I really didn’t know what to expect the first time I went gorilla trekking. I’d been on a few safaris in Kenya and Tanzania, but gorilla trekking was something altogether different. Imagining what I might be about to experience evoked memories of watching ‘Gorilla’s in the Mist’ as a young child. Although, my memories of the movie are fairly hazy considering it premiered in 1988 when I was a child, my harrowing recollection of the violence of gorilla poaching in Rwanda stood in stark contrast to the unmitigated beauty of Volcanoes National Park. Although the challenges of combatting poaching still remain, the park today is a place much more welcoming of visitors, and the park’s fabled residents receive stronger protection from poachers. One such method of protection was standing next to me as I waited for my guide, and came in the form of a 6’2” tall, military fatigue-wearing gentleman with a semi-automatic rifle casually slung over his back, machete dangling by his side, and a massive grin on his face.
So, there I was – standing at the gates of Volcanoes National Park playing a modern-day Dian Fossey. My ever-increasing anticipation was the result of a distinct lack of caffeine and an inordinately early start to proceedings: 6am from our nearby ‘lodge’ to be precise. It could have been worse. Others in my group who had stayed in Kigali (capital of Rwanda) were up at 4am and drove 2.5 hours in the pitch black along dusty, winding mountain roads full of potholes and early-rising workers commuting on foot.
After meeting our guide, we began our walk towards the park boundary; a leisurely 30 minute stroll across undulating farmers’ fields that gently slope upwards towards the park and the peaks of the Virunga Mountain Range. Given my past safari experience, I was expecting to see electrified fences and something akin to the entrance gate of Jurassic Park (okay, slight exaggeration). Instead, when our guide gleefully announced our arrival at the park boundary, we were greeted by what appeared to be a half finished drystone wall that topped out at about knee height. Not exactly the fortification I was expecting. I’m not sure whether I was more concerned about the potential ease with which poachers could get in to the park, or the ability for the gorillas to get out of the park. The diminutive looking 80-year old farmer we’d just passed on the road didn’t look like he could fend off a 400-pound gorilla.
At this point our guide gave us some background about the gorilla troop we’d be meeting, how long we’d be trekking through the jungle to reach them and how to behave when we encountered the troop. Cue lots of gorilla imitation practice after a quick lesson on the finer art of guttural gorilla noises – we were told this was in case we were approached by a gorilla And then for some brief guidance notes that I think were designed to put us at ease but, for me, did the absolute opposite:
- Walking time to a gorilla troop is dependent on which group you’re allocated. Walking times vary from 45 minutes to seven hours and groups are typically put together based on age and perceived fitness level (unfortunately they hadn’t accounted for my hangover as a result of my exploits the night before).
- Once inside the park boundary you’re accompanied by the main guide and two scouts (one at the front and one at the rear) who’ll be armed. ‘Never fear though’ (!!) because they’re merely armed to scare away wild jungle elephants or angry gorillas….how comforting. In seriousness though, the guide is fairly clear that the first approach is to stay still and quiet. Guns would be used as a last resort and would be fired in to the air.
- The final two members of your team are the trackers. By the time you’re at the boundary wall they’ll already be deep inside the park locating the gorillas and relaying the information back to the guide.
- Once you meet the gorillas, stay quiet, move slowly and don’t make any sudden movements. Try not to look the gorillas in the eye as that can be perceived as threatening and they may charge (particularly the silverback). If it does happen then stand your ground, do not run, and look down so that they know you don’t want to fight. Basically, behave as you would around your mother-in-law.
- Make sure that all sounds are turned off on your camera and that you deactivate the flash.
After our highly disturbing, yet informative, briefing we set off in to the hot, humid jungle. The climb was getting increasingly steep as we made our way through the bamboo forest – so much so that the regular stops the guide made to provide background information on flora and fauna provided much needed respite for my aching calves.
After a solid 3 hours of vertical hiking, we suddenly heard the crackle of our guide’s radio: “The troop has been spotted and aren’t too far away” our guide announced triumphantly. We rounded a final corner and were greeted by the advance tracking team. By the looks on their faces, one would have assumed they’d been tracking mountain gorillas all night long. We wound our way deeper into a dense thicket as the trackers explained that the gorilla troop was about 50 feet away.
I don’t know why, but I was expecting cleared paths that we could easily traverse to reach the troop. Instead what we got was a dense, damp and, at this elevation, cold jungle dotted with stinging nettles. Three men armed with machetes hacked our way inch by inch closer to the gorillas….and then a hush descended upon the group, and I heard it…. the methodical snapping of foliage and rustling of branches mere feet away. After hacking through one final, persistently dense thorn bush, I turned to unhook my now torn fleece and, cursing under my breath, nearly stumbled onto a small clearing. I looked up, and suddenly there they were right in front of me. The entire troop was gathered together enjoying what can only be described as a family meal. Some of the youngsters were playing around as the Silverback looked on – before reclining on to his back for a nap in some sort of show of male bravado. The next hour spent with the troop went by in a flash. With only an estimated 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild, this is one safari that deserves to be sitting high up in the list of experiences of a lifetime. It must however also be recognized that the plight of these endangered mountain gorillas cannot be overstated. The reality of the threat of poaching was ever present in my mind as I saw one of the quietly lounging gorillas was missing a hand, which apparently had been caught in a snare.
Since that first visit, I’ve had the very fortunate opportunity to go back with my wife. On my second journey, I encountered a family with two silver-back gorillas, a few babies peering out at us from behind their mothers, and a host of unruly teenagers chucking twigs at us from high in the canopy. It was no less magical the second time around!