The day had arrived. The trip of a life time. Mr Nomad and I arose very early to enable our Guide to drive us to our destination, the Volcanoes National Park so that we could arrive in good time to prepare ourselves for the day.
The Volcanoes National Park is in the north-western province of Rwanda, close to the town of Musanze. This is one of three national parks within Rwanda, the other two being Nyungwe, near to the border with Barundi which is the largest remaining tract of forest and contains over 200 species of tree as well as begonias and orchids. It is home to 13 primates species. The other national park is Akagera which is in the far east of the country, close to the border with Tanzania, and has a savannah ecosystem unlike the rest of Rwanda and is home to typical savannah animals such as giraffes, elephants, antelopes, hyena and lions. All of these three national parks are designated conservation areas.
The drive there took around 2 1/2 hours and this journey allowed us to take in the sights of the ever green jungle type country side in Rwanda. The vehicle wove its way up through the vast hills and mountains and we were able to take in the epic white Nile river snaking its way through the landscape, crystal clear waterfalls cascading down the hillside, the local people wearing bright and vibrant clothing, the women carrying baskets containing bananas and other food stuff on their heads, the local boys riding their bicycles whilst taking a piggy-back from the lorries travelling along the roads. It was fascinating to watch people going about their ordinary lives’ as we travelled to our destination.
The Volcanoes National Park is home to five of eight volcanoes and forms part of the Virunga mountains. It borders the Virunga National Park which is within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in south-western Uganda. It covers over 160 square kilometres of rain forest and bamboo and is home to mountain gorillas and Golden monkeys. These three parks are the only three places in the entire world where mountain gorillas can be found and we couldn’t wait to see if we would be able to spot them. The five volcanoes are: Muhabura, Sabyinyo, Gahinga, Karisimbi and Bisoke and all are extinct, although all gloriously overshadowing the landscape.
As we approached Volcanoes National Park, we were treated to an extraordinary back drop when these volcanoes came into sight. They towered over the topography and were shrouded in mist, having an ominous presence in this remarkable country. I was speechless, my excitement bubbling up from the well of my stomach. We were to climb Mount Sabyinyo, a 12,000 feet tall expanse in our search for gorillas and I couldn’t wait. This particular volcano is nick named ‘old man’s teeth’ since its peak resembles worn out teeth. I was hopeful we would not be going all the way up it, but that the gorillas would be revealed lower down on the slopes of this towering colossus.
We had already been informed that a good level of fitness was required because we would hike up the mountain through the dense jungle to track the gorillas, and that we could be trekking anywhere between one hour to eight hours and certainly the latter figure was blowing my mind somewhat given that the atmosphere was becoming decidedly thinner. Still, this could not dull the butterflies that Mr Nomad and I both felt in anticipation of one of the greatest adventures of our lives.
Upon our arrival at the Volcanoes National Park, we were greeted warmly by our ranger, Roger, who was to accompany us up the mountain. He provided a thorough briefing to describe what was to come, and to regale the rules to us should we come across the gorillas. Mr Nomad and I listened intently, to take on board that gorillas are huge creatures and whilst we would be taken to a place where these animals are habituated to humans, we would be entering their territory, their home, to watch their family, so our behaviour had to be impeccable so as not to disturb or intimidate or upset the gorillas in any way.
Roger explained to us that we should avoid eye contact with them, we should not make sudden movements or be noisy. We had to be calm and quiet at all times, and generally adopt a submissive posture around them. We were informed that should be we approached by a gorilla, we were to crouch down and make a gentle grunting sound so as not to appear threatening to them in any way. He also explained that should a gorilla charge or strike, such attacks were generally aimed at the rangers themselves as they are seen as the ‘leaders’ or at least the ‘dominant’ person. Us visitors were viewed by the gorillas as being at the bottom of the hierarchy, as we were being led by others.
The gorillas are highly social and live in relatively stable, cohesive family groups and they are non-territorial but as Roger informed us, the dominant male, the silver back, would defend and protect his group or family often to the death if threatened. This briefing provided a fascinating insight into the behaviour of gorillas and we could not wait to get going.
We were also informed that because human diseases are transmittable to gorillas, we had to adorn a face mask at all times and we were to try to be at least ten metres away from the gorillas. Social distancing had to be maintained at all times for everybody’s protection, including the creatures that inhabit this location.
The park that we were entering was home to around 10 gorilla families that were habituated to humans, although there were many more families around but not used to nor accepting of the presence of humans. The park was a base for an American zoologist and primatologist, Dian Fossey, who can be credited with habituating these gorilla families and who spear headed a conservation campaign and mobilized resources to fight against poaching. Dian Fossey was an amazing women who lived her life in the jungle and saved this species of ape from extinction, and battled against various opponents around her. The film, ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ made in 1988 was a film documenting the true story of this incredible women and charts her life with the gorillas, including documenting her untimely murder in 1985. Her tomb lies in the park and she was buried at the Karisoke Research Centre, her body resting next to her favourite gorilla, Digit, who she shared a special bond with who was also murdered by poachers.
And so the trek began. The countryside was beautiful. It was lush and green, and as we made our way over the fertile farmers fields mainly growing potatoes, we were very much in the shadow of the imposing Mount Sabyinyo, approaching its lower slopes on the ascent to the rainforest to track the gorillas. It was humid and I felt instantly sticky, but it was not as searingly hot as Kenya is known for. It was not dusty at all but that’s not to say that I could breathe any easier in the altitude!
On our way through the fields, we took in the scenery of the livestock happily grazing, the friendly local people shouting greetings to us while they tended the land surrounding us and we even spied a chameleon in the bushes! Mr Nomad had not previously seen this fascinating reptile so we stopped to admire it, whilst catching our breath and revel in the landscape.
We tramped on and came to the entrance to the jungle. We crossed a small wooden bridge and proceeded to make our way through dense bamboo and rain forest. Our ranger, Roger led the way whilst using his trusty machete to chop through the undergrowth which became thicker and thicker as we went. We were also accompanied by an armed ranger to protect us against the wild life, mainly buffalo which were present in the forest.
Elephants could be found too although how they got through the narrow muddy tracks through the dense thicket is beyond me. We clambered up steep muddy banks using tangled vines to pull our way up, we crashed through tiny gaps in almost impenetrable brush type fauna all the while taking delight in this safari-like-no-other. It was tough going, particularly with the altitude we were having to contend with but it was still worth every single step.
After about an hour of slow and steady hiking, we came upon four armed rangers who stood almost to attention, fully expecting our arrival. They had been marching ahead of us, unseen and silently tracking the gorillas so they stopped us, informing us that the gorillas were ahead of us by only a matter of metres. My heart skipped a beat.
We were ordered to leave our bags with the porters who had accompanied us and we were asked to remain quiet and then we were quietly led to where the gorillas could be found. Mr Nomad and I could darely breathe with the nervous excitement we felt! My heart was thudding in my chest with feelings of trepidation, and I felt that this echoed around the entire jungle.
We softly softly crept through the brush and all of a sudden, we came across two female gorillas, just lazing around. We froze. Never had either of us seen anything like this before. It was astounding. My lip was trembling almost allowing my emotions to trickle out, but it was the most magical moment. We had found them, thanks to the experienced trackers who knew where to find them. We could hardly contain ourselves but we had to remember the rules – no noise, no sudden movements.
The gorillas were non-plussed by our arrival and just lay calmly together, tenderly grooming each other and napping. As we were stunned by this sight, a male gorilla skirted around us, reminding us that this was their domain and they roamed freely wherever they chose. It was also at this moment when another gorilla burst through the bushes and the ranger ushered me to move out of its way and crouch down, adopting a passive pose to allow the gorilla to go about its business without any impediment from these intruders in their home. As I crouched amongst the foliage, the gorilla strode past me within inches, almost brushing against me. I held my breath, fearing it could hear my adrenaline fueled heart beating as if it were about to burst out of my chest, and it went on its merry way.
This was very much closer than the ten metres suggested by Roger but I guess the gorillas were completely unaware of the Covid rules! They were surrounding us, gamboling around in the grass, clambering above us in the trees, munching on the leaves, lazing around and generally, just being relaxed at home. It was enlightening to realise how placid and peaceful these enormous creatures were despite their formidable prowess.
These gorillas wandered away, so the rangers led us to another gorilla, tucked into the bushes enjoying a bamboo breakfast. On the other side of the bush were two other gorillas – a male twin brother of the one I was viewing, lying down closely with a female. Mr Nomad edged closer to the male and female lying together while I watched the first male as he tucked into his hearty meal. I was transfixed! It was almost hypnotic, and as he savoured every morsel, I savoured my undisturbed sighting of him.
I’m not sure why I felt surprised at the very human-like behaviour of the gorillas. After all, they share 98% of DNA with us but it was incredible to see how human-like they actually were. They gazed at us as intently as we gazed at them and I wasn’t quite sure who was watching who, but these moments in the jungle were precious, and dream like, mesmerising and enthralling.
We were informed by the ranger, Roger that this gorilla family that we were privileged to have found was known as the Hirwa family. The word Hirwa means ‘lucky one’ in Kinyarwanda. There were sixteen members of this family, including one silverback. Amazingly, within this family was a set of male twins which was incredibly rare. They had been born in 2011 and were thriving against all the odds. It was these twins that we had come across, alongside another female. This family were known to wander freely between Mount Gahinga and Mount Sabyinyo and where we found ourselves in the jungle was literally on the other side of the mountain to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and only an estimated one kilometre from the border with Uganda.
Roger had informed us that the trackers had alerted him to the presence of the silverback but he had been sleeping. We however, took so much time in watching the twins that the silverback awoke from his slumber and we were permitted to go take a look at him. So we followed the rangers as quietly as is possible through tangled vines and dense bush and the joy that swept over us when we stumbled across this immense creature was almost overwhelming. We had never seen a silverback in the flesh, nevermind in its natural habitat so he was a humbling sight.
He was busily munching on some fallen bamboo and as we stood silently watching him, he grumbled a greeting at us! What a moment! He was a gigantic creature but so passive and relaxed in our presence, it was hard to imagine the sheer power of this magnificent ape. Male gorillas are typically much larger than females, weighing up to as much as 195 kilograms (females around 100 kilograms) and this was blatantly obvious to see.
This was also the moment when giant safari ants ventured up the inside of my trouser leg. I could feel them biting and nipping me and despite the irritation and pain, I had to remember my surroundings and so despite the feeling of ants in my pants, I was unable to do much about this, except grin and bear it! The views of the gorillas more than made up for this irritation though.
Adult males also have a more pronounced bony type crest on the top and back of their skulls and this was massively noticeable on this behemoth. It is the silverback who is the undisputed dominant male and he determines the movements of the group, including feeding sites. He would mediate any conflict in the group and he would protect his family from all external threats. Thankfully, this silverback did not perceive us to be any threat at all, and he carried on munching away to his hearts content, oblivious to our fascination.
The silverback eventually wandered away and as he did so, a female gorilla carrying a baby came out of the bush and lay in front of us, as if proudly showing us her baby. We were stunned. This incredibly large female clutched the baby to her chest, but she was so tender and delicate with it, stroking and caressing its head, and nibbling it affectionately. It was enchanting to watch, and it seemed contradictory to witness such a gigantic and powerful creature being so gentle. Mr Nomad and I couldn’t believe our luck. Not only had we found the gorillas in the first place after such a short search, but we had seen twins, a silverback and now a mother and baby, amongst the other family members. We had been able to visit them in their natural habitat which itself, brings many challenges.
Our time in the jungle shared with these magnificent creatures was coming to an end but we wandered on a little more and to our delight, a juvenile female gorilla catapulted in, seemingly out of nowhere. She was a beautiful smaller gorilla but confident, almost cocky, as she flew in on the bamboo over our heads, as if pole vaulting in, and after crashing to the ground, she lolled around in the long grass, tucking into the greenery.
We watched avidly, savouring every moment with the gorillas. She eventually got up and trundled off, following the path taken by the silverback, and the mother and baby, and as they all melted back into the jungle, the rangers informed us that our time was up we had to make our way back down the mountain. We were all beyond delighted at what we had witnessed, but also respected the very fact that these creatures needed to remain undisturbed to be able to live their natural lives without human interference or intervention. These mountain gorillas are critically endangered with only around 1000 of them left in the wild, and we were humbled and privileged that we had had this amazing opportunity to see them. It was quite simply, unforgettable.
They can only be found in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and their numbers have been massively affected by civil wars, civil unrest, loss of habitat and poaching. The rangers that protect these majestic beasts are frequently attacked and killed, with six rangers slaughtered in Virunga National Park only a couple of weeks before we arrived in Rwanda. The rangers that had accompanied us on our trek through the jungle warned us how dangerous it would be if we ventured near to the border with DRC but they kept us safe at all times and their professionalism was second to none. The rangers and trackers could not have helped us to enjoy this exploit any more than they did, whilst always showing the utmost respect for the forest’s inhabitants.
This once in a lifetime adventure had been magical and one that Mr Nomad and I would and could never forget. We had been lucky enough to enjoy many wonderful experiences, but this had been very special and unbeatable in every way.