On a Ker & Downey-curated luxury Rwanda trek through steaming jungles, travelers John and Renata Harbison photographed gorillas up-close in the wild. They share the experience in their own words.
Photography by John Harbison
There are only about 850 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.
Each day, groups of eight people visit eight groups of gorillas (64 people in total) for exactly one hour. It is an unforgettable experience. 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, we were assigned 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 we were told meant “fierce group”.
The 1,500 foot climb on a sloping trail was made even more challenging by the mud which was occasionally six inches deep. 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 without issue, but the trail was so muddy that the slipping, sliding, and suction of the mud was 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 about 30 minutes, he announced they found the gorillas, but they were now 1,000 feet below us and across a valley, so we retraced 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. We were soon directed to cut across the slope and proceed down the trail toward the silverback. John was focused on one gorilla, and 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 was told to drop 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. We were told to not look the gorillas in the eye, but 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.
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 we were inspired by the early morning fog that cast 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.
As John was taking photos, 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 Harbison’s African adventure photographs on their journey to Namibia.
To book your own gorilla-seeking Rwandan trekking 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.