Sara, one of our Africa specialists, and her husband Robert just returned from a trip to Tanzania and Rwanda where they had the opportunity to trek gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. She recounts her experience below.
The day started fairly early with breakfast and a warm cup of Rwandan Coffee. Depending on where you stay in the Volcanoes area the procedure for the morning departure will be a bit different but at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, we were fitted with gaiters and handed a snack to pack in our backpack before setting off to the Volcanoes Park Gate, a drive of about a 20 minutes, with our guide Johnson.
Once at the gate, everyone who had a permit for the day slowly trickled in and we enjoyed a nice cup of coffee as we waited in anticipation. At promptly 7:00 am, the guides all gathered off to the side and started the “bidding” process, each trying to get the best gorilla family for their particular clients. With luck, our guide came back with the great news that we were going to visit the Hirwa family. The Hirwa family is made up of one silverback male and twin baby gorillas. Along with the twins there were several other young gorillas, making this family, we were told, fun and playful to watch. Some families have four silverbacks and not that many children, while some have more females, etc. Just like a normal human family each offers something unique and completely different, making no two treks the same.
I asked Johnson how they decided who would see which family and he said it was in part due to physical ability, as some of the families are further up the mountain, like the famous Susa family. It is also dependent on how many permits you have, and some guests also come in with expectations to see certain families. All of these factors have to be juggled around to fit the trekker with the perfect family.
At about 7:30 am we met with our park guide who was assigned to guide our group of 8 up the mountain. He went over some safety precautions. like how to react if the gorilla touches you or beats his chest at you. We then headed by vehicle to the specified spot at the base of Sabyinyo Volcano, about a 15 minute drive, to start our journey. We re-grouped, met our porter and started our trek with our guide and our trackers. Porters are locals that carry your backpack for you as you trek up the mountain and they charge a set fee of $10. Yes, Robert or I could have carried our one backpack but in hiring a porter, you help the community’s economy and promote having jobs that help the gorillas, not hurt them; some of these porters could easily turn to poaching for income. The trackers, another important asset in locating the gorillas, go ahead of the group to find the family, or sometimes they stay the night with them so that we aren’t actually doing the tracking. This is also how they identify and put trekkers into groups at the beginning, by understanding where each family is located.
The trek begins in the fields, where the locals grow their crops. I was constantly amazed at how many friendly people and children there were just wanting a wave in return, even though they see a group of people practically every day. It was very heartwarming to see them welcome us into their world. After about 20 minutes, we approached a rock wall which signified the border of the Volcanoes National Park, acted as a border to the mountain buffalo so that they could not get out to destroy the crops, and provided a boundary for the local people to know not to plant their crops beyond that point. The gorillas however are not confined by this low rock wall as they sometimes can be seen in the fields feeding on eucalyptus trees. We were not so lucky to see them outside the park, although we were extremely lucky in finding the gorillas in such short amount of time. After we passed the brick wall, we headed up the mountain through bamboo forests and thick mud. For about 20 or 25 minutes we hiked up always wondering when we’d see the gorillas and if we’d get a good view of them. When we got closer, were were instructed to leave our backpacks with our porters, as the gorillas can smell food if we had any in there.
After we dropped our bags off we headed up further in a single file line. And there, right in front of us, we came upon a young teenage gorilla feeding. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. A gorilla in the wild and this close? As we walked a few more steps other gorillas emerged, mostly young playful ones just wanting to show off. At this moment I understood why they restrict your time to only an hour because I could have stayed all day. Maybe it’s because they are so human-like, maybe it’s because we were so close and in their environment, but I have never experienced anything like it. As we watched the little ones play, the Silverback approached and acknowledged us, then gingerly made his way to another area, walking literally one foot in front of us. I stood speechless, not being able to take pictures fast enough. At one point I handed the camera off to my husband because I just wanted to enjoy being with them. We watched as the doting father groomed his young, the twins played with each other, a youngster did a cannonball roll down the hill, and another played in the vines swinging from the tree. They all graciously allowed us to be a part of their family for a moment in time.
After an hour we were told our time was up. While I could have stayed longer I was ready to go, knowing they needed to be in their space and just be gorillas, just like we humans need our personal space sometimes. We made our way back down the mountain extremely happy and feeling so grateful. When we returned to our vehicle, Johnson was there waiting. He asked what we thought and as I tried to find the right words, all that came out was, “Amazing”. Even as I write this, I don’t think it does the experience justice. It’s one of those moments in your life beyond words and all you can do is be thankful.
Our trek was very short compared to the others that day. We got back to camp around 11:30 am while other people staying at the lodge returned around 2:00 pm. We had a hot shower and lunch before enjoying the remainder of our afternoon scanning through our pictures, amazed yet again, by our experience with the Hirwa family.
For more information about adding a gorilla trek to your next Ker & Downey journey, contact your Travel Professional. Stay up to date on all of Ker & Downey’s online content by “liking” our Facebook page.