The long awaited visit to Rwanda to see the Mountain Gorillas has finally arrived. In order to secure the limited permits and rooms at the desired lodges, I had to book everything in the beginning of the year for my visit in mid-September. When I booked, the permits cost US$750 each for an hour long visit with one chosen gorilla family. Only 80 permits are available each day. As of May 2017, the price per permit doubled to US$1,500. Although gorilla trekking in Rwanda can be done year round, the best time is during the dry seasons from mid-December to early February or from June to September. I flew into Kigali which is the capital of Rwanda and spent the night in town at the Kigali Serena Hotel. The next morning, I was driven about two hours to Kinigi where the Parc National des Volcans or Volcanoes National Park is located. This is where I will have my close encounters with the gorillas.
Volcanoes National Park is part of the larger Virunga Mountains and is home to 6 Virunga Volcanoes and the mountain gorillas. Even though I booked everything early, I was still unable to stay all 3 nights at one place. I had to split my nights between Bisate Lodge and Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. I absolutely loved Bisate Lodge owned by Wilderness Safaris which just opened in the summer of 2017 and is located in the natural amphitheatre of an eroded volcanic cone with views of the volcanoes of the national park. The lodge has only 6 rooms. At the time of my visit, Bisate Lodge is definitely significantly superior to all the other lodges in the area with Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge coming in second. Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is located at the foothills of the Virunga mountain ranges and is comprised of 8 cottages. Both lodges are within easy driving distance of the Park Headquarters in Kinigi.
Mountain gorillas are the world’s most endangered apes and are only found in areas of the forests in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern DRC. These mountain gorillas are driven close to extinction by deforestation and poaching until their greatest champion, Dian Fossey, began to study them. Today nearly half of the world’s 800 or so remaining mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Mountains. Mountain gorillas are 98.67% human so we are more similar than we think. They have human-like hands with 4 fingers and a thumb and have unique fingerprints. Gorillas live in groups led by one dominant adult male called the silverback because of the silver hair on its back. This alpha silverback also has exclusive mating rights. A member of our trekking group told me that the previous day when she visited another gorilla group, she saw that while the alpha was mating, another male went off into the bushes with a female. After finishing the deed, the female came out of the bushes and immediately went over to groom the alpha as if nothing has happened. I have to say this behaviour is very human indeed! 😀 Gorilla groups can go from 6 or 7 to about 30 gorillas with other silverbacks, younger males, females, and their offspring. A mature silverback male gorilla can weigh over 200 kg. To think of it makes me a bit nervous but once you set eyes on the gorilla family, any anxiety is replaced by pure awe and excitement. It is also reassuring to know that gorillas are purely vegetarian and feed on the roots, shoots, fruits, and tree bark etc. The gorillas we visit are habituated so they are accustomed to having humans visit them regularly. They will carry on with whatever they are doing without much concern. In general, they are peaceful and nonaggressive unless provoked. We were told if one of them, perhaps a playful youngster, were to approach us, we will need to move away. The stated rule is that we should be at least 7 meters away from them. This rule, however, is more for the benefit of the gorillas not catching any human diseases, rather than to keep us safe. But in reality, we were much closer than 7 meters most of the time, more like only a few feet.
Ideally you want to stay as close to the park headquarters as possible because the morning briefing for the gorilla treks is at 7am. You will be informed about safety precautions and etiquette. You will also be assigned to one of the 10 habituated mountain gorilla groups depending on your fitness level. At most 8 people are assigned to each gorilla group each day. The trackers have already located where the families are on each particular day but having said that these are wild animals and they could wander away in search of food. Each gorilla trekking group will consist of a main guide, 2 scouts carrying guns for our protection, and 2 trackers who are already out in the jungle with the location of the specific gorilla group. Take the walking staff offered and bring sturdy gloves. Most lodges such as ours provide gaiters (there are areas with stinging nettles and fire ants), gardening gloves, and even backpacks. Do also hire a porter to help carry your things and give you a hand going up the steep hills inside the rainforest. In fact, between the 2 of us, we hired 5 porters and devised a push and pull system to get us up the hill. Plus it is extremely helpful to have someone carry your backpack, water, and camera equipment while you navigate the uneven and steep terrain. The going rate for the porters is US$10 each and in the end we paid them US$20 each. Many of them are ex-poachers and this is now their income. We tipped ours very generously because their help made the difficult hikes much easier. Once you find the gorilla family, you are only allowed to observe them for 1 hour. I am glad I booked 2 permits on consecutive days so I can thoroughly enjoy this once in a lifetime experience.
Of the 10 gorillas groups (Ugenda, Umubano, Susa A, Krinsimbi, Sabyinyo, Hirwa, Amahoro, Bwengye, Group 13 Agasha, and Kwitonda), we were assigned to Umubano the first day and Kwitonda the second day. The most well known group is the Susa Group which was the gorilla group originally researched by Dian Fossey. It is one of the most difficult families to trek because they generally stay in the higher ranges of the mountains. Before splitting into 2 groups, they were the largest group recorded with 41 members.
On our first day, we visited the Umubano group. It was formerly part of the Amahoro group but split because of constant fighting between the 2 silverbacks, Ubumwe and Charles after the death of Amahoro. Charles left and became the dominant silverback of the Umubano group. The group has about 13 members now with 3 silverbacks.
On our second day, we visited the Kwitonda group now led by Akarevuro after the death of Kwitonda (Humble One) in 2012 due to old age. The group was originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and moved to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The group now has about 30 members with 2 silverbacks.
On our 3rd day here, we did the Golden Monkey Trek. These golden monkeys are also endangered and are unique to the Virunga mountain range. Golden monkeys live in the bamboo forest near the base of the volcanoes and there are 2 habituated groups for people to visit with the larger group consisting of almost 100 members. The procedure to trek the golden monkeys is the similar to those for the gorillas, though the permits cost only US$100 each. Meet at 7am for the briefing and then after finding the monkeys, you are only allowed 1 hour with them. They are definitely not as exciting to see as the gorillas but they are beautiful creatures and fun to watch jumping from tree to tree.
Other than seeing the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys, the lodges will normally arrange for you to visit a local village where you can get a glimpse of local Rwandan village life.
All in all, this was definitely one of the most amazing and unforgettable experiences ever! Coming face to face with a fully-grown silverback gorilla is really something else. It was truly a privilege to watch these mountain gorillas feed, groom, and play without a care in the world. I would do this again in a heartbeat!
We leave the gorillas behind to continue on to the mighty Victoria Falls straddling Zambia and Zimbabwe. Stay tuned!
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