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Rwanda’s Wild Ambassadors: Mountain Gorillas (Part 1)

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Ubumwe, the silverback leader of the Amahoro group

When it comes to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, it’s hard to beat walking into a gorilla den, and witnessing an hour in the life of these magnificent creatures.

Thanks to the effort and research by the late Dian Fossey, the plight of mountain gorillas has reached the world stage. These gentle, lumbering giants are now the poster children for tourism to Rwanda, home of some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.

With a population of about 800 members scattered across Volcanoes National Park which extends into neighbouring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo––an area that has sadly seen a lot human violence from which the gorillas have not escaped unscathed––visiting these gorillas requires an extensive trek through thick volcanic forest.

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Volcanoes National Park lies to the north of Rwanda, about 2 hours’ drive from the capital, Kigali. Most visitors spend the night at Kinigi, where a number of lodges––including luxury options with rates from US$700 per person––cater specifically to gorilla trekkers. The trekking permit now costs US$1,500, which was raised earlier this year. Located at an altitude of over 1,500m, nighttime temperatures can dip pretty low, so most of these lodges feature rustic fireplaces.

The briefing
Briefing starts at 7am, along with tea/coffee and a performance of traditional Rwandan dance. From here, the trekkers – folks of all ages from around the world – are segregated into 10 groups of 8 hikers, each assigned to one gorilla family which they are guaranteed to see.

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Dancers performing the Intore dance

At this point, trekkers are reminded to bring snacks, as tracking gorillas may take anything from 3 hours to a whole day.

If you’ve manage to get assigned to the Amahoro group––the group we got––then you’re in for some entertainment. Its name means “peace”, but according to the guides, there’s been some struggle for the top position. And with no less than 6 silverback males in the group, it’s no surprise. Our guide Jerome warns us that Gahingi (the silverback ranked #3) is the troublemaker. At times, he says, Gahingi’s also been known to poke at visitors.

The trek
After the briefing, each group is driven to their respective trailheads (each gorilla group inhabits a different mountain area) and the beginning of the Amahoro trek traverses some farmland where Irish potatoes were grown. After crossing the stone wall, you’re in National Park territory, where you’ll be accompanied by 2 armed guards to protect you from wild elephants and buffaloes (though encounters are rare).

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Our early October trek started out muddy––it was the start of the rainy season, but that also meant that it was bamboo season, and bamboos are a favourite food of the gorillas––but the gentle gradient meant that nobody struggled with more than muddy boots. The terrain consisted of thick jungle, open grassland, shady bamboo groves, and just enough stinging nettle bushes that wearing long sleeves and pants do nothing for you.

After just over an hour into the trek, our path disappeared and we were walking on fresh machete-hacked bushes. Jerome had just located our gorillas, and we were descending––or sliding––like mad through slippery soil and fallen vines into a deep valley.

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At this point, we were grateful for the porters––you can hire them at the trailhead at US$10––who were very helpful not just for carrying our packs, but also for helping us up and down tricky mountain paths (and especially for pointing out non-stinging plants).

The meeting: Part 1
In Volcanoes National Park, each gorilla group has a team of dedicated trackers. These are the men who spend much of their time in the presence of their charges, protecting them from potential poachers, and informing guides––like Jerome––of their locations.

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A group of four machete-wielding trackers were waiting for us at a bamboo grove. “The gorillas are coming,” Jerome informs us.

Just then, a young male gorilla came crashing through the bamboos and began running towards our group, thumping his chest as he approached.

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Drunk gorillas

It was at that moment that we reminded ourselves to keep a 7m distance from them, but what do we do when they’re charging towards us? Luckily, the gorilla in question was only a young juvenile, and the trackers managed to steer him away.

“He’s drunk,” says Jerome. Apparently, when gorillas eat bamboo, they get into a drunken state and do whatever it is that humans do when they’re drunk: they salivate, get sleepy, get rambunctious.

And Jerome was determined to get all of us into the heart of the gorilla den (just 50m away), where every single great ape will be drunk on bamboo…

Continue to Part 2

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