High up in the Virungas Mountains, trying to balance on twigs with nothing to hold on to, Sheila looks up to see a large female gorilla approaching her with seemingly no plan to walk around her. Face to face with the gorilla, Sheila is unsure where to move. The ground below her is slippery and a step up is a steep and muddy incline. Heart pounding and unsure of what to do, it is at that moment that Felix, our trusted guide, grabs her hand and pulls her out of the way of the oncoming gorilla. The gorilla herself probably had no other route in mind, as it was such a balancing act as we all clung to the side of the hill.
Gorilla Trekking in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is one of those “one in a lifetime experiences.” The national park is home to the Virungas Mountains, where over half of the world’s mountain gorillas live. In 1925, it was the first national park created in Africa, and was designed to protect gorillas from the threats that faced them, such as poachers. This was the park that the zooologist Dian Fossey, author of the book Gorillas in the Mist, based her research in. The most recent census from 2010 indicates that there are 786 gorillas in the park, up from 700 in 2003. And since the 2010 census, an additional 19 baby gorillas have been born. So it is apparent that these gorillas are being protected.
There are about 10 gorilla families that people can visit and visiting groups can be no more than 8 people per day who spend about an hour with their gorilla families. I visited the Amahoro family, a name which means peace. The family consisted of several blackbacks, one silverback, which is an older male in the family, and a few babies. In total, we saw 9 gorillas, including the silverback and the cute hairball babies.
Before we began, Felix brief us about proper behavior. Some of the instructions included to speak softly, not to use flash photography, and to look away or sneeze into our sleeves, as gorillas are susceptible to catching human illnesses, such as the flu. He also demonstrated several verbal noises to show how the guides and trackers can communicate with the gorillas.
The hike started off on fairly flat but wet grounds, through farm fields against a backdrop of soaring volcanoes and misty air. A picturesque scene to start us off. About a half hour in, the terrain suddenly changed as we entered the lush rainforest that did not have clearly designated trails or, in many cases, solid ground to step on. It was quite a muddy, arduous, and slightly burning hike, but it was also beautiful, exhilarating, and completely rewarding.
The combination of slippery, muddy ground, rain falling down lightly, and places where twigs, disguised as solid ground, gave way to small crevasses, kept us grabbing for any tree or branches we could just to keep from losing our balance. Unfortunately, the “path” was also lined with nettle leaves, bright green with barely visible thorns that cause a stinging sensation that lasts a few moments upon touch. So, to keep from a muddy fall was often at the expense of being pricked by nettle leaves. In some instances, I found myself falling straight into a nettle grove, and the thorns often stung me right through my layer of clothing.
Despite all the mud and thorns the trek was beautiful. The air was fresh and when we finally did see the gorillas, it was all worth it.
Because the gorillas move around the park, we were reliant on the trackers to locate them. They started the hike an hour before us so that they could go to the place where they saw them the night before and locate where they may have moved to in the morning. Because of these movements, we were not told how long it would be until we would reach the site of the gorillas.
It was almost 2 hours after we started that we came upon a male from the Amahoro gorilla family. It was exhilarating to be so up close to the massive creature. We sat quietly and observed for a few minutes before he got up and made his way through some trees and walked away. Whenever we would find a gorilla, Felix would tell us a little about it as we sat and observed it for moment before moving on. In some cases, we held our breaths in awe as gorillas walked right by us. In only one instance, did a gorilla seem irritated or upset about our presence and the tracker used a verbal signal to calm the gorilla down. Most often, the gorillas were calm and seemingly indifferent to us. In the hour and a half that we spent with the gorillas, it became evident that they truly were “gentle giants.”
Each day, only one group of eight can visit a family of gorillas for a limited amount of time, and so it is necessary to purchase permits in advance based on availability. This is to ensure minimal disruption in the gorillas’ natural habitat.Money for the permits gets reinvested into the community and conservation efforts. There is an emphasis placed on ensuring local communities benefit from money so that they too see the importance of gorilla conservation. This is an example of “sustainable tourism” that has succeeded in improving the conditions of the gorillas in the Virungas Mountains of Rwanda.