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Twenty years ago this spring, I was planning my first trip to Africa. Much to my friends’ dismay, the big safari destinations — Tanzania, Kenya — were not on my list. Instead, I was after something a bit less predictable. The film “Gorillas in the Mist,” about Dian Fossey’s work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, had really hit a nerve. I wanted to see these magnificent creatures for myself. With flights booked for January, 1994, I was ready. Little did I know what was about to take place.
By late 1993, tribal tensions in Rwanda had reached a fever pitch. Long simmering resentment by majority Hutus toward minority Tutsis was about to boil over. Bits and pieces of the story kept appearing in the news and, by December, I decided to postpone the trip. It turned out to be the right decision because in early April of 1994, the entire country erupted in madness as Hutus began to brutally and indiscriminately slaughter their Tutsi countrymen. By the time the killing stopped three months later, a million Rwandans lay dead.
Twenty years would pass before I got another chance to visit Rwanda and the gorillas. With the 20th anniversary of the genocide coming up, it seemed like an appropriate time to see how the country had fared since those dark days in 1994.
Anyone interested in gorilla trekking in Rwanda needs a government-issued permit, currently available for $750. Procuring one is best done through a tour company as they often buy permits in advance from the government. Sunrise Eco-Tours in Kigali put together an excellent package tailored to my budget that included transport, lodging and meals.
The package included a highly recommended day touring the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center and other infamous sites around Kigali, including the Hotel Des Milles Collines, the real “Hotel Rwanda.” By mid-afternoon, I was on my way to Volcanoes National Park. Since gorilla treks begin very early, it makes sense to arrive the night before.
With Rwanda’s compact size and excellent roads, getting around by car is a snap, notwithstanding the country’s many hills. Flat terrain is scarce here, and while that may slow you down, it makes for some very scenic driving. Jean-Paul, my driver, took me past impossibly lush tea and coffee plantations, terraced mountainsides, rice paddies and sprawling vistas.
I spent the night at the Mountain Gorilla Lodge near Volcanoes National Park, and at 6:30 a.m. Jean-Paul arrived to take me to the park office. While he took care of my permit paperwork, I joined the dozens of other trekkers to get our group assignments. Groups are limited to eight people and each is given a gorilla family to track. My group would track the Ugenda group —“ugenda” meaning “traveler” or “mobile.”
The ranger leading us introduced himself as “Patience”, an apt name for the job, I thought. Patience reminded us of the rules and spoke briefly about what we might expect. Through my own reading, I learned that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the international body that assigns conservation status to wild species, includes the mountain gorilla on its “Red List.” The animal is considered “Critically Endangered,” which is the IUCN’s highest risk category. It’s thought there are less than 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild as habitat loss, poaching and disease continue to take their toll. They are only found in this relatively small range of mountains shared by Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Our briefing ended, and we drove to the trailhead where, at last, we laced up our hiking shoes and headed into gorilla country. At 7,000 feet elevation, the going was slow, first past the highest reaches of agricultural terracing, then into the rainforest along a steep, rocky trail, mucky from last night’s downpour. After an hour and about 2,000 feet of elevation gain, Patience instructed us to pull our socks over our pant legs and put on gloves if we had them. Time for bush whacking.
He led us into the thick bush, hacking away at the stinging nettles with his machete. Finally, Patience raised his hand to stop us, then in a hushed voice said, “Gorilla…”
We gathered close like little ducklings and there he was — a huge silverback not more than 15 feet from us. This was the dominant male of the group and he was massive — perhaps 500 pounds and easily six feet from head to toe.
My heart was racing as I snapped a couple shots. Patience made a rolling, deeply guttural sound that the silverback recognized and returned, a signal that he knew we were there and was okay with us.
As shutters clicked, the silverback could hardly have been less interested. He kept his back to us while munching away on stinging nettles. At one point, he reached up for a branch with a heavily muscled arm about seven feet long. His biceps were as thick as human thighs. A silverback this size has the strength of five football linemen.
The clock was ticking, and Patience moved us toward other members of the group, females and their shy offspring. I crouched to get a better photo angle, oblivious to the stinging nettles. The females were about 10 feet away and, with my zoom lens, I could see every detail of their faces. As I framed one in my viewfinder, I was struck by something in her eyes, something familiar, something very much like thought. Maybe I was projecting, but it sure looked like she was thinking, perhaps trying to remember a task to do later, or a spot with some particularly tasty leaves. I wished her and her family well before catching up with my group and heading back down the mountain.
Gorilla trekking permits are fixed at $750, but lodging and tour prices are seasonal. Consider booking in the “rainy” season.
It is wise to book tours and secure permits well in advance of travel dates. Only 80 permits are issued each day.
Gorilla treks are limited to eight persons per group, and one hour with the gorillas.