A friend of a friend recently asked for my advice on the topic of Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda. We made that journey in 2008. I took the opportunity to write it out in some detail and share it here in the hope it can be useful to a broader audience.
This post doesn’t cover the fascinating and emotional experience we had in Kigali including everything from motorcycle taxi’s to the genocide museum. Perhaps for another post.
Where Gorillas roam, Mount Karisimbi © Matthew Woodget 2008
Planning for your trek
We went to East Africa in 2008. Our Rwanda trip was a sub segment of a larger journey that included safari in Tanzania and several days on Zanzibar. We did Rwanda at the beginning. After arriving in Tanzania we flew to Kigali. We spent a day in Kigali and headed to the mountains that afternoon. Days two and three were trekking. Day three also included return to Kigali for a hotel stay and an early AM departure on day four to Kilimanjaro to continue our Safari.
Some companies will say one day of trekking requires five days of trip, this isn’t the only way to do it. You can get two trips up the mountain in just four days of visiting Rwanda. Having done the trip I would suggest spending longer in Rwanda by at least one or two more days. Visit some more villages and the people as well as the gorillas.
In 2008 Rwanda was considerably safer than Uganda, I’m not sure how much this has changed. It’s worth bearing in mind. All trekking must be done through the official Rwanda "Parc National des Volcans " organization. They manage the exposure of gorillas to humans and provide you layers of safety onto your trip that you will not want to be without. A worthwhile law in my opinion.
We got used to the fact you go to the "Parc National des Volcans " HQ where you are put into groups. They carefully manage the exposure that a handful of groups get to humans. The briefing is quite detailed to ensure your and the gorilla’s safety. Then we head off to the national park itself. On the edge were little villages where there is the opportunity to pick up a porter. It’s good to do so if you are carrying much, even a back pack. They are working for what they earn and benefiting from the tourism in an honest way so it was encouraged when we did it. The locals were in abject poverty but the children were all very happy to see us. "Muzungo! Muzungo!" They would shout which roughly translates as "Whitey!" or "Foreigner!"
We were somewhat apprehensive based on the fact some of my parents friends had been killed whilst doing this exact same thing in 1999, albeit in Uganda. But the world and Rwanda had changed a lot since then. There were two armed guards with AK-47s, one up front, one in the back of our hiking line, "for buffalos". Whilst this was technically true they were also there to provide protection from a potentially more dangerous animal in the undergrowth.
Hike Puzzle © Matthew Woodget 2008
We trekked up through some pretty steep terrain on the mountain in some very dense vegetation and the bamboo got insanely thick at points. And it was hard work. We both were glad we had trained for the hike. At some points we were trudging through mud as we pushed through stinging nettles eight feet high with the sun beating down on our heads. In 100% humidity of course. In addition to our guides there were a few trekkers who went out ahead to find the gorillas.
Dreamer © Matthew Woodget 2008
It is entirely possible that you do not see the gorillas at all on a trek. We did. And oh boy… it was one of the most emotional and moving experiences of our lives. We came across the edge of the family, some juveniles hanging out in the trees. The chap above was the first ever Gorilla that we saw in the flesh. We really were in the clouds at this point and our experience deepened as we found ourselves moving further into the family group who were spread out over perhaps a half square mile of rain forest. The guides were very prescriptive on how to behave and continually reminded us of what we should be doing. It’s hard to convey what it feels like to have young boisterous male gorilla’s play fighting and chasing each other right past you, so close that the brush against your waterproofs. Or seeing a mother cradling her child, then putting it on her back as she moves off into the mist.
The Bond © Matthew Woodget 2008
And of course the fabled silverback is something else entirely. A firm, confident, powerful master of his domain that is monitoring your every move, dare you threaten his family in any way. This particular family was probably 20 strong and they were a constant froth in the thick lush green that surrounded us. The bamboo had seemed somehow thicker on the return and the trek back proved it. We knew something was wrong when the time started to drip away and the light faded. A storm was coming and we were still not out of the forest. I remember with visceral clarity stepping on some bamboo that was hidden in the undergrowth. I had been trying to push my way through some very thick trunks when my foot slid violently to the side. Grabbing for the upright bamboo I caught myself before any damage was done to my ankle. All that was bruised was my pride. The heavy camera backpack on my back was really starting to feel its weight by this point. Two camera bodies, half a dozen lenses, a video camera, a point and shoot and other assorted gear. It was certainly worth it for the photos I was able to make. Suffice to say on day two I was to choose the use of a porter.
We were experts! Well, we know the drill at least, and before long were hiking up a mountain again. A very different experience to day one. Drier and simpler. We met a much smaller group with a younger father, Mr. Charles.
Mr. Charles © Matthew Woodget 2008
We were treated to both some very young gorillas playing with each other and with the "Pok Pok Pok!" sound of a silver back beating his chest as he rampaged through the undergrowth and ripped a small tree over. A display to remind us who was in control of the situation. This was a smaller more intimate affair and we thoroughly enjoyed spending some quality time just lounging around with this family. Aside from Mr. Charles’ display It was a very peaceful commune with some of our closest ancestors. It wasn’t until later when reviewing the GPS logs for my photo GPS tagging effort that we realized we had strayed over the boarder into the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was clear why we had our ‘buffalo protection’.
To this day our Africa trip remains indelibly marked on our memories. Nothing more so than the two days we spent up the side of a volcano with several dozen of our some of our cousins, a few millennia removed.