My Experience Tracking Gorillas in Rwanda
My Experience Tracking Gorillas in Rwanda
For my experience tracking gorillas in Rwanda, we were staying at the magnificent Virunga Lodge set on a stunning hillside, showing off panoramic vistas of the Virunga Volcanoes and the beautiful lakes of Ruhondo and Bulera. When standing outside one of the bandas and looking over the vastness of the green where we would be hiking the next morning, tracking gorillas in Rwanda’s jungles the excitement kicked in like a drug.
In that jungle far wide, Dian Fossey’s legend lives on. Dian Fossey was an American primatologist and conservationist known for undertaking an extensive study of mountain gorilla groups from 1966 until her 1985 murder. She studied them daily in the mountain forests of Rwanda, initially encouraged to work there by paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey. Dian Fossey was the reason everyone else, my friends and I could come to these parts and have the gorilla trekking experience. It’s because of her studies that the world gave attention to the mighty mountain gorillas.
Virunga Lodge. Credit: Virunga Lodge
Tracking gorillas in Rwanda
Straddled within the Virunga Volcanoes forests shared between three countries (Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo) and in the Albertine primeval jungles of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest found in Uganda, mountain gorillas are listed as endangered species on IUCN red list and they’re just about 1008 mountain gorillas in the wild (compared to 300 gorillas back in 1986).
A gorilla trekking permit is one of the most expensive travel permits with Uganda charging US$700 and Rwanda (most expensive) selling the gorilla permit for US$1500 per person per trek. But we chose tracking gorillas in Rwanda although they’re most expensive.
Might want to read: Gorilla Permits; All you need to know.
Silverback mountain gorilla climbing up short branch
I must rant on why we paid US$1500 for a gorilla permit in Rwanda that cost less than half of that in the neighboring Uganda where we had we had tracked chimpanzees and spent two days in the beautiful Lake Bunyonyi two days prior crossing into Rwanda.
Why we chose tracking gorillas in Rwanda over gorillas in Uganda.
Tracking gorillas in Rwanda is less physically demanding than gorilla tracking in Uganda, ask any seasoned guide to honestly tell you and they’ll back me on this. Uganda’s forests are covered in deep thick foliage and the terrain can be so steep making the gorillas hard to get to. Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park has less foliage and the terrain is relatively flat making photography and hiking a piece of cake.
You practically have to drive close to 10 hours to get to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and in a rainy season, it may take more than that because the roads to the gorillas are not paved and sometimes get washed by heavy rains. Given it’s a beautiful countryside and so much to see on your country drive, you may want to avoid the long hours and take a charter flight or come through Kigali. Kigali is just about two and a half hours to Volcanoes National Park
You could read this later: Gorilla Trekking in Uganda: All you need to know
Rwanda itself is an intriguing destination I had been wanting to visit for some time. From its tragic history of genocide to the natural beauty found in places like Lake Kivu, Rwanda is multifaceted — and often misunderstood. This country is about a lot more than gorillas.
The fee for a permit in Rwanda may seem outrageous to be in the company of gorillas for just one hour, but protecting both the most endangered primates in the world and the communities that surround them is a costly endeavour. I knew my dollars would be put to good use.
The gorilla trekking experience was worth every single penny.
The gorilla trekking experience
Kiningi (park headquarters), a two-hour, scenic drive from Kigali, is the town in northwestern Rwanda that serves as the gateway to the Virunga Mountains, an area shared with Uganda and the DRC. Rwanda’s portion of the mountain range is called Volcanoes National Park, where its most famous wild residents live.
My friends and I spent two nights in the stunningly beautiful Virunga Lodge, just 40 minutes outside Kiningi.
Having woken up very early, by 6:30am we were ready with our backpacks and packed lunches, jittery with anticipation. Our private guide drove us to the the park headquarters and within 40 minutes, we were ready to be briefed at Kiningi with another massive number of travelers we found there.
Eventually, we were divided into groups of eight, each assigned to two rangers and a gorilla family. The rangers for our group (Vincent and the other guy), briefed us on the Susa gorilla family and trekking rules before we struck out on our jungle hike at 08:20.
Thankfully, we spent the first half-hour on relatively flat terrain, passing through lush farmland and rural communities that, according to our guides, are given 10% of the gorilla trekking revenue to fund local initiatives (the other 90% goes towards conservation).
The jungle hike took an unexpected different course when we reached the entrance to the bamboo forest. The pace was manageable, but the steep inclines tested our strength and endurance as we made the arduous climb with our walking sticks, leaving us breathless 8,200 feet above sea level (normal altitude).
I Initially scoffed at the idea of hiring a porter and spending $10, but after my friend seemed so comfortable with the idea, threw in the towel and it was all worth it. Gilbert (my porter) carried my backpack, camera equipment and occasionally pulled me up difficult slopes. These porters are well seasoned and could walk the terrain all day carrying hefty kilos if they had to. And thankfully, the clear skies of December were just a blessing otherwise the hike would have been even more strenuous with rain and dump, slippery forest floors.
We couldn’t have been luckier when our hike suddenly came to a stop one and a half hours into the trek. There are tales of tracking gorillas in Rwanda taking up-to 6 hours hiking in the misty jungle before they located the gorillas. But for us, it wasn’t long before we were greeted by rifle-toting trackers who had located the gorillas earlier at dawn, stayed with them and with whom our gorilla guides had been communicating on walkie talkies.
We were asked to gently set our backpacks down about 50 meters away from the gorilla family and there on carry only our cameras quietly. We quietly moved to the instructions of the Vincent our guide and in a small clearing surrounded by lush, green undergrowth, we finally came upon the elusive mountain giants: the Susa community of gorillas, all 40 of them.
Susa community of gorillas
Silence fell among our group of trekkers. Spines tingled. A transcendental sense of wonder rose from deep within us.
With their machetes, our guide Vincent and the ranger slashed away at the obstructing shrubs to improve our visibility and the gorillas didn’t seem to mind. The male Silverback, the patriarch of the troop, was monstrous — intimidating even as he rested peacefully after a heavy veggie breakfast and kept grunting and farting shamelessly like a medieval king.
The patriarch Silverback lying down surrounded by family members
But the fear quickly subsided. A restless youngster climbed from his mother’s shoulders onto the Silverback in exactly the same way my toddlers do back home. These apes — which scientifically share 98% of our DNA — simply are extraordinarily, unbelievably human-like.
For a moment, I questioned whether these mysterious, fuzzy black giants of the African rainforest were real. How did they evolve to have their massive bodies? Do they have the same thoughts as we do? The undeniable fact is we are connected. Wonderfully, profoundly connected.
Susa elder mothers
Our guides led us to another nearby clearing where we located the rest of the gorillas, huddled together and, while aware of our presence, they seemed indifferent to our movements.
Then the boisterous one-year-old tumbled out of his mother’s arms to check out his new visitors. Curious and playful, he rolled and fumbled about as the father and all adults looked on with watchful eyes. Distance had to be maintained between us and our jungle relatives, but the rule does not stop the apes from approaching you.
boisterous youngster gorilla
Suddenly the youngster’s mother moved towards us, her son hanging off her arm until he lost his grip. Oh mahn, a jolt of tension swept over me, I can swear it. Fortunately our guid normalised the state. He confidently responded with gorilla language — a discerning series of grunts — and she immediately retreated.
The interaction didn’t stop the youngster from slowly edging closer to us until he was just a few meters before me. I could’ve touched his hand had I extended mine. Between the gasps and oh-my-gods, I think I stopped breathing. He was ridiculously adorable.
Under the watchful eyes of the elders
We observed the gorillas for a half-hour more then suddenly our one hour with the mighty creatures came to an end. I then understood why Dian Fossey couldn’t, after 18 years, pull herself away from the precious subjects of her study that she so fiercely protected and championed. To be in the presence of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, deep in the forest jungles of Eastern Africa, is a golden, mystifying encounter few people have had the privilege to experience.
Today, I count myself one of those lucky few.
Important to note
Gorilla Trekking Permit
Rwanda gorilla permits cost US$1,500 per person per trek (as of Feb 2020). You will, under no circumstances, be allowed into the jungle to trek the gorillas without that little ticket. But due to a limited number of permits given out a day, permits are very scarce (especially during the high seasons of January, February, June, July, August, September and December) and require you to book months before your trip to Rwanda. If you are travelling with Iconic Travels, you need not to worry for they take care of your permit with the itinerary.
Read more about acquiring gorilla permits
When should you go to see the mountain gorillas?
They say hiking is easier in the Dry season months, from June to August, and to a lesser extent in early September, December and January. The trails become very slippery in heavy rain of March, April, May and November but we trekked in December and I didn’t see a drop of rain all morning.
Remember to get your Malaria shot and medication, Rwanda is identified as both a Malaria and Yellow Fever zone.
What you should bring with you
Your passport of course, waterproof hiking boots, long-sleeve shirt and pants (to protect you from bugbites and thorny plants), gardening gloves to protect your hands as you push the thorny bushes out of your way and grasp at branches during steep climbs (not a must but they came in handy), insect repellent, water and a packed lunch (Virunga Lodge provided with us sumptuous packed lunches).
Consider waterproof gear during the rainy season: hiking boots (it can get very muddy), jacket, pants and backpack cover. An additional advantage of a waterproof jacket and pants is that they will provide a strong barrier between you and the sharp nettle.
It’s advisable to tuck your pants into your boots or thick socks to prevent ants from crawling up your thigh (I wonder how they usually get that far without notice). Alternatively, a pair of gaiters will do the job.
Get more information on: Packing for Gorilla Trekking Safari
Your fitness level counts.
Depending on where they built their nests last evening (that’s how the rangers keep track of them), you may find the gorillas after just a single hour or less of hiking. The terrain is unpredictable, so it’s best to prepare for a long climb with sharp inclines. The pace, however, is moderate and broken up with breaks.
You should not trek if you have a cold or flu. Because they are so closely related to humans but do not have the same immune system we do, gorillas can easily contract a human infection that could put their lives in danger.
To make the trek easier, walking sticks are made available at no additional cost before the journey. And for just 10 US dollars, you could hire a porter to carry your bags and also help you up steep hills. Not only is their service worth the money, hiring a porter directly contributes to the local economy.
One hour gorilla trekking rules
During your hour with the gorillas: No eating or drinking is allowed; a distance of 7 meters (23 ft) must be kept between you and the gorillas (although they may approach you); while the gorillas are habituated to human observers, they are still wild — keep your voice low and do not make sudden movements that might be interpreted as a sign of aggression.
Capture clear close-ups with a fast telephoto lens, which is important in a dense, heavily shaded forest where flash photography is not permitted. Increasing your ISO will also help you get your shots in the poor light, especially when the gorillas are on the move. Remember to bring something rainproof like a dry bag to protect your gear (note: Rwanda has implemented a country-wide ban on plastic bags).
More information on: Mountain Gorilla Filming
Let me know what your experience Tracking Gorillas in Rwanda was like. I hang out at Travel Uganda Magazine and travel places to bring you these stories. Cheers!