The ultimate wildlife experience, Mountain Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park.
Mountain Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is one of the most treasured wildlife experiences of my life. Earlier this month, after a briefing at park headquarters, a short drive to the entrance of the park and a vigorous hike through dense bush, I was suddenly surrounded by a gorilla family.
What makes the experience so unique is that you are transported to another world as you become part of the gorilla family for a short time. You are there on their terms. They can always choose to walk away, and they walk MUCH faster through the forest than humans can. I think a gorilla trek is the perfect compliment to a traditional African safari where you will see our other iconic fauna – lion, elephant, leopard, rhino – but always from behind a physical barrier because these animals are just too dangerous to get close to on foot. I cannot find the right words to describe the experience of seeing the gorillas in such close proximity, except perhaps awe-inspiring.
To do a gorilla trek in Rwanda, you need 3-4 nights. Seeing one of the troops of habituated Golden Monkeys in the same National Park is a worthwhile addition to this. If you want to add a third primate experience to your holiday, a stay in Nyungwe Forest, to see the chimpanzees can done in a 5-6 day trip. I visited the Genocide Museum in Kigali and thought it was very well done, with an excellent audio guide, although I found it distressing to see what occurred during the genocide in 1994. Rwandans today are firmly looking to their future while remembering the horror of their past.
Volcanoes National Park is named for the chain of 5 volcanoes that make up the national park. The park extends into two neighbouring countries: Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are currently 17 gorilla families on the Rwandan side, and some of these families are habituated for visits by tourists, others are monitored for research purposes. When you arrive at the Park Headquarters, you are assigned a gorilla troop to visit. The trackers head out early in the morning to find the different groups. It helps to have a guide who knows the park rangers well so that you are assigned a group appropriate for you. They will take into account your level of fitness, age and other factors when assigning you a group. I was assigned Agashya’s group. The family is named after the dominant silverback, Agashya. His name means something special, and his estimated age is 34 years old. There are 4 silverbacks in the family and a blackback. A blackback is a gorilla whose back is about to turn silver, which happens at around 12 years of age. There are currently 23 individuals in his family, including a 5 month old baby which was the cutest thing I have ever seen. After being assigned a group, you drive with your guide to the starting point and start walking.
The ranger is in constant contact with the trackers so he has a rough idea of where the gorillas are located. There are a few buffalo and elephant tracks in the forest but mainly you are walking through thick forest and mud. When you get close, you leave your backpack with one of the trackers and only take your camera with you. You are allowed to spend 1 hour with the gorilla troop. I was incredibly fortunate to be the only person on the trek. A private tour usually costs USD 15,000, so there are a few advantages to travelling out of season. You need to present a negative Covid test before the hike and wear a mask in the presence of gorillas. They are susceptible to all respiratory diseases and so you must take care not to pass on any diseases. You are also not allowed to touch the animals and need to keep a physical distance of 10 metres.
I did a number of hotel visits the following day so that I can expertly advise my clients on the most appropriate accommodation for them. On my final day, I did the Golden Monkey trek, which was physically easier because the monkeys stay in lower altitudes on flatter terrain. The troops are much bigger, with around 100 individuals, and it is a truly delightful experience not at all similar to the adrenalin of the gorilla trek.
Rwanda is an easy country to travel to. The people are the kindest and gentlest I have met. The food is excellent, and mainly vegetarian. The country is small and densely populated so people grow vegetables in every little corner they can find. The food was always fresh and I especially loved the fresh fruit juices made from passion fruit and tree tomato.
There three things to remember about gorilla trekking. It is expensive (permits are USD1,500 per person), you need to be over 16 years old to trek and you need to be fairly fit and adventurous to enjoy it.
If you would like to plan a primate holiday, please get in touch!
P.S. Pictures are much better than words to explain the gorilla experience. Thanks to a good camera, I managed to take some lovely photos which you can see on the Leopard Facebook page by clicking here.