Have you ever had an experience where you have had to pinch yourself to convince yourself that what you are seeing and feeling is real? Well, my adventure tracking Mountain Gorillas in the mysterious Virunga Mountains in Rwanda fit that bill. The obsession with these primates started off when I first watched Diane Fossey’s “Gorilla’s in the Mist” many moons ago and the quest to see these gentle giants has been on my “wanderlist” for the longest time, like loads of other destinations, but with Rwanda being a hop, skip and jump away from Kenya, this quest was a rather achievable one and so I set out in my “Year of Africa” to check this one off.
Gorilla trekking. WHAT. AN. EXPERIENCE. I can confidently say that no number of guidebooks, blog posts or chit chat sessions with anyone that has been out to the Virungas and experienced this for themselves can or will prepare you for the feeling of incredible awe, excitement and nervousness that washes over you when your trek leads you to the ultimate goal- your Gorilla family. I can’t quite put that feeling into words, but I assure you that it really does go down in the annals of your adventure books as a once in a lifetime type of adventure. I am so excited to share my adventure with you, and guys, this is a long one, so grab a cuppa and read on!
The day starts at the crack of dawn. 5 am sharp, not a minute more, not a minute less, and there is a knock on the door of my banda at the Volcanoes Virunga Lodge. A wake up call, with the human alarm clock bearing gifts no less: a steaming, frothy cappuccino in hand. The cappuccino I could get used to. Waking up at this hour? Not so much. The excitement coupled with the nervousness means that I have a burst of adrenaline coursing through me as I liberally mist on the foul smelling Jungle Formula bug spray and pull on my trekking gear. Long pants, long top that blends in with the bush, layered because the early morning is cold but I know it will get hot, thick socks and my hiking shoes. The mist is swirling around Lake Bulera and the sun rising like an orange ball, and as I look up, the imposing volcano facing the lodge, Mt. Muhabura looks pretty mysterious too. My imagination starts to run wild as I picture the Gorillas that we are about to see in a few short hours.
All fueled up after a hearty breakfast, we leave Virunga lodge at 6:15 am and 45 minutes later, we have arrived at the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters in Kinigi. The sound of beating drums and singing voices carries through the air, which is thick with excitement. The place is milling with people, young and old, drinking hot coffee, using the free Wi-Fi and waiting around. In a far corner of the Headquarters a group of rangers decides the fate of each one of us, putting people into the various groups that will go trekking this morning. There are 10 groups of 8 people each going up to see a habituated family of Gorillas today. We are a bundle of nerves; our driver comes up to us and tells us that he has heard one of the rangers remark that because we look “young and fit”, we have been assigned a “hard trek”. Hmmmmmm. Hearing this, we decide to hire gaiters from one of the many vendors trying to convince us we need them, at USD 5 a pop. In hindsight, this was indeed one of the best decisions we made, despite some of the more fit members of our group jokingly calling me a diva, these gaiters were worth their weight in gold when it came to the actual trek – read on to find out why!
The clock strikes 8, and we see our driver approaching us with a ranger. Judgement day has arrived, and we find out that we have been assigned the Umubano Family. The Headquarters is peppered with little break out areas dedicated to each of the habituated families, and we head over to the Umubano area where Jerome, our ranger introduces us to our family for today. The Umubano Group was once part of a larger family, the Amahoro Family and split from this group after a feud a couple of years ago. It has 13 members in all. A dominant Silverback, Charles, is the head of this family leading 2 more silverbacks, a couple of females, some juveniles, black backs and a baby. I think we are off to a good start but of course, there is no mention of how long or arduous the trek to find this family is! In my wisdom, I decide to make use of the free Wi Fi and as they say, ignorance is bliss, because I am made a tad bit more nervous when Google says that the Umubano Group resides on one of the steepest volcanoes and it is a mostly uphill, tough trek that can sometimes take up to 4 hours to get to this family. Oooookkaaaayyy.
Now, what I didn’t know was that the treks do not start from the Headquarters. There are 10 habituated Gorilla families that reside on the different volcanoes that make up the chain of the Virunga Mountains. So, once you are allocated your family, you get back into your car and are driven out to the base of the mountain of your family, and your trek begins at the base of that mountain. Our family lives on Mount Bisoke, or Visoke, which is an active volcano in this chain, and has a crater lake at the top.
Indeed the mountain ahead looks steep and given that I live an admittedly sedentary lifestyle where I have to bribe myself to go to the gym (or convince myself that I can go tomorrow, which admittedly comes the day after tomorrow in my world), my mind is already swirling with thoughts of how the heck I am going to get through this. The spurring motivation is seeing the Mountain Gorillas that I have envisioned for so many years, and laden with chocolate (because you need sugar, isn’t it?), water, and a strong mindset, I am set! And oh yeah, with Pascal my Porter as well. A word on Porters. These blessed people can be hired for USD 10 each and they take over the burden of the day packs laden with cameras, said chocolate and bottles of water from you. Plus, you do a good deed by giving back to the community by hiring them, which means they see the benefit of having Mountain Gorillas in their vicinity and therefore do not poach them. It is a win-win for all!
Deep breath taken, carved walking stick in hand, and off we go, in our quest to find our Gorillas. It is a pleasant day but it promises to get hotter. I am slightly relieved when Jerome doesn’t head straight for the steep mountain, but takes a turn into the farmland adorned with gently sloping fields of potato and pyrethrum shimmering like glitter in the sunlight. Life is plodding on in these fields, workers tilling the soil and doing what farmers do, looking up now and then curiously at us and waving. Guys, I can say this part was not that tough now that I am reminiscing and sat on my comfy chair typing this out, but I promise you that I was puffing and panting even on those gentle slopes, all the way to the “fence”, which is a heap of boulders and a wooden bridge separating the farmland from the Gorillas effectively creating the boundary between humans and the jungle.
Across the “fence” a whole new world begins. A world where the sunlight filters through the canopies of luscious green trees, and the earth is covered with thick roots, shrubs and twigs. All you hear is the rustling of the wind in the leaves and the chirping of birds as they fly about their day. And, Google did not lie. It is indeed a steep, steep uphill climb and Pascal, my Porter is a Godsend, giving me a helping hand up the incline and helping me clamber over the world of roots that have taken over the floor of the forest. If this is an epiphany of any kind, it is that I am VERY unfit and I need to do something about that situation, pronto!
We were quite lucky because about 30 minutes into the uphill trek, we meet our trackers who give us the welcome news that the family is nearby! Abuzz with excitement, we all start to look around us, almost expecting a large Silverback to come crashing out of the thicket somewhere. Well, nearby was relative because really the family was in the valley to the side of us which meant that we now had to trek down incredibly steep declines to get down to where they were. Thank goodness the terrain was dry so we were able to get a good grip on the ground and not injure ourselves and for once in our lives, the rain that insists on following M and I had stayed away from us and our travels!
From our viewpoint, we could see the bushes moving down in the valley. The sight of a beautiful Gorilla, munching away – our first one spotted, is something that is etched in my mind. Descent started, and at one point the terrain is so steep that I actually sit down and drag myself down to where everyone has gathered, and where we say bye bye to our Porters, bags, walking sticks and everything excess.
Now we really are in the thick of things. There is no trail ahead, just thick, green foliage as far as the eye can see. Tree vines, twigs, stumps, leaves and shrubs litter the forest floor such that you cannot even see the soil. And the infamous stinging nettles are everywhere! My friend had recommended gardening gloves and boy am I glad that she did,(thank you Neena!) because those nettles are scattered all over the place and I did get stung on my arms and thighs despite wearing long clothes! Our rangers create a path for us by hacking away at the thicket in front of us and a few seconds later, we have our first close encounter with a member of our family. A 13 year old Silverback, lying on his back and having a snooze in the sunshine. He is HUGE!!! And yet he is lying down. I can only imagine his magnificence when he decides to join the land of the living! I glance at him, too nervous to go any closer because he is snoring and when he opens his mouth, his teeth look quite, um, vicious! His hand is over his head, and I cannot get over just how human this guy looks!
Jerome has spotted another family member round the bend, a female, munching away. She is solitary because she has just lost her baby, and you can almost see the sadness in her eyes as she grazes. And then uphill, not far from the snoozing Silverback, in a canopy are 3 juveniles, another Silverback and a baby. The juveniles are curious and move towards us but keeping their distance. The baby is swinging around in the canopy and playing. The other Silverback has his back turned towards us and is oblivious to our presence. Wow. Just Wow. I am speechless. To be amongst these beautiful creatures, in their habitat is an experience that I cannot even begin to describe. It is almost humbling, to be amongst such magnificence. They are going about their business, eating and living. I am awestruck to see the close resemblance to humans, their hands are almost like ours and their faces full of emotion.
I am sticking close to Jerome, who is making Gorilla noises which communicate to these creatures that we are not enemies but friends. And before I know it, I am in the canopy, with 6 Gorillas in my midst, not even 7 metres away. I feel like I am too close for comfort as one of the juveniles makes its way to me, feels my leg and then proceeds to perch itself comfortably next to me! The 7 meter rule has been breached, not by me but by a Gorilla, and my saving grace is that Jerome is near me, making those comforting noises and telling me not to move suddenly or be scared.
A few seconds later, this juvenile has had enough of my leg and has decided to swing into one of the branches in the canopy in search for juicier leaves. I think I had forgotten to breathe because as soon as he is away from me, I make a hasty retreat to a safer distance, and let other members of my group hang out with these Gorillas as I follow Jerome and we track the rest of the members of our family. It really is special, finding a Gorilla just doing his or her thing, and hanging out and being a part of their world, their lives for a short stint of time. The females are eating (is this a universal female thing?), the baby and juveniles are playing around, swinging on the vines, and the Silverbacks being lazy and docile. They just don’t seem to notice your presence. Or they do and it doesn’t bother them, at least not for a while. And when the Silverback decides to wake up and show us that he IS the boss, his brown eyes looking at you with a hint of amusement and curiosity, I can’t help but look down and be submissive because I am wondering whether I am observing him or is he observing me?
Before we know it, the hour is up. You can judge this without looking at your watch because even the Gorillas start to feel like their space is being invaded and while docile in the beginning, some start to get irritable with the presence of humans around for too long a time. We know that time’s up when a Black Back pops out of nowhere, works his way around the bushes, and then decides to charge uphill, thankfully in the opposite direction to us, seeming irritated with something. He pummels into the ground, sending tremors through the earth and shivers down our spines, and he makes a noise that Jerome identifies as “you need to get out now” and tells us that we ought to make our way out of the thicket. There is a problem, though. We are deep in the forest, and there is no path, no trail which means that Jerome and his trackers need to create a pathway out for us!
By this time, the whole Gorilla family has congregated as they have somehow decided that they need to move from where they have been for the last hour. So, uphill and downhill we weave, through thicket and stinging nettles. I am so thankful for the gaiters at this point because there are some parts that are so steep that I just have to sit and pull myself down to prevent the tumbling down, because guess what, as we make our exit from the jungle, the Gorillas are also moving alongside us and going deeper into the valley. Only this is THEIR territory and unlike me, they are limber, flinging themselves from branch to branch and diving into the thicket like giant fur balls with black shiny coats, grunting and communicating with each other as they chug along. It all adds an air of excitement and adventure and I know it doesn’t sound dramatic now, but trust me when I say that it was! We finally manage to get down to the forest valley floor, and thankfully a few uphill strides later, we come to a clearing where we can see the farmlands again, signifying that the end of the trek is nigh!
The trackers will stay in this clearing, watching the family to see where they will nest. And we will be off, back to Virunga Lodge, but first a pit stop to collect pick our certificates, confirming that we have indeed achieved this milestone!
Nothing short of an adventure, an adrenaline rushing adventure, and nothing short of amazing. If you haven’t done this, get a move on. You really are missing out on an adventure of a lifetime.