|Ever wondered what trekking with the gorillas would be like? Team member Almari recently had the opportunity to tick this experience off her bucket list…
Having only heard incredible stories and feedback from colleagues and clients, and of course having watched the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist, I was super excited to put on my boots, and start the adventure, not entirely sure what to expect.
The morning of, my alarm went off at 05h30, quick breakfast at 06h00. I wore my own boots, pants (might have been slightly too thin… see below for further useful info), rain jacket and backpack. The lodge I stayed at provided gaiters (a must have!) and an insulated water bottle (I took an extra bottle of water just in case). Lodge staff will fit gaiters for you and make sure you have your snack pack and water bottle.
Most lodges provide you with some/all of the gear, for example Singita Kwitonda has a special Gear Room with On hiking boots, proper hiking pants, rain jackets, backpacks, and little insulated cooler bags for snack packs. Wilderness Bisate and Sabyinyo also kit you with all the necessary clothing. However, if you like me prefer your own, then bring your own.
06h30 off I went with my guide to the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters. This is the meeting point of all the trekkers and their guides. On arrival, a free coffee is available at the kiosk (Question Coffee – the best in town!) you can enjoy while your guide signs you in and have you meet up with your Trekking Guide. (Side-note: proper rest rooms are available and everything is very clean. This is also the last proper toilet for the duration of the trek, after this it’s the bush loo I’m afraid)
We met with our trekking guide – maximum 8 guests per group. Our guide explained a bit about the gorilla family that we have been assigned to for the day (Sussa family), the size of it (16 gorillas in total), and just some general information about the gorillas and the logistics of how to get to them. Our own guides drove us in the vehicle to the start of the trek. In our case, this specific gorilla family was quite far away +- 90 minute drive. And we had a broken down truck blocking the road, so we hiked an additional 2km’s to get to our starting point. Nevertheless, everyone was in good spirits.
At this point, we met our porters and immediately they handed all of us a walking stick and took our bags. Side-note: if anyone has walking difficulties, there are stretchers available and porters to carry you to the gorrilas, so you don’t have to miss out on this experience! Hiking without a backpack? Amazing, luxury, fabulous! What’s even better, my porter would randomly take my hand and pull me up big climbs and muddy trails, making sure I was ok, every step of the way. I found climbing at this altitude – around 2400m above sea level, not bad, however you do feel a bit more out of breath than usual.
The first bit of climbing is through farmlands and plantations until you reach the Volcanoes National Park boundary wall. Our guide could update us on the location of the gorillas, since they have a team of trekkers that keeps track of where they move to during the day. After slipping and sliding through muddy trails and thick forest, we reached the area where they were located. Terrain was difficult, as they kept moving, we followed through thick forests with stinging nettles – gloves is a must make sure you bring along if the lodges don’t provide you with a pair. At this point I also understood why thick hiking pants is a good idea – note they are very hot though.
As we got close to the gorillas, we stopped for our final briefing on how to behave around them. Our porters stayed behind with our backpacks, put our masks on (masks are required so we do not pass any infections/illnesses over to the gorillas) and we set off on foot with only our guide. I couldn’t believe it, this was it… the moment!
Moving through the forest, I see some branches move and catch my first glimpse of a one on the move and it quickly disappeared again. Within seconds of the bush opening into a clearing, a few others made their appearance, one by one. The terrain was difficult to manoeuvre for everyone to get a good view – our first proper sighting – a mother with baby. We kept moving and met the rest of the family. Two super large silver backs and a few others too. They moved all around us. Quite scary, but incredible to be so close!
I decided to make myself comfortable, sitting 2 meters away from mother, baby and silverback behind. Just observing and getting some incredible close-up shots.
We had 1 hour with them, our guide made sure we got to see all members of the family and were happy with our time spent with them. It was time to move again, sadly. We returned to our porters, who helped us down the mountain. En-route, we stopped and could enjoy our snacks looking out of the valley and really take in what just happened. What a magical experience.
A quick walk-through the farmland we were back at the vehicle, and our guide had a beautiful table set up with some drinks, for celebration. This is also at this point that you can show your appreciation and give your team a well-deserved gratuity.
I did manage to visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund – a must do either before or after the Gorilla Trek. Dian Fossey came to Africa to study the vanishing mountain gorilla and devoted her entire life to the protection of this species. Together with the gorilla trekking, I found this an extremely enriching and special experience. The work that is being done to protect this wonderful rare animal, the commitment involved on all levels to educate everyone the importance of conservation, was just inspirational.
I love Rwanda, after a few days in this beautiful country I now fully understand the word “Ubumuntu”… to be humane, to genuinely care about others and show kindness.
Written by: Almari Smal