Rwanda’s Highland Gorilla’s

About this trip: The more we travelled the larger our “things to do before we die” list grew. One item always close to the top was to see Gorillas in the wild before they were all gone. Many fabulous trips later this experience still ranks number one of our wow moments!

There are less than 900 mountain gorillas left worldwide and Rwanda is the best place to see them. The Gorilla groups are “easier” to get to on the Rwanda side of the mountains which boarders Uganda and the Congo and these days Rwanda is also more secure.

Kigali – Rwanda
Rwanda is green, “The land of 1000 hills” and country rebuilding following the Genocide. There are signs and memorials throughout the country and our guide John (who lost most of his family) says they are so people never forget. We took a trip around the city and to the Genocide memorial. The memorial is not an uplifting experience. What occurred here was an atrocity, shows you the dark side of human nature and the dramatic impact interfering outsiders can have. The inaction of the UN and Western world was appalling. We felt the visit was important to help understand how far the country has come in 10 years and the resilience of the people.

We stayed overnight in the capital Kigali at the Serena hotel then travelled the two and a half hours to  Ruhengeri’s  Gorilla Nest Hotel, just outside “Parc National des Volcans” (Volcano National Park).
The accommodation was basic but had everything you need and was apparently about to undergo renovations. We laughed at the fact we have travelled half way around the world to stay in a place surrounded by eucalypts. The accommodation has a clear view of the huge volcanic mountains and is a bit daunting given we would soon be trekking them. We had trained for 6 months but had a low fitness starting point.

Gorilla Trek 1 Parc National des Volcans. Jan 4

We had breakfast and then departed at 6:45. John drove the 3 k to the park headquarters where we filled out our forms and continued to remind John that a short walk would be sufficient for today given that we were doing another one tomorrow. There was a film crew from WWF ready to trek to the furthest and largest group (at least we weren’t going to them!). We were put into a group with two Germans and four Lithuanians. We were informed about the gorillas, of the trek rules and gorilla etiquette and that we were going to see the Hbuwe group ( meaning lucky) containing one silverback, six females and six babies. Lucky came from the fact that this silverback was a bachelor and approached two other groups within the space of 24 hours finding himself his own tribe – apparently this doesn’t always happen for bachelors and they can spend their days wandering the forest trying to get something started so to speak. Now if you’ve seen “the Long Way Down” in Rwanda you will know about an African massage driving to the end of a very bumpy road. At this point the altitude is about 3000m. We organised a porter to carry the bulk of our gear for US$10 and then headed off through fields of crops and Eucalypts.

Volcano National Park Rwanda

Volcano National Park Rwanda

The terrain was slimy, unstable and in places rocky and our new German friends decided to set a cracking pace… well cracking for us – why we didn’t know when you only get one hour with the gorillas regardless. We started to get concerned with our ability to keep up. We walked for about 30 minutes uphill and all we could see was the volcano rising in front of us. We arrived at a rock wall which is apparently 74 km long and separates the gorillas land from the farmers. While it doesn’t stop the gorillas it provides a clear distinction as to where farming ends and the gorilla’s world begins. At the wall we were actually told that the gorillas were not too far away so we left all our gear except for cameras and led by the guide a machete king extraordinaire proceeded to hack our way through extremely dense forest.

It was only 10 minutes in we could hear the sounds of gorillas above us, then we could see them! Some in the trees, some on the ground feeding on bamboo. At this point we knew we only had one hour and started clicking away with our SLR cameras.

Hbuwe Silverback called

Hbuwe Silverback called “Lucky”, Rwanda

Unfortunately and fortunately they were so close at times in very low light due to the thick forest canopy the 70-300 4-5.6 IS lens struggled and my alternative 17-85mm lens was back with the bags! No flash can be used. Carolyn had the Tamron VR 18-270 F3.5-6.3 which fared better. It was amazing to see these creatures – the silverback is a huge, imposing character fully aware of the fact that he is in control, even mock charging to inform us who was boss.

The mothers are more serene, calmer and happy to let the youngsters play, roll and climb over one another. The faces and eyes are amazing – so astute, aware and seemingly able to comprehend you and what you want – a magical experience!Walking down was a whole lot easier and we revelled in the fact that we get another shot at it tomorrow. We have also learnt lessons about taking photos in the difficult environment – the fast movements of the gorillas coupled with poor light and forest density is a challenge.

Luckily for us the walk back was short and it poured with rain as soon as we got back to the 4 wheel drive. So the afternoon has been spent resting, reflecting on the experience, reviewing the photos and how to improve them on the next trek the following day.

Gorilla Trek 2 Jan 5

Volcano National Park Rwanda

Sabyinyo Group Female Gorilla

Okay so what do you say about a day that exceeded all expectations? We were a bit disappointed last night with the quality of the photos we took yesterday and hoped we could better capture the experience today. It started off clearer than the previous day which was a particularly good sign given the amount of rain from lunchtime yesterday onwards. We had also connected with a couple of people staying at the lodge and spent breakfast talking with them about the day ahead.

At the headquarters we were delighted to find out that seven of us from the same lodge had been put together into one group – apart from two Norwegians whose English was very good, the rest were Americans. We were also told that we were going to visit the Sabyinyo group consisting of the largest Silverback in Rwanda, one Blackback ( male aged between 8 – 12 years ), one mother with a baby only six months old, another female and a couple of babies. This sounded like a good start! The drive was along a different route from yesterday about 25 minutes …no African massage today. From there we entered a small village where we recruited another porter to carry our bag (while we didn’t think we needed it as we were told it would be about a 30 minute walk to the group, we figured that it helped someone within the community and therefore was a worthwhile thing to do) Heading off on the hike, the pace was much slower than yesterday and everyone was happy to chat and take in the views. The slope was more gradual than yesterday and conditions really enjoyable. When we arrived at the wall, we expected to be told to put our things down and leave them behind as we had done the day before. Instead, slowest person behind the guide we headed up the slope of the volcano. It was slippery, really muddy from the rain and the forest was extremely dense. Machete wielding guides led the way and we kept climbing higher but at a gradual pace. After about 1.5 hours climb/walk we were told to put down our bags and grab our cameras. We then headed further into the jungle down a very steep crater slope about 200 meters and came to a clearing where a massive Silverback sat surrounded by three juveniles!

Volcano National Park Rwanda

Sabyinyo Group Silverback and Baby Gorillas

It was totally open with fabulous views of both the gorillas and the crater which by now we were struggling not to slip into. The feeling was euphoric – so clear, so easy to see, all the conditions we wanted and then this huge creature just sitting there as if he was waiting for us to arrive. By this time, motor drives of the cameras were in full swing and the lenses coped much better with the additional light of the clearing. When the Silverback felt that he had had enough he wandered back into the jungle and from the opposite direction, the mother and baby and then sporadically all the other gorillas arrived. At one stage we were ushered much closer than the seven meter buffer we were told to keep and a baby came within half a metre of us (see the side on close face shot in the slide show). Amazing! We’re not sure how to describe what the hour was like. You are definitely communicating with these creatures – they seem to know what you want and how long you will be there. Watching their movements, reactions and facial expressions you could easily be staring into the eyes of a human covered in hair. The realization that you are also only one of about 1500 people in the entire world to be witnessing these animals in the wild each year is also mind blowing and makes you extremely thankful for what you have just witnessed. It also stirs within you a deep desire for society to preserve them as there are so few left in the world – we have to do what we can. It is one of, if not the most amazing experiences we have ever had and we feel very blessed.

Volcano National Park Rwanda

Gorilla Female Volcano National Park, Rwanda

The afternoon was spent going through the photos, oohing and ahhing and just taking in the full reality of the day, whilst getting ready to fly out tomorrow. These kinds of days are the reason why we work hard to travel – unforgettable!