You start with the sunrise, driving at dawn to the Volcanoes National Park headquarters. Here you’ll see guides, climbers, drivers and porters, getting ready for the adventures of the day- gorilla trekking and the various other treks that happen within the park. Tea and coffee is served in a small rondavel, and there are clean but simple loos. Your guide will head off with your passport and permit to negotiate your gorilla family allocation. Please just let him know how athletic you’re feeling- serious mountaineers and ultra-marathon lovers will be well rewarded by the challenging climb to the Susa group towards the top of the mountain, while those who prefer a gentler hike can request a gorilla family a little lower on the mountain. If you have an interest in a particular gorilla family- now’s your time to speak up!
As the guides negotiate, local Intore dancers normally perform for the visitors. It’s worth keeping a little cash handy if you feel you want to tip for this- we certainly did, not least for such an impressive feat of athleticism so early in the morning. Once negotiations are made and deals are done, you’ll be assigned your gorilla family and head into the gardens for a briefing. Our guide introduced us to our gorilla family- the Giraneza group- until recently a research family and only just opened up to visits from the public. We were told to expect one big silverback- in fact, one of the biggest- and two young babies as well as their mothers and some teenage black-backs.
We also introduced ourselves to fellow trekkers- this is usually a group of eight. Gorilla trekking, like much in Rwanda, is egalitarian- all permits are equal, so no matter if you’re staying in the $2,000 a night lodge or backpacking, you’re all united by an interest in the gorillas. Your group are also a great support- a gang whose intriguing conversation makes you forget the steepness of the mountains and who will (hopefully) cheerfully rest alongside you if you are in desperate need of a gulp of water or a breather.When you leave park HQ most trekkers drive for 20-40 mins to a designated starting point on the edge of Volcanoes National Park. We rumbled up a bumpy road into a village, where numerous blue uniformed porters were waiting for us in the car park.
If you trek during the rains, or aren’t an enthusiastic hiker we’d strongly recommend taking a porter- they’ll add hugely to your comfort and your enjoyment of the gorilla trek. In our group porters were helping to carry day bags, lending a steadying hand on slippery paths, and providing firm shoves when the path became too steep. And while it’d be easy to see having a porter as a luxury, anything you pay your porter is providing much needed income not just to the porter, but their dependents (who could easily number as many as 10) too. There’s a rotation to make sure that different porters benefit from the income from each group of visitors, so this does a huge amount of good in the community.
As we left our car park, we took our sticks and marched up through fields where the villagers were growing potatoes (locally referred to as “Irish Potatoes”, presumably to distinguish them from “sweet potatoes”) and pyrethrum flowers for insecticide. This took around 20 minutes. Next, we clambered over the stone wall that separates Volcanoes National Park from the farmland, and from here on in it was steep and sometimes slippery terrain up to the gorillas. Our guide was in constant radio contact with trackers who’d followed the gorillas since they woke up that morning. The Giraneza group was considered to be a “medium” level of difficulty to reach and it took us around two hours to reach them. Our guides and porters found the trek pretty easy, but while we trekkers enjoyed friendly conversation, some of the less fit members struggled and we stopped several times for everyone to catch their breath. The path was a couple of feet wide between shoulder-high plants and nettles (and my goodness- the nettles!!!). These nettles are something else. They’re shoulder height and a brush past, or a sit down, even wearing jeans, resulted in some fairly ferocious prickles. I would definitely recommend wearing lightweight, water/thornproof long-sleeved shirts and trousers.
Just before you see the gorillas you will meet up with the trackers who have been following them since they left their nest at dawn. Here, you take out your essential valuables and leave your day bag behind with the porters- this is to stop the gorillas from being tempted to investigate the contents of your bag too closely! You’ll also leave your sticks behind at this point- we were told this was because many gorillas had bad memories of poachers with sticks. Now we knew we were close, we were all tremendously excited. Following our ranger, we headed straight into the thick bushes, using a sharp panga to clear a path through the last 200m till we reached the gorillas.
First we saw Giraneza himself- the huge, placid silverback who was far too busy chewing leaves to let us disturb him. He was perched a little further up the hill than the rest of his family, keeping an eye on them all. It was roughly at this point I wished I’d spent a bit more time setting up my camera in advance- my first gorilla photos were dark, or blurry, or out of focus (or more probably, all three). We could quite easily have spent our allocated hour with the gorillas watching Giraneza alone, but our guides gently tore us away to where the two mothers and babies of the group were playing and feeding- seeming so human it almost felt intrusive to watch. The babies tried to climbed trees and fell off, scrambled over Mamma like she was just another rock, and treated big, strong, (and frankly rather impressive) Dad like a large and boring climbing frame. Although we’d been briefed that that the Giraneza group also has some young black-backs, in typical teenage style they were far too busy having fun in the forest to pay attention whatsoever to their visitors, so we barely saw them.
Our hour passed in a flash, we reluctantly headed back to collect our day bags, saying goodbye to our trackers and tipping them. Afterwards it was around an hour’s downhill hike back to the car, and then our porters said their goodbyes and returned to the village, while we returned to our lodge for a hearty lunch.
A few recommendations from our gorilla trek:
- If your budget stretches two gorilla treks are absolutely worthwhile, and that doing one is a bit like doing one game drive. Great, but definitely room for a lot more.
- Stinging nettles sting hard. Even through jeans, so look out!
- During the rainy season it can be very, very wet, with deep mud up to knee height- waterproof trousers would be essential at this time.
- Learning how to use your camera and setting it up for shooting in the rainforest before you arrive will save you valuable time during your precious hour with the gorillas. It’s also worth turning the sound off so that you don’t disturb them.
- Seriously consider taking a porter!