Without accommodation but armed with a permit to see the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, I took my time riding the 150km toward Volcanos National Park. Following signs for a lodge I soon found myself 30km away from the park and down a narrow muddy dirt track heading to a gorgeous lake. But I was too far given that I’d have to be at the park at the rack of dawn the next day. So I decided that this lodge would never see the likes of me and I tired to turn around. My rear tire slipped on a muddy track and I slid down the track’s embankment and into a ditch with my front tire still on the track. I was in wheelie position, except that both wheels were on the ground. Nearly 90 degrees and pointed upward a crowd grew around me and my ditch. I couldn’t break the language barrier in trying to get some assistance out of this ditch. One man with one hand on my bike and another outstretched in front of me said “money, money”. I was red with frustration already and now this guy in behaving rather uncharacteristically for an African, wasn’t going to help me unless he got money. Well my Northern Rwanda villager, you may have the cleanest country but the attitudinal absence of altruistic action is stunningly disappointing. I was going to give a “tip” to whoever helped me out anyway. But the insistence or commitment of money before helping this Mzungu just angered me.
As my rear wheel spun desperately for traction, three men heaved Doc up and over the embankment, I was free in less than a minute. I handed out bills to the three men but then ten more hands were thrust over the windscreen of my bike, “give me money, give me money.” I rolled the throttle and got the hell out of there.
The Mountain Gorillas are perhaps the most human like of all the primates competing in intelligence with perhaps the Gelada Baboons of Ethiopia, are likely the most endangered species on the planet. Found only in the near-equatorial volcanic mountains spanning the borders of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. Estimates put this gorilla population at about 300-400. As such they are also one of the most protected species.
So a chance to see these gorillas in their natural mountain setting is not only a rare and rewarding opportunity, it’s also difficult and expensive. Though it’s possible to see the gorillas from the Congo side, political instability, war and questionable conservation makes this proposition less appealing. From Bwindi National Park in Uganda is another option, though movement and migration of the gorillas today means that the chances of seeing them in action are greater from Rwanda — though this can change daily. I chose Rwanda simply because I was there and the excellent staff at the Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN) in Kigali were gratefully accommodating and genuinely interested in my journey, mission and adventure.
Making sunrise to get to the gorillas in the mist of the mighty Rwandan, Ugandan and Congo volcanoes.
What makes seeing the gorillas such a rare chance is the fact that only fifty-six people per day are allowed into the park. These gorillas congregate, live, work and play in family units, much like humans. Rwanda ORTPN carefully tracks seven family groups. Visitors in the park are put into groups of up to eight and each group of eight visits only one group of gorillas. Even more, once the gorillas have been tracked there is a one-hour time limit you may spend with the gorillas in their natural habitat. Everyone with a permit gathers at the park’s headquarters at 6:45am. Groups are assigned one or two guides who take the groups through a 1-3 hours track into Volcanoes National Park. Each group is assigned two armed guards, one treks fifty-100 meters ahead and the other behind. They are their to protect the tour group from chance attacks by elephants or buffalo.
With sleep still in my eyes, I quipped, “Don’t tell me about Buffalo,” to Francoîs our guide who has spent 26 years in the park and with the gorillas and who worked as a porter and assistant to Dian Fossy, the controversial conservationist who was portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the film “Gorillas In The Mist”. The passionate Ms. Fossy brought international attention to the region and these amazing primates but sadly was brutally killed by gorilla poachers years ago.
“You like buffalo?” asked Francoîs. “Maybe we’ll find today!”
“No Francoîs, it seems buffalo like me,” I explained while relating my near death experience with two buffalo on the rim of the Ngorogoro crater in Tanzania.
Along with Francoîs and Fidele our second guide, our intimate and groggy early morning group consisted of only five: California women, Kristin and Sue, Gunther, whose couldn’t keep his camera from “flashing” (strict orders for no camera flash around these gorillas) and his Rwandan paramour, Linda. For the first thirty minutes we trekked through small villages, across potato plantations until we came to the park’s boundaries and a four-foot wall our guides called the “buffalo wall”. From their the terrain was muddier, the foliage thicker and the air intoxicatingly moist.
Stepping over ferns and bamboo past eucalyptus, banana and palm trees our goal was to connect with a group of four men who set off on foot earlier in the morning to track our designated group’s position in the park. Equipped with radios our guides were in contact with the trackers as we climbed the easy ascent of the precipitous volcano in search of the Sabyinyo group of gorillas.
Explaining the moving patterns and the dietary intake of the gorillas, Francois often seemed to cross the line between human and gorilla. Pulling three different types of leaves from plants along the trail he held them up and called the mixture, “beer for gorillas.”
“If the Silverback eats one bunch, it’s like one beer,” he explained. “But after 8 or 9 of these, our Silverback gets louder,” Francoîs sprang up and down on his feet with his face stuffed with leaves making grunting and guttural sounds. “Silverbacks like this very much.”
Wondering weather he had breakfast, Francoîs demonstrated the edible nature of many of the volcanoes natural plants while offering our group a nibble, should we like. The bark of the eucalyptus tree was rather tasty, and when I asked about water, he explained that the gorillas don’t drink water due to the moisture contained in the leaves of the plants in this rain forest. He then stuffed a handful of leaves in his mouth making animated and loud crunching sounds until water drooled down his chin.
“You see, plenty of water in these plants.”
After about forty-five minutes of hiking through muddy trails and wet thicket Fidele pointed out another plant that we should avoid. Slightly thorny, the tall green stalk might not hurt too much at first, the the stinging and burning affect lasts for about fifteen minutes then dissipates. Unfortunately they can pierce the light microfiber of my Ex-Officio convertible plants and I found myself scratching and itching the stinging annoyance for the next twenty minutes. Oh well.
What are you thinking about?
At more than 240kg, this big daddy is the king, the Silverback of our group – Gohanda.
At one point the armed guard and Fidele headed in one direction while Francoîs took the machete from his hip and started blazing a trail in the opposite direction. He’d heard from the trackers and within ten minutes we were in thick foliage of bamboo, palm, fern and eucalyptus with a tiny clearing. That’s when we heard the rustling. And then black shiny fur of a female gorillas poked out of the leaves and looked down at us, then continued to chomp on leaves. She was gorgeous. Stunningly clear eyes with her nose pushed up, she seemed to smile. You know, each gorilla’s nose pattern is different and this is how they are identified by the trackers and park personnel – much like fingerprints – no two gorillas have the same nose pattern.
Continuing to wield his machete, Francoîs hacked away at foliage to give us a better look. If there’s one female there’s a Silverback and the rest of the family, he assured us. And soon we spotted another female and two young teenagers. But still no sign of the big daddy. The Silverback, a male of more than 12 years is called such cause of the color of the fur changes to a silver gray after maturation. He grows to more than 200 kilograms (440lbs) and can be more than eight feet tall when standing. Making grunting sounds, Francoîs explained that he understands the language of the gorillas. I joke once again that perhaps he’s spent too much time with the hairy primates. Shortly after we spotted him he came running at us at amazing speed that if under attack we would have been tackled immediately. But the big 240kg Silverback, named Gohonda by the Rwandans, beat on his chest, made some grunting sounds that surely made Francoîs jealous and then went back to a new spot for more of his breakfast.
Upon seeing the Gohonda charge, Kristen fell back and doing so grabbed one of the spiny thorny plants giving her palm quite the stinging effect for the next 20 minutes. Ouch. The Rwandan girl lost her breath while I just gaped and gazed. “He’s just telling us who’s boss,” Francoîs explained. There was no question in the minds of anyone who saw this episode. The best part? The Silverback repeated this incident about 15 minutes later. It’s good to be boss.
At one point after our hour time limit expired, our exit path was blocked by one of the females. Francoîs alternated his grunting and in about 45 seconds she got up and walked away. He wasn’t lying. We were stunned and in awe, he can communicate with these amazing creatures. Earlier we perhaps broached our 5 meter limit and were getting a bit close to the animals while they carried on eating trees, with the massive Silverback took a branch as thick as my leg and broke it off the tree with one hand. He proceeded to strip the brach of the smaller bite sized branches and leaves and eat them. The youngsters of the family, in the presence of the big daddy Silverback seemed to do anything to get their dad’s attention from doing somersaults on the jungle floor to hopping up and down and beating on their chests.
I can’t bring words to this screen that dutifully describe the feeling of spending an hour with these gorillas, save that if I had the opportunity I’d do it again and again. There’s a magic and a sense of wonder that permeates the jungle watching them. Plus, the guides, the trackers and the staff at the Gorillas Nest Lodge, where I ultimately spent two nights, were all first-class and contributed to an experience that will stick with me a lifetime.
Two of my fellow Gorilla trekkers this early morning in the potato fields – Kristen (l) and Sue – coincidentally are from LA area in California. (note the armed guard in the background)
The locals and staff of the Gorilla’s Nest helped me pack my things and sort out some minor issues re-instilled my faith in African hospitality and kindness before I hopped on Doc and made my way back to Kigali.