My alarm goes off at 3.50 am. The driver picks me up half an hour later and we make our way through slumbering Kigali towards the Virungas, a mountain range consisting of eight volcanoes (some still active) shared by Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Despite the early hour, the villages we pass by on our way to the Volcanoes National Park are teeming with life. Women and children are carrying yellow plastic canisters to the water collection point and back, balancing the load on their heads. Men and women alike are all carrying their produce from the fields to the market.
We are surrounded by green fields full of maize, wheat, potatoes, cabbage and pytherum (a natural insecticide producing daisy-like flowers) all the way to the park and, as I will soon find out, well into the park.
We arrive in time for the 7 am briefing. About 100 people are gathered at the entrance to the Park. Everyone is in high spirits. Keen tourists, mostly Americans, are sipping hot coffee and watching a dance show while waiting. Around them gorilla trackers and guides are just finishing their briefing, during which they decide who to allocate to which gorilla group. Not all groups are equally far from the Park’s entrance. Some can be found within an hour, while some others require a challenging scramble through the bush for many hours. Not everyone looks fit, there is even an obese elderly couple.
Not surprisingly, I’m allocated to the guide who will track the Susa group, the biggest one in the Virungas, and the most inaccessible. I’m joined by Corinne, a South African teacher currently based in Rwanda, and a group of Slovaks.
The guide, Ignacius, welcomes us and checks whether everyone is reasonably equipped – we will need sturdy hiking boots, heavy-duty raingear, sunscreen and a hat, and plenty of water. He also gives us the basics of gorilla etiquette: no finger-pointing, no touching (as if we would dare!), no sneezing or coughing. The former is there mostly to protect us, while the latter two are meant to protect the gorillas who are highly susceptible to human infectious diseases.
We are excited as puppies and ready to start the hike, but first it is back to our respective cars. We spend the next hour suffering repeated bruises and concussions on a rocky, steep dirt road winding among villages. Every time we pass by we send a cloud of yellow dust onto the villagers, which doesn’t seem to stop hordes of children from running after the car, laughing, waving and shouting what I take to be a greeting until the guide explains that ‘agacupa’ means ‘bottle’ in Kinyarwanda. A plastic bottle is the ultimate object of desire among these dirty Rwandan urchins who live at the feet of the volcano inhabited by mountain gorillas. Gorillas are of no use to them, while a bottle can be used as a toy or sold for a few francs.
Finally, the road ends and the shaking stops too. We are met by other members of our group, equally pale from the shaking, and a team of eager porters who for 10 USD apiece will carry our bags. I only have a light backpack with me, so I decide not to hire a porter, but I gladly accept a bamboo stick that will serve me as support on the steep climb.
It is already 9 am by the time we set out and the temperature, around 10 C in the morning, has now mounted to above 20. We start the steep climb among fields of wheat, followed by Irish potato and pytherum. Occasionally we pass by a group of children minding their cattle, who inevitably shout ‘agacupa’.
I appreciate my recent half marathon training when I watch other members of the group struggle with the climb. One of the Slovaks passes his backpack to a porter who has come along uninvited, clearly knowing better than the boisterous hikers. Corinne develops a headache and is feeling dizzy due to the high altitude – already 2500 m, higher than the tallest mountain in Poland or Slovakia, at the start of the climb.
The climb through the fields is long and rather disappointing, as we know it is not here that we can spot any gorillas. It takes two hours to reach the edge of the bamboo forest. Bamboo is a gorilla delicacy, so they can often be found here binging on fresh shoots. However, we are now in the dry season and there is no shooting bamboo, so we will need to go higher. Another hour passes before we are met by a team of trackers who have been in radio contact with Ignacius. They’ve located the Susa group. Soon the bamboo forest gives way to a green jungle of vegetation so thick that the trackers have to hack their way through with machetes. It is now very hot, but not only can we not remove our jackets or fold the legs of our trousers, but those who have them are now encouraged to put on gloves.
Gloves or not, I soon have my first, rather unpleasant, encounter with the stinging nettles and thistles. The climb is less steep now, but it is difficult to keep our balance, as we are stepping on stalks of plants flattened by machetes and feet clad in sturdy boots. I wobble on, hissing whenever a nettle stings me through two layers of clothing, and hoping it is not long before we find the Susa group.
At long last we come to a clearing where the trackers ask us to leave our bags and sticks. We can only bring our cameras, which can be used but only without flash and large zooms. The face of one of the Slovak’s lengthens – he has brought a fancy camera with an enormous zoom. Don’t worry, laughs Ignacius, you won’t need it.
We are now very close to the gorillas. The guide impresses on us the need to obey his instructions immediately and without fail. The gorillas may be habituated to humans, but they remain wild animals and can be extremely dangerous if provoked.
We continue our trek following the trackers who progress slowly through the bush emitting soothing vocalisations to announce our arrival to the gorillas. A few minutes later we come to another clearing where Ignacius pauses and incites us to be quiet. For a few seconds only the cooing sounds made by the trackers break the silence.
Our first mountain gorilla appears from behind. A young female emerges through the thick foliage and quietly sits behind us. Ignacius’ soft voice tells us to turn around slowly and step back to give the female some comfort space.
The Slovaks point their cameras at her in unison, but I stand paralysed for a few seconds. If I reached out my hand, I could touch the gorilla, who, seemingly undisturbed by our presence, is feeding on a bunch of thistles. I watch her hands and feet, human-like but more dexterous, her long inhuman canines, a wrinkly black nose, and brown eyes, soft and serene.
We’ve barely recovered from this first encounter when two gorillas, a female with an infant and a ‘teenager’, appear on the other side. Transfixed, we watch the little family roll in the grass producing pig-like grunts.
The mother cuddling her children moves me deeply, as her gestures are identical to those of a human. The older of the two youngsters growls with pleasure and gives us a little display of chestbeating. Then another gorilla emerges from the bush at a leisurely pace, stopping to feed, and then joins the others in play. The star of the show is undoubtedly the baby – a few months old and independent enough to wander around, but still quite clumsy. It wobbles to a low-hanging branch and tries to mount it maladroitly, sliding off every now and then.
Transfixed, we lose track of time. But 45 minutes have passed, and Ignacius urges us to move on – the trackers have located the silverback, i.e. the dominant male. As we continue our trek we see other animals nesting in the foliage on the ground, including a mother with a newborn who she is shielding from view under her belly. We then try to catch a glimpse of the silverback through the leaves. I can definitely make out a huge mountain of black fur, a grey back and a muscular arm, but not much more. When he gets up and leaves, we are not allowed to follow – such are the rules, so that the animals don’t get stressed.
Our single hour with the gorillas has come to an end. Reluctantly, we follow Ignacius, stopping every now and then to snap another picture. I pause next to a young female sitting under a tree and chewing on one of those stinging plants. For a few seconds, we are eyeing each other. Despite myself, I reach out to her and my fingertips nearly touch her shiny black fur. My gaze sinks deeply into her eyes. She shows no sign of alarm, but I withdraw quickly, suddenly aware of how foolish I’ve been. The gorilla could have taken my eye-gazing and outstretched hand as a sign of aggression.
The descent is difficult, as it is now very hot and there is no incentive waiting for us at the end of the trek. But we leave the Park exhilarated – we’ve stood nose to nose with wild mountain gorillas, beautiful rare creatures, and nothing and no one can take this experience away from us.
Mountain gorillas are a subspecies that inhabits just two areas in the world: the Virunga volcanic mountains in Uganda, Congo and Rwanda, and the Bwindi National Park in Uganda.
Without a doubt, the most compelling book about mountain gorillas in the Virungas is the acclaimed ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ by Dian Fossey, a zoologist and conservationist who dedicated her life to studying and protecting gorillas and gave her life for them, killed by poachers in 1985.
Active conservation efforts have substantially reduced poaching and as a result the mountain gorilla population has risen from ca. 400 in Fossey’s time to 880 in 2012. Still, mountain gorillas remain a critically endangered species, threatened by poaching, habitat loss due to farming, and diseases, many of which are transmitted by humans.
Mountain gorillas live in cohesive social groups usually consisting of at least one silverback (sexually mature male) and his harem of females and their young. They spend a lot of time resting, playing and grooming one another. A lot of time is also spent feeding – mostly on leaves, stems, roots and bark. An adult male eats around 34 kg a day.
Mountain gorillas are active during the day, they move on all fours and build day and night nests on the ground.
A silverback weighs around 200 kg and is 150 cm tall when standing erect.
Individual gorillas can be distinguished from one another by their unique nose prints.
You can see mountain gorillas in DRC, Uganda or Rwanda, but it is the latter country that offers easiest access to the animals, due to its small size.
To enter the Volcanoes National Park, you will need to purchase a permit from the Rwanda Tourism Board, which at present costs an eye-watering 750 USD and keeps going up. Additionally, you will need to arrange transport to and within the Park, which will add an extra few hundred. The easiest way is to book your permit and driver through a tourist agency. The cheapest packages cost around 1200 USD for a one-day trek.