Rwanda: Gorilla trekking

Baby Gorilla and his Mom

We set out bright and early for our Gorilla trek, first congregating at the lodge for some coffee and our briefing. We were treated to a traditional dance while we downed coffee and then broke into groups. For the sake of the Gorillas parties cannot exceed 8 tourists. In our group it was ourselves, a Swedish couple,  a single American lass down in Rwanda for a wedding and just taking the gap to see the Gorilla’s and finally a beautiful Nigerian couple who sounded totally American. The conservation is very cleverly managed and contributes greatly to the welfare of the people as well as that of the Gorillas. The whopping $750 cost for the trek covers training and salaries for the trackers, rangers and porters, maintenance of the park and conservation education. They also pay a good part of it over to the government who in turn use it to build schools in the region and pay the soldiers who patrol the nature reserve.

We set out our party of 8 tourists, Bernice our guide, 3 porters and and a chap with a rifle…just in case we unintentionally frightened a buffalo. Apparently coming across a bunch of them would be fine since they would feel safe but one lone one might not and attack us. We started just outside the park in a very little village who seem to survive by selling a few curios and growing crops of wheat, fruit, vegetables and fields and fields of snowy white Pyrethrum flowers which they pick and dry to be used as insect repellant. We walked up the hill towards the stone fence marking the boundary of the park. It’s fairly steep but we have all been given a walking stick and Pierre and I soon find ourselves at the entrance.

Many fields of Pyrethrum before entering the park.

There are 18 families of Gorilla’s here, ranging in size from 8 up to 32 individuals. Of these 10 are habituated and the remaining 8 familes are observed for research purposes. When males mature they get the distinctive silver hairs on their shoulders and back (much like me, except on my head rather than back thank the lord) which grants them the name. The oldest male is always the Alpha regardless if there are other Silverbacks in the family. His authority is seldom challenged though occasionally another Silverback chaffing under his authority may set out to find his own females and start a new family. When the females become old enough to mate they will leave their family to find a mate in another family. Only the alpha male gets to mate with the females in his group although just as with humans, on occasion and on the sly another male may get lucky.

There is a fair amount of incline and the walking sticks come in handy. Its warm, humid and it’s not long before we’re all breathing a bit heavily. All the while Bernice is in radio contact with other rangers who have gone up much earlier. They are tracking the Gorilla’s from where they spent the previous night, letting us know in which direction to travel. Up was the general instruction.  My hand brushes a leaf and suddenly I feel as though I have stuck two of my fingers into a hive of angry bees. Stinging nettles! Luckily the pain soon passes and I quickly pull on my gloves.

After an hour and a half, maybe 2 Bernice says something to one of the rangers who begins hacking his way through dense vegetation. This tropical rainforest has a high, dense canopy. You walk between tall old ebonies and  mahoganies while giant tree ferns tower above you, and a variety of orchids and other epiphytes can be seen clinging to the branches or nestling in the valleys. The trampled plants give off a steamy, herby fragrance as we walk over them. Brightly coloured birds flit between the trees butterflies are everywhere. Piet-my-Vrous call out and sunbirds shimmer as they move lightly from flower to flower . The incline gets steeper and the bushes of stinging nettles denser! We get news, Silverbacks from another family have encountered the family we are tracking!  There should be a showdown, some of us hope to see it, others are a little trepidatious of encountering angry 250 kg mammals in conflict but Bernice assures us they will not be interested in us. Soon after we find the family we’ve been tracking. The Umubanga family consists of 8 members. Unfortunately we’ve missed the action but while 4 of the clan are chasing off the intruders the alpha, Charles, is sitting calmly in the bushes looking as though he is in deep contemplation of his navel. Occasionally he lifts those human-like hands to inspect something or place some food in his mouth, his actions surprisingly delicate for such a large animal. Nearby a female and her baby are eating and a bit further off is another male, still a Blackback not yet sporting his silver stripes.  The other 2 Blackbacks and 2 more Silverbacks are seeing the intruders off. Though it would have been something to see we decide 4 Gorilla’s in the bush are a more sure thing than trying to catch up with the others.

Charles, the grumpy gorilla.

While education, employment from the Gorilla tourism and military patrols mean the Gorilla’s are no longer poached here, poachers still occasionally manage to sneak in to set traps for Buffalo. The Blackback here had to have a leg amputated after being caught in one of these but appears to have adapted well. It certainly doesn’t seem to have slowed him down. Charles appears bored and long-suffering about our presence while the juvenile hams it up, showing off.  Charles stretches out, covers his eyes with his arms and appears to be settling in for a nap. We turn our attention to the others but, after a bit and calling to the others Charles moves up the mountain. He moves swiftly for such a giant of an animal. Hop-a-long, mother and juvenile file after him. They walk past close enough we could (but don’t) reach out and touch them. We clamber up more slowly trying to keep up while retaining the recommended and respectful distance, not entirely possible on this terrain.  We catch up to them again. Charles, almost audibly sighing turns his back to us, while every so often casting a sidewalks glance our way. The Rangers imitate the deep, throat clearing sound of the Gorillas’ to get him to face us but Charles is having none of it. I wonder what he thinks of their Gorilla, is he inwardly bemused by their accents?  It is a good thing that these beautiful animals are so well protected, these guys are so habituated one can practically step right over them when they’re curled up in the vegetation, we nearly do at one point!  We spend an hour with these (largely) gentle giants. The resemblance to ourselves is undeniable, these creatures have more than 97% the same genetic makeup as we do. I am at once sorry to leave but also glad to give them back their peace sans paparazzi. Most of the rangers stay behind. They will wait until the family settles in for the night so that they know from where to start tracking again in the morning.

Going down is not much easier as we slip slide on slick wet stems underfoot. Now the walking sticks are of little help serving only to get caught in the stems and tendrils. However it goes quickly and we find ourselves behind the chap with the rifle. We have to wait every so often for the others to catch up and while waiting discover he is a font of information on the flora and fauna which he quietly shares with us. At last the whole party is seated, sweaty and muddy on the little stone boundary wall of the reserve. My shoes are caked not only with mud but a wide array of biological matter including buffalo dung and Gorilla poop. Excluding the hour spent with these beautiful primates it has taken us over 5 hours to cover not quite 5km and a total elevation gain of 600 m. At the point where we stopped with the family we had been at 3200 m above sea level. But for one of our party there is one more scary step to take. A squeal cuts through my reverie. I immediately looked around to see what could have caused such an outburst, then I see the Nigerian gentleman on one knee. A proposal! …she said yes! What a romantic full stop to our day out!  

Our group of trekkers, from RSA, USA, Sweden & Nigeria, with Bernice our guid

Before we know it we’re are back at the cars and ready to take the journey back to our lodge, as we rock and roll and bump along the rough “road” the guide laughs that this is another part of the experience, our African ‘massage’. This is my kind of Africa, rough, beautiful, resilient, largely untamed and full of surprises, what an experience!

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