Rwanda is a beautiful place with a picturesque landscape of rolling hills and lush rain forests. The Virunga Missive mountain ranges borders 3 countries (Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and is home to the last remaining Mountain Gorillas. This is where our journey to see these amazing primates begins.
The Volcanoes National Park is regulated quite extensively and is an example of ongoing conservation success. The local guides, trackers, porters and regulatory government bodies work seamlessly to preserve the natural resources, educate tourism and provide ongoing support for research programs and the health of the Mountain Gorillas.
We visited 3 gorilla families during our time in Rwanda with uniquely different characteristics and behavioural traits. But each visit was a privilege and more humbling than the next. This is one of the last remaining intimate wildlife encounters you can have on the planet and it is an experience that leaves manly lost for words.
March/April is a good time to visit, just before the raining season kicks in. The weather is mild and perfect for trekking.
The process is like a well-oiled machine. You arrive at the permit office early in the morning to register, then you are greeted by the sounds of locals performing traditional singing and dancing in the outdoor gardens with a backdrop of the Volcanoes mountains rising behind. A taste of the culture and beautiful surroundings set the scene for the start of the adventure.
Permits are verified and guides discuss the various options for the families that will be visited each day. They allocate each visitor to a specific gorilla family, generally based on physical fitness and preference of the group.
The next step is the briefing from the vastly knowledgeable guides. A position highly sort by many Rwandans but also one that involves an extensive application and training process. The guides brief us about the family we will visit and the various personalities and characteristics of the group as well as the history/genealogy of the Gorilla families and their daily lives and behaviour.
We drive to the parks edge where we set off trekking across farmland until we hit the barrier that surrounds the forest, a small rock wall that spans 75km that marks the border of the national Park. This is where the farmland ends and the forest begins and is a true indication that conservation is in motion as this restricts any encroachment of the land into the forest.
It is at this point that our guides brief us about the etiquette and behaviour we should abide by while in the forest. We also get a brief lesson in how to speak Gorilla. The various sounds indicating we are saying “hello” I am not a threat, or understanding when a gorilla wants us out of the way by warning us with a serious of open mouth sounds. It is quite straight forward but it helps you understand the communication while in the forest.
Before we even reach the start of the forest, the trackers are already making their way through the lush vegetation in search of the Gorilla family. The Trackers stay in the forest each day to see where the Gorillas settle for the evening, then the next morning they know where to start their search. The guides and the trackers are in constant communication by radio and it is not too long before we get a call from the trackers saying they have found the family we will visit.
The trekking time can vary from group to group as they move through the forest in search of food and ideal places to rest. But on average you may trek from 1.5-2 hours for most of the groups. But most of the trekking is through thick rain forest and when it rains the terrain becomes muddy. It is real jungle trekking, not just walking a well-worn path.
The first family we visited was the Muhoza group. This family consists of 13 individuals and a large silverback.
We meet the trackers only meters from where the family group is and are advised to remove all backpacks and leave any food and water behind and only take our cameras with us. We quietly and slowly make our way through the thick scrub only to be greeted moments later by a large Silverback. We are on his path and we immediately give way as he moved towards his preferred food source. With little to no concern for us and with the clear understanding we were getting out of his way, he sat only a few meters away and proceeded to eat the lush green vegetation.
The family was spread around the forest but less than 100 meters away from each other. As we settled into the scrub the gorillas started to move around us and above us in some instances as they climbed across the thick scrub. A Juvenile walks past and finds a comfortable spot in the shadow of the forest. We move around to the other side of the scrub and in a small green opening in the forest a mother and her small baby rest. The youngsters are curious and will make their way towards the curious humans, but generally mum has a firm hold on the little ones not to let them venture too far.
Each group is allowed only one hour with the gorillas per day and the time goes so fast it is like a dream and you try and fathom where you are and how accepting these impressive creatures are by letting us into their environment. It takes some time to sink in and words can barely describe the feeling. Humbling, privileged, overwhelming, and once you realise this, your time with the Gorillas is over.
But the addiction has begun, and lucky for our group we have a few more days with the Gorillas to look forward to.
Each day begins the same, the locals performing, the guides negotiating, the briefing beginning. But no two days are ever the same with the Gorillas and we are lucky enough to visit a different family today. And Lucky being the operative word, as we are told the Hirwa group we are visiting is called the ‘Lucky One’. The silverback (Muninya) has begotten a good number of children and plays the role of a doting father and truly looks after his children, and is a definite favourite with the females.
We enter the forest ready to hike another 1.5 hours, but to our surprise the trackers tell us that the family is close. Real close as it takes us 20 minutes to get to the family, and what a special group this truly is. In the clearing 4 youngsters play with each other rolling around, grabbing feet and fur and pushing each other around like siblings might do. The day is perfect, sun is shining and the gorillas have found and open patch of vegetation to play and groom each other.
We are watching the youngsters when from behind us Muninya walks confidently towards us knowing we will move out of his way quickly so he can make his way to his youngsters. He lays down right in the middle of the group of gorillas and starts to groom some of the children who return the favour. Such a special moment and even more so as a youngster keeps eyeing out my long lens and with each glance moves closer to investigate. He climbs a small branch but to the little ones surprise it is not strong enough to hold his weight and he quickly tumbles back down into the scrub. But still persistent he climbs closer again as the branch falls towards me and I am told to move back from the curious youngster not to encourage any contact or close interaction. The guides are very conscious of abiding by the rules in order to protect the Gorillas from any disease or other threats. They are so embedded in the lives of the Gorillas and really take pride in what they are doing and what their country has achieved through conservation.
The Third family was the Sabyinyo group. This family consists of 18 individuals and 2 large silverbacks and one old male called Big Ben who was going Bald. The main silverback is called Guhonda and ironically was born the same year as me and is the oldest Silverback in the Rwandan Volcanoes National park. This group was truly special. The entire family unit was a configuration of males and females of all ages with Juveniles playing and mothers nurturing their young. It was a beautiful insight to the family life of this group and Gorillas in general.
But at the end of each day, we leave the Gorillas and hope to meet them again some other time. Being up close and personal with any large animal is a privilege, but it is the connection you feel while sitting only meters away from these Gorilla families that truly softens the heart. Anyone that has had this on their bucket list for a long time should move it up to the top of the list, there is truly no experience like it and with such a small population left on the planet, it is worth doing sooner rather than later.