Up close with Rwanda’s gorillas
The trackers have spotted them. They’re foraging not far from here!” The excitement was palpable when our guide, Jolie, broke the news of a gorilla sighting, far sooner than anticipated after crossing the perimeter wall at the foothills in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.
The cherry on top was coming face to face with not one, but several members of the Agashya gorilla family of over 20 individuals.
Having dreamt about this moment for decades, the thrill of finally coming up close and personal with these majestic endangered animals and ticking off the top item on my bucket list was beyond words.
Observing Gorillas in their natural habitat
A few minutes later, the group began to appear: an impressive “silverback” male with two females and number of blackbacks and toddlers, all enjoying handfuls of succulent bamboo shoots, leaves, roots, grubs and whatever else appetising came their way.
Close by, some youngsters were frolicking in the trees, ripping off branches, swinging up and down from tree to tree with gusto.
When the silverback was full, he retreated to a spot barely two metres from us, along with one of the females and two infants.
Clearly, they were quite comfortable taking a breather close to our group, which gave us the opportunity to enjoy their every move: nifty fingers meticulously grooming papa, soulful brown eyes, darting back and forth, playful antics, occasionally interrupted by hugs – a spectacle to behold.
For the full hour in their presence, we were absolutely in awe, trying to make the most of every photo opportunity. Although our time with them was up far too soon, we were ecstatic with our first trek.
Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park
Providing shelter to over 35% of the estimated 1 080 endangered mountain gorillas, and with 12 families habituated for trekking, the park is one of the top tourist destinations in Rwanda (https://www. volcanoesparkrwanda.org/).
To ensure the conservation of this pristine park and its treasured inhabitants, only 96 gorilla trek permits – eight individuals per group – are issued each day.
In addition to its renowned gorillas, the park is also home to Rwanda’s sought-after golden monkeys, about 200 bird species, buffalo and several other wild animal species.
The gorilla trek operation is run with military precision. On arrival, each visitor is warmly welcomed and treated to a cup or two of excellent Rwandan coffee before the 12 groups is briefed by knowledgeable guides.
You learn more about the gorillas you are bound to meet on your route, their daily routine, habits, the sounds they make in different situations and all the protocols that must be observed in their presence, as well as the role of the porters and trackers.
The role of porters and trackers in Gorilla trekking
These porters from the local communities are selected by the park officials to make it easier for travellers to manoeuvre through the densely forested mountain slopes between 2 400 and 4 507 metres above sea level.
They supply walking sticks and, as they are used to carrying heavy loads up steep slopes, carry trekkers’ backpacks with ease.
From the money and tips they earn, the broader local communities also benefit. Likewise, the trackers also receive tips for following and locating the primates.
My travel partner, Anina, and I decided to obtain two tracking permits to ensure that, should something go awry on the first trek, we would have another opportunity to see the gorillas. Little did we know, another bonus was in store on day two.
Exploring the Urugwego Gorilla family
Like on the previous day, our tour guide in Rwanda, Sam Gasana (gasana.samuel@hotmail. com), who’s been in the tourism business since 2003 and shares a fountain of information about his country, punctually picked us up at our Hotel Muhabura at 6.30am for the short drive to the park.
The same routine was followed before we departed in an easterly direction for our second trek. It proved much tougher (longer, steeper, through dense vegetation) and more than once, I had to lean heavily on my porter’s arm.
This time we were treated to a different experience, playing hide-and-seek with the new Urugwego family, originally part of the Kwitonda family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The family initially consisted of 34 members, but split up a few months ago, with the Urugwego group fleeing the conflict in the DRC to the peace of the Volcanoes National Park, says Gasana.
Bonding moments with the Urugwego Gorilla family
After ducking and diving for quite a few adventurous minutes, making way for an energetic silverback, a female, two boisterous blackbacks and a few youngsters, the silverback promptly came to a standstill, assembling the female and youngsters around him before toppled over for a grooming session.
In between, he would either doze off or closely inspect his feet, toes and well-worn hands. Much to our delight, our tracker, Calixte, offered to capture each member on video and film with the silverback clearly in the picture – the highlight of the day.
Thanks to two exceptional gorilla treks, the beauty of the country with a thousand hills and the friendliness and helpfulness of all the hard-working Rwandese, I am happy to assume the role of a proud Rwandan ambassador.
Source: The Citzen