East Africa Travelogue Part 2 - In Pursuit of Gorillas

After two days in Kigali, we departed the Hotel des Milles Collines, the real-life Hotel Rwanda, and headed north to the Virunga Mountains.

During the 2.5 hour drive we traveled up and down one verdant hill after another. The land of “milles collines” (1000 hills) is an apt moniker for this tiny landlocked nation. Storks, herons and ibises gathered in droves in the wetland valleys, while raptors circled high above the heavily terraced mountain slopes. The roads were dotted with people, including farmers heading to the market with their crops and colorfully uniformed children walking to and from school.

The Virunga Mountains are a chain of eight volcanic peaks located across three countries - Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. Of these eight mountains, the highest is Mt. Karisimbi which tops off at 4,507 m (14,790 ft). We made this journey specifically to observe the endangered Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) – an elusive primate which inhabits these densely forested mountains.


A Source of the Nile River

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Women Taking Crops to Market

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The Virunga Mountains

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After a comfortable night in a mountain lodge, we awoke at 5:00 am, a task made easier by both the consumption of strong (locally grown) Rwandan coffee and the knowledge that the day would bring our first gorilla trek. We geared up, ate a quick breakfast and drove the short distance to the park headquarters.

Gorillas form social groups called families, and there are currently ten families that are visited by trekkers in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. There is a maximum of eight trekkers per gorilla family per day, and visits are strictly limited to one hour.

After a short, informative briefing by our park ranger guide, we set off for our trek to find the Hirwa Gorilla Family (which roams between Mts. Sabyinyo and Gahinga), with benefit of hired Rwandan porters to lend a hand when needed on the trail. The trek led us first through farmed land, then across the park border and up through its eucalyptus scented slopes. The nimble, sure-footed porters walked quietly alongside us, steering us through some of the slicker and steeper spots with ease.

Since Rwanda is a rainy country, conditions can be muddy and active rainfall is common during gorilla treks. Luck was on our side that day as not a drop of water fell from the sky during our trek.


Landscape just outside of the Park Border

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Our Trekking Guide & Ranger Fidele

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James - One of Our Excellent Porters

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Fidele in the Eucalyptus Vegetation Zone

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After about 1.5 hours of trekking, we heard a commotion ahead and looked at our guide, Fidele, for clues. He signaled to us that the gorilla family was just above and that we should don our face masks (a rule designed to protect the gorillas from human diseases) and leave our gear and trekking poles with the porters who would wait below.

Male Mountain Gorillas can weigh up to 421 pounds and have a height of up to 171 cm (67 in). Female gorillas are smaller and can weigh up to 216 pounds. Despite their size and somewhat fearsome reputation in movies and on TV, these animals are very social and generally non-aggressive towards humans.

My eyes flooded with tears of joy upon our first glimpse of what looked like hairy black fluffballs cavorting rambunctiously in the clearing ahead. Eight to ten gorillas sat on the ground – the youngsters frolicking in the grass while the adults were lying down or napping. I glanced around at our trekking group, and both huge smiles and wide eyes adorned the faces of all.


Silverback Male Mountain Gorilla from the Hirwa Family

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Mother and Baby from the Hirwa Family

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Settling Down for a Nap

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Soon we heard snapping branches high above and turned to see young gorillas climbing high in the trees. One particularly daring juvenile grabbed a large vine and soared down to the ground in a Tarzan-like maneuver.

Our guide asked us to follow him a bit further up the mountain just after the two machete-wielding rangers in our group had hacked their way through. Excitedly we rounded a bend and saw the group’s silverback male (the leader of the family) eating leaves from a tree. I was at first taken aback by his massive muscular body, but he seemed rather unconcerned with the group of “skinny apes” trekking around the bend.

The Mountain Gorilla shares 98% of our human DNA. This fact was not lost upon us as we spent time observing these gentle primates. Many of their movements, hand gestures and facial expressions are eerily similar to ours. Gorillas laugh, they employ opposable thumbs and they have ears that look almost human.


Hirwa Family Silverback Male Eating

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What's So Funny?

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Something in the Trees Has Caught This Gorilla's Attention

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After exactly one hour with the gorillas, we were told that our time was up. The time limit is strictly enforced so that the gorillas do not become excessively habituated towards humans.

Two days later, we were fortunate enough to do another gorilla trek. This time we visited the Amahoro family, which lives on the slopes of Mt. Bisoke. Amahoro means peace in the local language of Kinyarwanda. This is one of the more difficult families to track as the trek can be longer and more strenuous. Nevertheless, the experience was immensely rewarding. This time we decided to spend more time observing and less time photographing the gorillas. So while we have fewer photographs of this family, our minds are indelibly etched with memories of this thrill of a lifetime.


Mother & Baby from the Amahoro Family

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Young Gorilla from Amahoro Family

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For our complete collection of Mountain Gorilla photos from this trip, please visit our galleries here.

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