A Rwanda Trek with John Harbison

On a Ker & Downey-curated luxury Rwanda trek through steaming jungles, travelers John and Renata Harbison took amazing gorilla photographs in the wild. They share the experience in their own words.

Photography by John Harbison

We spent three nights of our Rwanda trek at Bisate Lodge, with nest-like cabins built into a steep hillside giving you a treehouse view of Volcanoes National Park where we hiked each day in search of mountain gorillas.

There are only about 1,060 of these magnificent creatures left in the world. Half are on the Rwandan side and the other half are on the opposite side, split between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

rwanda trek

Each day, groups of eight people visit eight groups of gorillas (64 people in total) for exactly one hour. It is an unforgettable experience and one of the only chances to take gorilla photographs up close. Our friends had advised us to do this while we were still young enough to handle the strenuous hiking, so we planned this around our joint trip to Ethiopia.

On day one, they assigned us an intermediate group with six other people who were all about half our age. We fared fine on the 5.5 mile, five hour round trip hike on Mt. Bisoke in search of the Ntalmbara Group, which the ranger explained meant “fierce group”.

The mud, occasionally six inches deep, made the 1,500-foot climb on a sloping trail even more challenging. This was all at an altitude of about 9,000 feet, which made breathing a bit difficult too. We handled the thin air and exertion easily, but the trail was so muddy that the slipping, sliding, and suction became daunting, especially when we descended. Luckily we had hired porters for our day packs and they helped steady us in the trickiest parts.

By the time we had ascended to 1,500 feet, the tracker had still not located the gorillas. After 30 minutes, he announced they found the gorillas, but they were now 1,000 feet below us across a valley. So, we had no choice but to retrace our steps down that hard-earned muddy path.

Our first glimpse was of two young blackback males. We also saw a female with her baby as she stripped leaves off branches in her tree perch. The tracker soon directed us to cut across the slope and proceed down the trail toward the silverback. John focused on one gorilla, but some 10 yards in front of him another was passing by. As it approached, John moved to the right as far as he could on the narrow path and dropped to the ground to assume a submissive posture.


The 300 pound female came up next to him, but instead of passing, had decided to sit down on the trail, no more than nine inches from John. Even though the rangers said not to look the gorilla in the eye, John found it hard not to glance at the gorilla’s face no more than a foot or two from his. Eventually the guide came forward and took John’s hand as he guided him away from his close encounter.

upclose with gorilla in rwanda

At the end of our first day, our boots were so muddy that you could not see the laces. The staff in our lodge were kind enough to clean and dry them in less than eight hours—a Rwandan custom. Our boots looked good as new!

On day two, the early morning fog inspired us by casting a mystical mood on the mountains. The trackers cleared a path through the jungle with their machetes as we descended the 200 feet to get to a group of gorillas known for slapping visitors.

rwanda trekking

As John was taking gorilla photographs, one gorilla came running towards him and the tracker. It pushed a tree down on top of them and trapped them in the branches which now blocked the path. The gorilla calmly sat down and began to eat leaves. The tracker slashed a way out of the branches of the fallen tree allowing them both to move freely.


But within 20 seconds, the gorilla came plunging down the trail, shoving both John and the tracker into the bushes and blocking the trail once again. John likened this to being tackled by a 400 pound linebacker. This repeated three more times before John and the tracker finally got past this “playful” gorilla to rejoin the group.

See more of the Harbisons’ African adventure photographs on their journey to Namibia.

To book your own gorilla-seeking Rwanda trek experience, contact your designer. For helpful packing suggestions, see our Men’s Gorilla Trekking Packing List and Women’s Gorilla Trekking Packing List on Amazon. After your trip, be sure to share your photos with us too! We can’t wait to see where your travels take you.