Mountain gorillas are unique creatures; they have been poached almost out of existence and are therefore highly endangered. Seeing them in their own habitat is an exceptional experience, and certainly one for the Bucket List. Chartered clients, Brian and Ronelle Baker have just returned from Rwanda, and share their amazing experience with us.
Each gorilla family has a name, and we were part of the Kwitonda group. With our guides, Afrika (also our driver), Francois and Kalista, and porter, Elisa, we set off
from the rendezvous point for all mountain gorilla trekking, the edge of the Parc National des Volcans. We were given beautiful walking sticks with a gorilla motif carved on top and these were useful as we trekked through some rough terrain.
There are 10 gorilla families that are habituated (accustomed to human visitors), some families that are used for research, and some families that are considered to be wild. Only eight tourists are allowed to visit a gorilla family for one hour per day … but to get to your gorilla family for that one hour was very challenging – the trek is not for the faint-hearted! Your guide chooses on your behalf which gorilla family you visit, based on your fitness. You can trek for one hour and see a family of three gorillas, or you can trek for two and see a family of 23 (that was us!). I am grateful not to have been judged able to complete the six-hour option!
Gorillas are not big animals; I thought they’d be much bigger, even having done my research. The females don’t get much heavier than 120kgs, whilst male gorillas (silverbacks) can weigh up to 227kgs. The babies are born weighing about 1.4 to 2kgs and are the cutest little things you’ve ever seen. Amongst our gorilla family were two silverbacks, the biggest one appeared to be enormous when lying down, but also seemed quite at ease with all of the people around him – eight tourists, two trackers, two guides, three “security” (guys with AK47s), and about four porters (although the porters do not come close to the gorillas and remain in one place whilst the rest of us “visit” with the gorillas).
There were many enthusiastic juveniles being playful and active. This became quite a scary moment for me as a youngster used my right leg as a swing pole to get down the edge of the mountain – fortunately, Francois was right next to me so I could clutch onto him! It all happened so quickly that only much later did I realise what had happened. The 7 metre rule memo obviously did not get to the gorillas – you’re not allowed to get closer than 7 metres to a gorilla, pretty much impossible with such a large active family who keep moving up and down the unfriendly terrain!
The experience of looking into the eyes of a gorilla is profound – you’re not supposed to make eye contact, but it’s almost impossible not to. I felt as if we needed to sit and chat for a time, to find out about each individual’s life and habits; but, as the allocated time for the “visit” is so short, you just have to breathe in the experience and, in Brian’s case, take photos and more photos and try to enjoy the moment.
Our hour with these gorgeous creatures zoomed by and we had almost to be forcibly removed from the top of this mountain! By now we’re all sweating up a storm, as it is hot and humid. After another very strenuous two hours, we made it down the hill and out of the national park, across the fields and back into our vehicle. I’ve never been so happy to sit down in my life!
A once-in-a-lifetime experience, highly recommended, but very tough going.
More facts about the trip …
- We flew Rwandair, leaving from OR Tambo at 8:30 am and arriving in Kigali at 12 noon.
- We were met by a Primate Safari representative who gave us a run-down on our four days in Kigali.
- Afrika, our driver, whisked us off in a landcruiser to Ruhengeri, the base for gorilla trekking – a 3-hour trip.
- At Gorilla Mountain View Lodge, we had supper and watched traditional dancers perform – very different from African dancing in sub-Saharan Africa.
- If you intend to do this trip, you need to be fitter than you think you are: the humidity is intense, the altitude 2600 metres above sea level, the rain forest dense with slippery undergrowth and steep inclines. At times, our guides hacked through vegetation to clear a path for us.
- Fire ants are aptly named, and crawl into whatever gap they can to grab the first bit of flesh they can find: up your legs, under your jeans, over your socks. I had a few fall onto the back of my neck from the trees, but fortunately, my porter saw them and took them off before they could do a trek of their own … down my back!
- We did a whistle stop visit to Hotel des Mille Collines – the site of the filming of Hotel Rwanda. If you’ve not seen the movie, do make the effort to see it, bearing in mind that, while not a true reflection of events, it does give an idea of what happened in Rwanda in April 1994.
Facts about Kigali and Rwanda …
- There is great deforestation except in the national parks – the guys with the AK47s were there to protect the gorillas and also to keep the locals from attempting to enter the national park.
- The Genocide Museum is a very interesting visit indeed. I am amazed at how Rwandans have survived the genocide and turned their country around in 20 years – remarkable to say the least.
- Rwanda lost one million lives in the genocide in April 1994, the Congo 3.5 million. The central African area is still not “stable” so Rwanda spends a lot of time and energy on peace keeping.
- Their philosophies are most interesting: if you intend to cut a tree down, it is illegal; if it must come down, you need to get a permit and then replace the cut down tree with two more. However, there is still much slashing and burning to create charcoal
- Plastic bags of any kind are banned in Rwanda, we always plastic wrap our luggage when we travel, and before we could take our cases out of the airport building in Kigali, a customs man had cut the plastic off to keep it in a secure area where it will be recycled.
- Each rural family is given a cow by the government to encourage subsistence farming
- $5 per person per year is charged for education and another $5 per person per year for education
- 62% of parliament consists of women, the only place in the world with such a high percentage
Some notes on trekking …
- The gear is important; take leather gloves, the nettles sting through the cotton ones!
- All the bug spray in the world, sprayed over your jeans, gators (which we hired there), shoes and socks, will not prevent them pesky fire ants from finding a bit of juicy flesh to bite!
- Take anti-histamine cream to rub on them bites!
- Long sleeved breathe-able top – do not wear cotton, way too hot.
- Waterproof jacket – not showerproof. When it rains, it buckets down!
- Take a fleece, as it gets very cold in the mountains, but hot elsewhere.
- Neck scarf to prevent fire ants access to back of neck!
- Hat, sunscreen, bug spray (not allowed on mountain, so spray yourself and your gear before you leave your hotel)
- Rinse clothes in anti-mozzi stuff – available from Outdoor Warehouse, Drifters or Cape Union Mart.
More facts on Gorillas …
- Mountain gorillas are endangered; there are probably only about 800 left in the wild
- Currently, the mountain gorilla’s habitat is limited to protected national parks in two regions of Africa. One group of gorillas lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. The other group is spread over three national parks in the Virungas mountain region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda.
- Mountain gorillas cannot survive captivity; the animals you see in zoos are typically eastern lowland gorillas, much smaller animals.
- A baby gorilla will nurse for 18 months to 2 ½ years and is dependent on its mother for about 3 years.
- Females do not go into “season” but give birth to one baby per year.
- Silverbacks consumes about 35kgs of vegetation a day, whilst adult females about 20 kgs.
- They get their water intake from the high levels of moisture in the vegetation and therefore do not need access to rivers and lakes.