Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Meeting Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

I’ve had a few “once in a lifetime” experience and I’d have to say Gorilla Trekking in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is one of them. The National Park is home to the Virungas Mountains, where over half of the world’s mountain gorillas live. It was the first National Park created in Africa in 1925 to protect the gorillas from being poached. The most recent census from 2010 indicates 786 gorillas, up from 700 in 2003. And since the 2010 census, an additional 19 baby gorillas have been born. So, the once endangered species are being protected!
It is not cheap to gorilla trek but it is well worth it. There are about 10 gorilla families 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 which means peace.

It was quite a muddy, arduous, and slightly stinging hike but beautiful, exhilarating, and nothing short of rewarding. Our guide Felix briefed us on the hike as well as proper behavior before we began.  Some of the instructions included speaking quietly, not using flash photography, and looking away or into our sleeves if sneezing. He also made several verbal noises to show how the guides and trackers 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 an hour in, the terrain suddenly changed as we entered the lush rainforest that did not have clearly designated trails or solid ground in many cases. The combination of slippery, muddy ground, rain falling down lightly, and places were twigs gave way under my foot caused my walking stick to also give way and my free hand to reach out to try and grab any tree or branch to keep from losing my balance. While this did save me from an epic fall maybe once, more often than not, my hand reached out onto nettle leaves, bright green leaves with barely visible thorns that sting! At one point, my foot lost traction, kicked up, and rather than trying to resist the fall, I fell straight into a nettle grove; the thorns sting right through a layer of clothes.

“The juice was worth the squeeze” a phrase used by Amal in my group. Despite the hurdles, it was beautiful. We reached a point up the hill where Felix pointed out lichen, an indication of no pollution. I took a deep breath of clean, fresh air. We heard gorillas so we knew they were nearby and the excitement build.

Our first encounter was with a large male gorilla. We were about 5 meters from him. We observed him quietly, he observed us. He sat there for a few minutes and then walked on by. As we carried on to locate the rest of the gorilla family, out of nowhere a large male gorilla came up behind us and before I even knew where he was, I heard Felix say, “Just stay still”. It was then that I turned and the massive creature brushed against my leg gently and kept walking right through us. It was frightening and fabulous.

Sheila had a thrilling adventure of her own. Because we did not always have stable ground where we were walking, she was balancing on some twigs when a gorilla was making his way towards her with seemingly no plan to go around her. She came face to face with the gorilla unsure of where to move since the ground below was slippery and to step up would be on steep, muddy incline. Somehow, Felix grabbed her hand, pulled her up and the gorilla carried on, with presumable with no other route in mind since it was all such a balancing act!

In total, we saw about 9 gorillas, a few blackbacks, one silverback (an old male in the family) and a few babies. There was one instance where the gorilla was clearly marking his territory as he ripped a branch off a tree and seemed as though he was ready to charge at one of the trackers. The trackers have ways of communicating with the gorillas to let them know they mean no harm, and gorillas use sounds that indicate others are not welcome. In this case, we were told to just stay still and not approach. My heart was pounding as it looked like the gorilla would charge at the tracker and then probably us soon after. Luckily, the gorilla calmed down, Felix made low growling noises, and we were able to proceed. I’m not sure what it was that upset the gorilla. Other than this one instance, the gorillas seemed indifferent to us or maybe just used to humans, which is what Felix told us. They went about their business, mostly eating or resting.

The baby gorillas were simply precious: round hairy creatures. The pictures and will probably not do justice, but all in all it was a remarkable trip.

Money for the permits gets reinvested into the community and conservation efforts and so while expensive, it is an example of “sustainable tourism” that has succeeded in improving the conditions of the gorillas. There is a limit to the number of visitors per day and visitors spend roughly an hour with the gorilla families. This is to ensure minimal disruption in the gorillas’ natural habitat.