To visit Rwanda and not see the gorillas is a bit like going to Egypt and not see the Pyramids. You can of course skip them if it’s not something you find interesting but I think you somehow miss something important: an encounter with a key element of the local culture and identity. For Rwanda, gorillas as the main source of income. They are also a national heritage and a symbol of progress in conservation efforts.
When Dian Fossey began her work to save the mountain gorillas in the 1980’s, poaching was a fact of life. Rwandans saw these animals both as an obstacle, as they occupied land which people needed for farming, as a well as an opportunity to earn extra money. Baby gorillas were kidnapped to be sold to European zoos, adults were killed for trophies as apparently a gorilla head or hand was thought to be a cool decorative item by many rich people… Fossey drew the world’s attention to the fact that the mountain gorillas might become a shameful evidence of our ruthlessness: identified for the first time and extinct in the same decade. Even though her ways of fighting the poachers were controversial and she paid the highest price for her efforts (she was murdered and her killer was never found), Rwanda is grateful to her today. A lot of work went into education but as a result many former poachers are now activists for the protection of gorillas and their habitat, and the population of these animals keeps growing.
In May this year the Rwandan government unexpectedly doubled the price for gorilla trekking: it now costs the mind-blowing $1500. All former discounts for foreign residents and Rwandan nationals were also cancelled. You can read more about it here. I was lucky – I booked the permits just a few weeks before the price went up. Apparently the reason for this change was to reduce the number of people visiting the gorillas so they’re less exposed to humans (fair enough), to increase the financial assistance to local communities (to 10% so not that big), and to attract very wealthy tourists (hmmm)… Rwanda has ambitions to become “the luxury destination in Africa”. Well, it’s hard to tell if it’s working as the government doesn’t really share the statistics, and even if they do, there’s no guarantee that they’re accurate.
So how does a day with gorillas look? You need to turn up at the Volcanoes National Park headquarters in Kinigi (about 30 minutes drive from Ruhengeri) at 7 a.m. Now, this is not just for the gorilla trekkers. There are other hikes available, to Bisoke volcano or Dian Fossey’s tomb, and everyone is expected to be at the HQ at the same time. It’s quite crowded! We drove up a day earlier just to make sure that we’re definitely on the list and also to make copies of our passports and thus avoid the queue to the photocopier on the day.
While the staff deal with all the paperwork, tourists are left to drink tea, use the facilities, and admire traditional Rwandan dances. I was glad to see this performance as I hadn’t had the chance before, and it was beautiful.
It was interesting to see how the guides choose people to form groups. We were four, and one of the guides, Ferdinand, approached us and led us to towards two other couples, a few years younger than us. Ferdinand asked us all to share our names and countries we came from, and then told us that we’d be going to visit the most remote of the gorilla groups, and one of the oldest. It would also be a quite demanding hike. We had nothing to say about this, he clearly decided that we all looked fit enough to do this! I suspect the selection takes place according to the following observations: “young and fit-looking, they can hike a long way”, “older but still quite fit, they can hike for an hour or two”, and “elderly, half hour max.”. Do you know the British comedy series “An Idiot Abroad” where Ricky Gervais sends his mate Karl Pilkington on various trips around the world, even though Karl doesn’t really like travelling, sightseeing and getting to know other cultures, but he still goes and ends up having all sorts of adventures? In one episode Karl goes to Uganda to do the gorilla trek, and instead of an hour he signs up for he spends seven or eight hours, falling over in the mud and swearing a lot while the guide keeps saying: “the gorillas are very near, I can smell them!” Well, we couldn’t help wondering whether our trek would resemble Karl’s 😉
Tourists are allowed to visit 10 gorilla families, and there are eight people per group plus the guide; at the start of the trek trackers and porters also join in (using the latter is not obligatory but there was quite a bit of pressure to do so in order to support the local community). We had an extra adventure on the way as we had to drive for an hour and a half first to reach the starting point in a village somewhere on the border with the DRC. In our own car, of course. And we were expected to take the guide as well because he didn’t have his own transport, but we were already full. Luckily one of the couples had some space in their vehicle. We weren’t particularly overjoyed as we’d been up since 5.30 a.m. and hadn’t expected to start the trekking only around 10… When we got to our destination, having driven on a very bumpy road, the villagers were already waiting to take a look at the muzungu. One kid demanded money but the rest of the people simple stared in silence. I was a bit surprised by this as surely they see a group like ours every day but maybe they just still couldn’t believe that people would come from all over the world to walk into a forest and look at gorillas! 😉
First, we had to walk through the whole village and there were lots of people and kids working in the fields. Many of them waved and greeted us. Just before entering the forest the guide briefed us on the rules of behaviour, and then asked a question that might have caused some tension – who paid the old price for the permit, and who paid the new one? Luckily we had all booked the trek before the price increase so no one went apoplectic at this point 😉 Ferdinand, however, seemed a bit disappointed that we had all paid only $750 per person so we didn’t tell him that T. and I took advantage of the 50% discount for foreign residents 😉 But then it turned out that those two other couples we met (all from Switzerland) had bought two permits each (one couple had already done the trek the previous day and the other was signed up for the following day) so Ferdinand was very happy to hear that 😀 Since protecting the gorillas and their habitat is of such a huge importance, it’s so good that we had all spent that money, and hopefully we’d spend even more in future!
After this introduction we finally entered the forest. The first part of the trail was very pleasant, flat and among bamboo trees. Soon it got steeper and giant nettles became a bit of a challenge! Our guides used machetes to create paths for us but it was still hard to stay away from the nettles. I felt their stings through my trousers and put on gloves to avoid touching a leaf by mistake.
The weather was good – cloudy but no rain. After about two hours we finally stopped (we also had had short breaks earlier for toilet or a snack) and the guide told us that according to the trackers the gorillas were 5 minutes away from here. We had to leave our backpacks behind for this last stretch of the hike, and make sure that food was properly hidden so as not to attract animals. We were only allowed to take our cameras with us. Very quickly it turned out that the gorillas weren’t 5 minutes away – they were 2 minutes away. We literally took a few steps and walked out of the bushes straight into a tree where two young gorillas sat and chewed on leaves. Behind them was the whole family – the Igisha group, one of the oldest in the Volcanoes National Park. Each group is named after its silverback – the dominant male. Mountain gorillas are the largest species of apes – a silverback can weigh over 200 kg!
I had wondered what it would be like to be so close to these animals. In my mind, they had become nearly mythical, especially after reading Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist, watching many videos on YouTube and reading lots of articles and stories about them. Every single person I talked to who had already seen the mountain gorillas said it was an experience nearing on mystical. Well, I must admit, the adrenaline levels definitely go up during such a confrontation! In theory, you must keep the distance of at least 7 metres from the gorillas but in practice it wasn’t always possible. Mainly because the youngsters would approach us and challenge us. One kept running up and clearly had his eye on a few cameras 😉 The rest of the group ignored us completely. The silverback, i.e. the leader of the family, slept like a baby, and two females were grooming him gently. They looked at us briefly and went back to their task. Others were snoozing or sitting in trees and chewing on leaves and branches. There were about 20 animals in total, and one young gorilla nearly peed on our heads (the smell of their urine is very intense, very herbal, because of all the greenery they eat). At one point the silverback finally woke up, got up, looked at us, and walked past us, not at all interested. He stopped in the bushes and fell deep in thought. The guide explained that he was most probably considering the next move for the group, once everyone had rested. Gorillas are very intelligent, and the silverback comes up with the route and chooses resting places, based on the availability of food and safety (for example, the proximity of another, possibly rival, gorilla family).
We spent nearly an hour with the Igisha group. We watched the youngest gorillas jumping in the trees, crawling over their mothers and aunts who tickled them and threw them up in the air for fun. Two females groomed each other and then one of them fell asleep, leaning against the other’s back. The teenagers showed off their strength and one did a mock chest beating, imitating the silverback. The guide had taught us to make appropriate noises to communicate that we come in peace (basically, we said “hello” and actually got a response!) and how to say “oi, stop it!” (it sounds quite similar to what people sometimes say to naughty kids or dogs, “ah-ah-ah-ah!”). And all of a sudden, another female appeared, with the youngest member of the family on her back – he was just a few weeks old! My picture is blurry because she was moving quite fast and my hands were trembling but you can still see the little shaggy head 🙂 He hasn’t been given a name yet, he will be named next year, during a special ceremony called Kwita Izina (I wrote about it here).
Meeting mountain gorillas is indeed a very special experience. Watching their behaviour, often so human, is quite moving and startling. Compared with chimpanzees, which are much more aggressive and noisy, and of which I’m a bit scared (that’s why I decided not to do the trek to meet them in the Nyungwe Forest), gorillas, with their gentle grunts, are an oasis of calm. I think their lack of interest in us was a good sign. They weren’t afraid of us so I guess they’d got used to having a group of hairless, bipedal creatures turn up every day to look at them. They clearly considered us harmless so let us be. Moreover, they do recognise the guides and trackers, and if these guys bring company, then that’s fine. Naturally, gorillas are not always happy to have visitors and then they issue a warning but that doesn’t happen very often. They very rarely attack tourists and whenever that happens, it’s the tourist’s fault like ignoring the silverback’s (and the guide’s!) signals to keep away. Such attacks usually mean being pushed very hard into the bushes but imagine being pushed by a 200kg male gorilla… You can land quite deep in the giant nettles.
I’m so glad I managed to book the trek before the price increase. There is no way I would have done that for $1500! Sadly, I suppose most of you would also not consider a visit to the Volcanoes National Park now… However, there is good news: you can do the same kind of trek in neighbouring Uganda, in the wonderfully named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest! They have fewer gorillas but the adventure is basically the same, just for a much smaller price ($600 last time I checked). In May this year, when Rwanda doubled the fee, the Ugandan government announced that they would not increase the prices for the next 12 months. So get on with the planning, it’s definitely worth it! 🙂