poaching. In Africa, where lifelong friendships are often forged in less than a day and a common refrain is, “You come as guests, but you leave as friends,” my daughter and her porter Richard quickly became friends and are still in touch by email.
Gorillas live in groups of up to 30 individuals generally with one silverback leader. Our group, named Kuryama, consisted of eight gorillas including two silverbacks. Not too far from our initial contact with the Silverback, a rustle and shaking of green leaves signaled we weren’t alone and out of the bushes rambled a smaller, cheeky juvenile blackback. He climbed up a tree into a mass of tangled vines. Near the top, he slipped and rolled over backwards like a furry acrobatic cartoon character then quickly disappeared into the shrubs.
Soon we encountered a female resting in the ferns and bamboo with a baby on her lap. Mama gorilla ignored us, but the baby, a poof ball with hair sticking straight up like a punk rocker perked up, trained it’s saucer sized brown eyes on us and approached with curiosity then quickly retreated to its mother’s arms.
Big Mama soon tired of us and walked away with baby poof ball in tow. With no time to spare and adrenaline pumping we continued. Around a corner, we spotted the remaining members of Kuryama group, two males lying on their backs sunning themselves with legs lolling in the air. Oh to live the life of a gorilla.
As we whipped out our cameras, the loud rustling of bushes startled us from behind. In a flash, a furry juvenile gorilla emerged from the bushes shooting straight for us. Placid whispered, “Step back.” We jumped out of the way, but the youngster was quick. He brushed by my husband, stopped and ran his hand down his leg then sat down a few feet away while we raced to snap photos of the interloper.
Beaming ear to ear my husband said, “He touched me! Did anyone get it on camera?” My quick-acting daughter had snapped a picture of the gorilla with his hand on my husband’s leg, which continues to be his greatest vacation memory.
If you go:
Gorilla Trek Africa
$3050 per person including gorilla permits in Rwanda and Uganda, Chimpanzee trekking in Kibale, Uganda, Game drives in Queen Elizabeth Park, budget lodging, all breakfasts, some lunches and dinners.
Arrival in Kigali, Rwanda: High End: Hotel Des Mille Collines – Notable not only for its luxury, but as the hotel featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda where former hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina saved over 1,200 people’s lives during the Genocide in 1994.
2 room suite $314/night.
Near Gorilla Trekking: Hotel Muhabura
Budget Hotel $55/Double Room
Can request Dian Fossey Room- Room 12- $150
Airfare to Johannesburg, South Africa with stops in London and Paris $1352
Airfare RT from South Africa to Kigali, Rwanda $490
Gorilla Trekking Gear: lightweight safari pants or jeans (if it’s wet or rainy fast drying material recommended), gators to protect feet and legs from red ants, sturdy garden gloves to protect hands from stinging nettles, hiking boots are recommended, I wore running shoes, lightweight rain jacket, hat, sunglasses, and water bottle. Bring a plastic baggie to cover camera in case of rain.
Info on Volcanoes national park https://www.volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com/