Trekking with the Mountain Gorillas

Awesome beasts

This is a post that I’ve been waiting to write for over a year now. When we made our booking with Oasis Overland back in the spring of 2009, we decided to pay the extra money to reserve our mountain gorilla trekking permits well in advance. It wasn’t an easy decision to make — the permits cost nearly $600 a piece, which is no small pocket change for travelers. However, ever since hearing Douglas Adams’ account of hiking through the cloud rainforests of the Virunga Volcanoes to find these incredible animals* I’ve been indescribably drawn to the prospect of having the experience myself. It would have been unbearable to be in the heart of Rwanda, so close to the gorillas, without a permit in hand. So we bit the bullet, paid the money (gulp), and started counting down the months. Finally, our planned trekking day was upon us: June 29th, 2010, almost 14 months after booking. This was it. We were going to meet the gorillas.

The day dawned grey and overcast, which seemed somehow appropriate. We were picked up bright and early and trucked off to the trekking office, where we congregated with dozens of other people who were also trekking, some to the gorillas, and some to other attractions in the park. The gorilla trekking parties were limited to 8 people each, and each group would be entitled to spend only one hour with the gorilla family group that they tracked. There are presently 18 families of gorillas in the park, and although they are all acclimated to human beings, direct encounters with trekkers are limited to one hour a day. Since not all of the families are always in Rwanda (the volcanoes are on the border with Uganda and DRC, formerly Zaire), the gorillas are afforded a relative amount of solitude. Generally, only 4 or 5 groups will be visited on a given day. This partly accounts for the price of the trekking permits — since so few people can trek each day, the laws of supply and demand are in full effect here. Happily, it appeared to us that the permit money is being well used: the guides and trackers were efficient, professional and well-informed, and a significant percentage of the permit fees is put back into local communities to help build infrastructure, schools and hospitals. I always feel better about spending money when it’s apparent that it’s being put to good use.

We were in a group with Hiro, Suzanne and Kevin from our truck, and three other tourists from Uganda. Accompanying us was our guide Victor, a two-man armed escort (apparently for protection from buffalo, who can charge unprovoked), and two trackers that we would meet up with in the forest. The trackers had been following our group since the early daylight hours, and we were pleased to learn that the gorillas were only about an hour’s trek into the park. The family group we were going to see was named “Wisdom”, although the local translation eludes me presently. To get to them, we first rode for about 45 minutes in a 4×4, then hiked steeply uphill for about an hour to reach the park boundary, which was delineated by a 4-foot think stone wall designed to keep buffalo in the park and out of the surrounding agricultural lands. Beyond the wall, the meticulously cultivated countryside gave way to dense, lush rainforest. This was rainforest in all the ways one imagines rainforest to be. The air was thick with humidity and fog — this forest is almost perpetually sitting in a cloud due to it’s elevation on the sides of the volcanoes. The trail, when there was one, was muddy and slippery, and close on all sides with bamboo and nettles and vines and leaves. Wherever the trees parted, the mist closed in and revealed only the faded silhouettes of the trees further on. You couldn’t have scripted a more appropriate, moody setting in which to seek out mountain gorillas.

Mother and baby gorilla

After about 45 minutes of walking, our guide told us that we were getting close — we left our bags and food on the side of the trail and ventured off into the bush proper. Our two trackers cleared our way through the wet forest with machetes, and we stumbled after them as best we could. They would occasionally make low grunting noises as we advanced, which was meant to reassure the gorillas that we meant no harm. Suddenly, almost without warning, we spotted one, sitting under a tree only 10 feet from where we were standing. Actually, it turned out to be two, a mother and a baby, huddled together for shelter from the rain, which had started falling steadily about an hour earlier. We gathered slowly together and stood in silent wonder, while the mother glanced semi-suspiciously at us over her shoulder, and the baby peered out at us with child-like curiosity in its eyes. Their fur was thick and black; the mother’s looked sleek and warm, and the baby’s had a slightly fuzzier, more bedhead appearance to it, but both looked equally well suited to the soggy environment in which they found themselves. Their faces were fascinating to look at, since they seemed so easily to convey recognizable human emotions, like curiosity, indifference, irritation, boredom, and so on. Whenever we made a little too much noise or clicked too furiously at our camera shutters, the mother would throw us a sidelong glance, partly to make sure that we continued to be only an annoyance and not a threat, and partly, it seemed, to warn us to keep it that way.

Scoping out the route

After about 10 minutes, our trackers suggested we continue on in the hopes of meeting more gorillas. Not 50 feet away we came across a young female who was trying to climb a large tree to get at some tasty-looking leaves. Unfortunately for her, every vine she tried to grab on her way up would give way under her massive weight, and she came tumbling awkwardly down to the ground several times. Finally, after several long moments spent considering a new approach, she circled the tree and tackled it from a new angle. Success! Clinging with one strong arm to a vine 15 feet off the ground, she began stripping branches through her teeth with the other. Watching her try to figure out how to climb the tree reminded me sharply of watch a rock climber on a new route. It wasn’t so much the climbing itself that triggered this comparison in my mind, although the climbing was an impressive display of strength to be sure. It was the way that the gorilla would peer thoughtfully up the tree as though planning her route first, and the consideration she seemed to give to what went wrong each time she fell. It was hard not to cheer her on out loud, as if all that was needed for her to succeed was an encouraging word from us at the right moment. I looked around at my trekking companions to see if they were all grinning as enthusiastically as I was. They were.

Climb on!

We carried on through the bush, and once again came across the mother and baby. This time, we got a little too close for mom’s comfort, and after sending a few threatening stares our way, she clutched her young one and bounded towards us. In the blink of an eye she crossed half the distance separating us, and then in one motion she grabbed a young tree and snapped it loudly and furiously against the ground! We all shrank backwards in alarm, but after this display she felt she’d made her point, and she lumbered off through the undergrowth. We followed at a more discreet distance, and watched as she also took two or three attempts at climbing a tree. Finally she succeeded as well, and perched in the fork of a large branch, she settled in to munch on some tasty green leaves within reach. The baby decided it was time to venture a little ways from mom, and climbed out further towards the end of the branch, just to see what it was like.

Bedhead baby and Mom

As we enjoyed this display, our trackers were busily hunting the group’s dominant male, a large silverback gorilla who seemed to be constantly on the move. Finally we got word from them that he’d settled down for a minute, and we hurried off in his direction. We found him sitting happily in a thick swath of greenery, on a raised bit of ground where he could survey his surroundings. As we approached you could clearly see the silver on his back, and almost immediately after that, you could easily recognize that the silver back itself was about twice the size of any other gorilla back we’d seen so far. He was huge — our guide said that he may weigh as much as 350 to 400 pounds. Since he’d been avoiding us pretty steadily, we gave him a wide berth, and contented ourselves with watching him from about 20 feet away. He seemed to pay us little to no attention, and he absolutely refused to look our way whenever someone raised a camera lens at him. It was clear that he was not threatened, but he just preferred not to be photographed while he ate I guess.

The big guy, in all his silverback glory

I think that Douglas Adams said it perfectly when he wrote this about the mountain gorillas: “You have heard it said before that these creatures are awesome beasts, and I would like to add my own particular perception to this: these creatures are awesome beasts. It is hard to know how better to put it.” Although the hour we spent with them flew by, they left an incredible impression on us all. Watching them in their natural habitat evoked so many different emotions, from awe and fear at their displays of power and size, to warm adoration as we watched mom with her baby, to sympathetic humour as we encouraged them in their attempts at climbing. Walking back along the muddy trail towards the truck was no work at all — the elation from our encounter carried us easily back down the slopes of the volcano, and we were all brimming with exhilaration despite our cold, wet clothes. Our trek was everything I had hoped it would be, and considering the long anticipation and high expectations that I had, that’s saying a lot.

Here’s a short video with some footage of the mother and baby gorillas that we spent so much time with. Check out how she contemplates her fall out of the tree!

* Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine co-wrote a book called “Last Chance to See”, which recounts their adventures all over the world seeking out endangered species. It is an excellent and inspiring book, and anyone who is familiar with Adams’ storytelling prowess will appreciate it all the more. Highly recommended, especially if you want to be inspired to spend $1200 to see the mountain gorillas in Africa!


    Amazing guys

    One of the truly great experiences and perfectly pitched I might add in you blog. I almost convinced myself to resign so Jess and I can start wandering too.

    Can’t wait to see you both in London


    WOW. Amazing.

    The baby is so cute..

    Oh my goodness! WOW! That sounds like such an amazing experience! To get to meet wild gorillas like that! I will definitely have to add this to my list of tings I want to do at some point in my life!
    Thank you for writing such a nice post about it, I liked how well you described it all!

    Our plan is working then. You guys would love it. xo

    Awesome you guys! I’m glad the experience you’ve been anticipating for so long was so special.

    They call me the wanderer, yeah the wanderer- I roam around, around, around… Or at least I’d like to anyway. Tim I think you should resign…
    I can’t believe what an amazing experience this must have been.
    WOW, so love to do that one day.
    Love ya
    PS. what’s up with blog surfer? The controversy and entertainment your blog provides – I tell ya!
    PPS. we are going to the IOM next week. Inspired by you Wanderers, we are taking the train and then ferry there. Not exactly mountain gorillas but hey, really looking forward to it :)

    Absolutely amazing. Your experiences seem to get more and more spectacular every day. What an awesome life adventure. Safe travels. xox

    Frikkin awesome…What a lifetime of memories..I have always been so facinated by gorillas…your blog is awesome guys…always look forward to your new entries….cheers

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