My Halloween adventure was a trek within Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park to visit the Mountain Gorillas.
I bought my pass at the RDB (Rwanda Development Board) tourism office in Kigali, near the UTC center. Saturday, I caught a public bus to Musanze – the point of departure in Kigali is also near the UTC center. The two hour bus ride was beautiful – through the narrow valleys of terraced agriculture.
This morning the breakfast room of the hotel here in Musanze was filled with other expatriate visitors preparing for the a gorilla visit. No one else was up at 5:30. The drive to the park office was about 40 minutes and everyone had to gather there at 7am.
There are about 7 family groups of gorillas that may be visited. The tourists are divided into groups of no more than 8, accompanied by a guide. After getting briefed by the guides on what to expect and how to behave, particularly once we reach the gorillas, we get back into our vehicles to drive to the assigned trailhead.
At the trailhead we were loaned walking sticks and headed off up the mountain. Treks take anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours. We were told that there were no groups a long distance away now, as the gorillas often come a bit lower during the rainy season. We hiked through some small fields before turning to head up through the forest and up some rather steep trails. We met up with the trackers who were following the group of gorillas – after a hike of maybe 1.5 hours.
I visited the Sabyinyo Group. This group is led by Guhondo, the largest Silverback in the Park (which includes the DRC and Uganda mountain gorillas.) He is 32 years old and is huge! [Sabyinyo Group live on the side of Sabyinyo Mountain. The mountain is where the borders of Rwanda, DRC, and Uganda meet.]
But first let’s start with ‘Big Ben.’ He was a ‘sub-adult’ which basically means that he was obnoxious, ha ha. When we first arrived, he became quite active. A few of us were still on the trail in a narrow place between an open area where he was with a baby and an adolescent. We had already passed a female off to one side, mostly hidden where she was eating bamboo. Most of the group had stepped into the clearing towards Ben, but still a decent distance and out of the way. Ben pounded his chest and started towards the trail in quite a hurry. I got a bit out of the way, plastered against bamboo. A woman just ahead of me got to the other side, but not quite out of the way and Ben actually slapped her rear on the way by! She had a mud smudge on her shirttail! That was quite the introduction to visiting mountain gorillas. Ben came back through about 3 minutes later – and laid down and crossed his legs, right in front of us. A couple of juveniles/babies started playing and wrestling there as well. We had quite a bit of jostling the first 20 minutes to try to stay out of their way.
Finally Guhondo came out from under the tree and bamboo brush where he had been eating. He laid around and sat for a while. A mother came with a 3 month old baby. They were all there, it appeared things were calming down and we were standing out of their way to watch and snap photos.
I was back on the path at this time. All of a sudden, Guhondo pounded a bit and then came towards the path in a rush. Guhonda passed within two inches of me! He sedately walked back and that was really the last of the excitement for the rest of the hour we were there.
All of the other 7 people in my group (two different tour groups) had been to different groups the day before. It is apparently quite common to stay for a couple of days to visit different groups each day. One group had actually come to Rwanda from Uganda, where they did two different day gorillas visits as well. Tomorrow they will trek to see the golden monkeys before returning to the U.S. (A South African tour guide led them. The other two were Australians; they had visited this gorilla group about 5 years ago as well.) All of these fellow tourists said it is a bit unusual to have so much activity – particularly directed at us.
The baby was so cute! It was a bit dark where the gorillas were, but clear ground. It made some of the photos difficult. Another female stayed eating in thicker bamboo and brush. And Ben – after harassing us with his horseplay, mostly stayed eating in the brush. There are quite a few stinging nettles in the area. We all backed into or had to walk through at least a few, but thankfully for us, the gorillas mostly stayed out of them.
It was incredible. Oh, did I mention they have quite the body odor? Every sense was used. Definitely memorable.