The humbling experience of trekking gorillas

Sometimes travel guidelines should come with a colour code to show the level of importance one ought to attach to them. I think in a bid not to worry prospective tourists the guidelines are made to sound like soft suggestions.
It is important to listen to the guide and not the phone.
It is important to listen to the guide and not the phone.

Sometimes travel guidelines should come with a colour code to show the level of importance one ought to attach to them. I think in a bid not to worry prospective tourists the guidelines are made to sound like soft suggestions. This was my first observation the moment we started our trek in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda in a bid to see the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas that can only be found in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

We came, we saw, and we conquered the Volcanoes National Park.

The flyer announcing our trip had some suggestions at the bottom; “Carry a jacket, raincoat, boots, water bottle, scarf, gloves and any other hiking gear.” If I was the one tasked to design that flyer, then words like boots, raincoat, jacket, would be in bold in full caps and in red to show how serious this bit of information is. I can tell you for free that much as this may sound cliché or confusing, gorilla trekking is no walk in the park. Trust me, I have been there, done it and got a certificate to show off.

Preparing for the trek

Before setting off for the lifetime experience of trekking gorillas in Rwanda, I tried my best to heed the suggestions on the flyer. I went out and bought myself some tough hiking boots and cargo pants, you know, to complete that tourist look. I also got myself a warm jumper and felt I was now ready to take on any challenges thrown my way by the terrain in the Volcanoes National Park.

Armed with my Canon Rebel T5 as well as my phone because one cannot miss that opportunity of taking a selfie with these cousins of ours, I was more than ready. I listened keenly to the briefing by the guide because you don’t want to be that fool who was not attentive only to end up getting slapped by mountain gorilla. I am told the experience is not so different from being slapped by 20 adult casual labourers at the same damn time.

Members of the Sabyinyo group just chilling in their habitat.

After the briefing, I hired some cool mud guards that were strapped on my legs to protect my cargo pants and shoes from the mud. These things totally made me look more of a tourist than some of my friends who were only wearing those green gumboots. They actually looked like veteran soldiers or members of a poorly dressed rebel group. I also got a walking stick and some water to stay hydrated as we hiked. At this point I was ready to go in.

Going into the jungle

The trek basically starts from the point where the car drops you off and you proceed to the boundary of the park. Here we were met by a park ranger named Honorine. Her task was to guide us to where the Sabyinyo group of gorillas was. 

Eye contact with this fellow may be construed as a challenge against this big guy.

She not only knew her way around the thick vegetation, she also had a Kalashnikov just in case. Curiosity had us asking her of the instances when she has had to use the gun. According to her, the gun is for shooting in the air in case a mountain gorilla attacks a tourist and also keeping poachers at bay.

The trek into the jungle is where you get to fall in love (or even hate) with nature’s dominance. The paths are small, soggy and the vegetation is all in your face, legs and arms giving you unwanted high fives…some in your face. It is crucial to be sure you have a firm step before lifting another leg otherwise in a flash your backside will be on the ground.

I soon learnt that there was a safe distance one had to observe while walking. If you are too close to the person in front of you, they may hold onto a twig only to release it and it smacks right in the face. And if you are too far then you may end up lost in the maze of paths.

Mother gorilla feeds while holding her baby.

As for the requirement to bring a raincoat, well the rain can start at any time without warning. You are more likely to miss the warning because of how thick the vegetation is. All around you and above you is likely to be green foliage. Some of this foliage includes the stinging nettle leaves.

Contact with them will leave you scratching your skin as you try your best to hold back tears. The trek really tests your fitness levels and if you fail to keep up you may become famous. One of the guides told us of a spot called MunyaKenya that was named after a Kenyan who failed to continue with the trek and had to be carried by the porters to make it to where the gorillas were.

Visiting gorillas is not like checking on your friend who you can tell about your time of arrival and he/she waits for you. These huge primates are always on the move and so you will have to walk until you get to their ‘chill’ spot. And even when you do they can still move and you will have to follow them but at a safe distance. Some of our colleagues had to trek for more than half a day to find the group of gorillas they were to visit.

Chilling with our cousins

After trekking for about an hour we met other rangers who were waiting for us in an area that was so close to where the Sabyinyo family was probably having their breakfast from. These guys even knew which sounds to make so as to communicate with these gentle giants. It was breathtaking looking at the huge silverback just sitting there eating and not minding us. There were some younger gorillas that had probably finished with breakfast and were just playing with each other, rolling and grabbing at each other as if in a mock fight.

The selfie moment with an unwilling gorilla.

It later turned out that this breakfast was more of a brunch because these huge animals just kept on eating and eating. We were told that they eat an average of 30 kilograms of vegetation in a day! It was touching to see a mother gorilla eating while carrying its baby with a hand that had no palm. We were told she lost the palm due to a poacher’s trap. It is at this point that you begin to appreciate the conservation efforts that Rwanda as well as Uganda and DRC have to keep doing in order to save these animals.

Conservation of the gorilla habitat is vital

I loved the fact that some of the porters who work in the park used to be poachers but were rehabilitated and now they make a living off the park and therefore appreciate the stake they have in protecting instead of destroying it.  

This also explains why Rwanda increased the gorilla permit fees in a bid to raise more money for the conservation of the Virunga massif. The population of the animals has been growing over the years thanks to joint conservation efforts by the countries that share the massif but more still needs to be done.

This is why it is called a Silverback.

The increase in park fees also saw an increase in the percentage of revenues shared by the communities around the park from 5 to 10 percent. This money has been a great resource for communities to build schools, health centres and set up hygienic water facilities for the communities.

This way the communities also get to understand and play a role in ensuring the conservation of the environment they occupy with the gorillas. The increasing population of the animals now has the government considering buying more land from the locals to expand the boundaries of the park.

Gorilla trekking is quite a breathtaking and humbling experience that allows you to spend a moment with the wild animals that are so close to humans in behaviour. It is amazing watching them feed, play, groom and even get angry. The group we visited had some anger issues on display especially when a younger silverback was caught by the older one while making love to one of the females. The culprit later made a sound that we were told was a form of apology to the older silverback.

The trek back to human civilisation had us reliving the stories of what we had just seen. You find yourself thinking about the wisdom of those who took it upon themselves to study these animals and ensure that more generations can get to see them too. Thinking about the fact that this world is a space where we should be accommodative of each other as people and as animals. At the end of it all, we all got certificates from Rwanda Development Board but the real bragging rights were in getting that much needed selfie with a gorilla in the back ground.