Mountain Gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Day 354

Kurira, one of the mountain gorillas (silverback in the Susa Group) in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Visiting the Mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park is a haphazard business. Patrick, our driver-guide, brings us to the park HQ by 6.45 am. There are numerous tourists milling about and while Patrick signs us in at the visitor center, Christi and I learn a little more about the different gorilla families that we could visit. There are 17 groups of Mountain Gorillas that call Volcanoes National Park home. Seven of them have been habituated to humans and for the tidy sum of US$500 per person (currently US$750 and likely to keep rising) you are allowed to spend one hour with these gentle giants in their native habitat. A maximum of 8 people can visit each group – so a total number of tickets per day is 56. Not many at all, which is why during the peak seasons (June-September and December-February) tickets need to be purchased 6 months in advance. This is exactly what Christi and I did and then we had to make sure we got to Rwanda in time. And that was easier said than done as I related in an earlier blog. Anyway back to the gorillas. Somehow the 56 tourists with winning lottery tickets have to arrange themselves into seven groups of eight people and there are a number of factors that need to be taken into account when deciding which gorilla group you wish to visit. (Note, currently 10 groups have been habituated meaning there are now 80 tickets daily; visiting the Mountain Gorillas is a fluid business). First is the size of the group. The biggest is Susa, which is the original group studied by noted primatologist Dian Fossey. At one point there were as many as 42 individuals, including the dominant male silverback, Kurira, and the twins Byishimo & Impano (a rare event as a gorilla mother can normally only raise one baby at a time). Currently there are about 28 gorillas in this group. Other groups have smaller number (around 10 -15). Next is the location. Some groups, including the Susa group live high in the mountains and are difficult to reach. An exhausting trek in demanding terrain may not be everybody’s idea of fun. Christi and I want to visit separate groups, which then poses a logistical issue as we have to drive to the trailheads in our own vehicles and Patrick could only go to one location. Gallantly I let Patrick drive Christi and I bummed a ride with some of the other tourists.

Christi chose the Sabyinyo Group, which is much more easily accessed than the Susa Group (naturally I chose the most difficult group to access. Why do I do this? On the other hand, I think our recent ascent of Kilimanjaro has dulled Christi’s enthusiasm for strenuous hiking for the moment). The Sabyinyo Group is led by the powerful silverback Guhonda. Guhonda, the largest silverback of all the groups. I wave goodbye to Christi and we head off in different directions. I ride with some Irish folks in a mini-convoy to the trailhead. After 75 minutes of head-bumping, teeth-grating driving we reach our destination, which is surprisingly a village clinging to the slopes of the Virunga Mountains. It is these mountains, which cross the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that forms the ever-diminishing habitat for the Mountain Gorillas. We hike almost vertically for 90 minutes. It is immediately clear why the gorilla habitat is shrinking as the villagers continue to cut down the rainforest in search of arable land to turn into agricultural terracing. Half of the mountain slopes have already been denuded of their rainforest canopy. Its like comparing a girl in a full-length skirt with one wearing a miniskirt.

Our guide insists we hike fast because the Susa group is on the move. We know this because armed guards are assigned to each gorilla group, partly for the gorilla’s protection and partly so that tourists can access the gorillas more quickly, and the guards and guides are in constant contact by walkie-talkie.  Habituated to humans apparently is not the same as wanting to make life easy for humans. Indeed, the gorillas don’t stick to well-worn trails so we have to make our own trail through the lush, wet jungle. This is the complete opposite of hiking Kilimanjaro where we moved slowly through ultimately a lunar (or martian) landscape. The only common thread is the altitude. Now we’re hiking fast through steep, impenetrable jungle, and it is exhausting. By the time we finally spot the magnificent Mountain Gorillas I’m hyperventilating, dripping sweat, and would very much like a rest, but the clock is ticking. We only have 1 hour with these guys and there are rules, notably keeping your distance and no flash photography. The encounter is completely chaotic, though, because the gorillas don’t know the rules and they keep moving, circling further up the mountain, so humans and gorillas are almost bumping into one another. It is amazing to see how graceful the gorillas move in comparison to our own clumsy footsteps. Of course everyone is attempting to photograph these wonderful creatures and we all get in each other’s way (and the light is terrible for photography by the way so come prepared!). The antic of these guys are remarkably familiar: from the boisterous, curious toddlers, to the moody teenagers, the concerned mothers, and the alpha male; the toughest bad-ass gorilla in the group. You do not mess with this guy. If he tells you to back off, you ask how far. Fortunately, the Susa Group appears in relaxed and playful mood today and there are no problems. Kurira, the dominant silverback, does not feel the need to dominate and intimidate us. Rather he sits imperious gazing at his family and at the human interlopers.

‘Time to go,’ our guide informs us. What? Are you serious. It feels as if we’ve just arrived. We’re encouraged to descend while the gorillas continue eating and playing – oblivious to our departure. It’s an expensive business visiting the gorillas, but take my advice and buy two permits for successive days. One hour is just not enough. And maybe on that second visit you can drop the camera from your eye to simply enjoy being in the presence of these rare and gentle giants.

Blog post by Roderick Phillips, author of Weary Heart – a gut-wrenching tale of love and test tubes. 

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