I walked slowly across the giant stinging nettles on the slope of Mt. Karisimbi volcano, trying very hard not to slip and fall face first before I ever saw my first gorilla. Minutes before, the guide had told us to stop, put down our bags, put down our walking sticks and bring only our cameras. The ground was slippery with dew and the nettles were almost as high as me, making it difficult to navigate without my walking stick which had, for the past few hours of our hike, served as the only defense against slipping to the ground with every step.
All of a sudden, our guide pointed in front of us and down the slope, there it was! A gorilla! I would like to think that I am pretty well versed in approaching wild animals. Having lived at a marine ecological reserve, crouching down and moving very slowly and signalling to the animal our my presence is now a tried and true method. I was therefore very surprised of how confident the guide was that the gorilla would not spook easily. He walked normally, spoke with a normal voice and flattened the nettles at our feet so we could catch a better view. Despite my excitement, I did try and spend a few minutes looking away from my viewfinder and actually at the animal in front of me. The first time a gorilla looked me straight in the eye, it took my breath away. Intelligence and the capacity for thought radiated from her eyes and she looked me up and down, the same way that a stranger might when seeing you in her everyday coffee shop for the first time.
Volcanoes National Park is on the Rwandan side of a an East African park system that also includes the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. The area is famous for having appeared in Diane Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist. For a very long time now, I have been fascinated with the idea of going and spending some time with these gorillas, vegetarians whose reputations have been tarnished by the image of King Kong’s violence in pop culture reference. Last time I was in Rwanda, a major sickness had meant that I had to leave before being able to travel there. Since then, the steep price (it costs 750USD per person for an hour with the gorillas) had been a major obstacle that neither my husband (also a photographer and nature lover) could not justify. This time however, I was already coming to Rwanda for work purposes and I could not leave without seeing them. It also happened to be R’s spring break so he tagged along too, which made for a much more fun experience.
Since we were on a budget, we did not go with a packaged tour, but did request a registered tour company to buy the permits for us in advance. Egide from Virunga Expedition Tours was a fantastic resource and very easy to communicate with. They are highly recommended! You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. I was very nervous about sending over so much money to a person I didn’t know but he was very prompt about follow up and issued a receipt as soon as he received the money in their bank account.
The night before our gorilla trek, we made our way from Rubengera, where I was attending a meeting, to Musanze now called Ruhengeri, a small town on the border with the DRC. The drive itself is worth the drive with the thousand hills of Rwanda getting higher and higher up and finally the volcanoes coming into sight. We stayed at Muhabura Hotel in Musanze, in one of their newer rooms. Despite the floral patterned bedding matching the curtains, the bed was really extremely comfortable, there was lots of hot water for a nice shower an the food at the restaurant was very good.
The next morning started with a very early drive to the HQ of the Volcanoes National Park where we were welcomed by Intore dancers beating to drums and performing a traditional dance for the visitors while the sun slowly rose higher up in the sky. There were not too many of us that morning and the guides tried to group us together with an older couple and bringing us to a group that is easy to reach. R and I were disappointed as we wanted not only to see gorillas to have a good hike up a volcano. I mean, we did pay 750USD for this privilege. Thankfully, the park rangers are very accommodating and soon enough, we had our guide and tourism intern. We were definitely excited by the opportunity of being the only two in the group, it was like our own private tour!
Getting to Karisimbi volcano, where the Susa Group, originally studied by Fossey lived, took us for another hour long drive. When we arrived at the edge of the National Park, two members from the RDF (Rwandan Defense Forces) joined us and we also hired a porter to carry our rather heavy bag full of water and camera gear. I am forever thankful for porters because I am not very fit to begin with and having to carry our heavy gear would often be more than I could bear. Porters come from the communities surrounding the park and this work provides an invaluable source of income for their families. Without conservation initiatives providing jobs, they rarely ever work. So, hire a porter! Or two! It costs 20USD for the privilege of walking easy knowing that you are also providing a family for the day.
The first part of the hike takes you through dense bamboo forests, with traces of forest elephants having passed through on the paths earlier. I kept an eye for them but they are so elusive, and we were making quite a bit of noise. Maybe another time I’ll come to look for them.
As we climbed higher and higher in altitude, we left the bamboo forest behind and arrived instead at entire slopes covered in stinging nettles. They are not the same kind that we have in Canada where you get rashes almost right away but they do sting! I tried to ignore it and kept moving up, with lots of breaks to take my breath. Let’s just say, I might have had a change of heart about wanting to hike to the hardest group! The landscape was pretty stunning though. I mean, how often do you hike up a volcano to go see gorillas? So I kept climbing slowly and tried to enjoy the experience as best as I could- stinging nettles, breathlessness and all.
Our guide had been keeping in close touch with trackers who spend the whole day with the gorillas and who leave even earlier than we did to go out and find them. This basically means that you are 100% guaranteed to see the gorillas because the trackers will have found them first and will guide your group to them. Trackers are incredibly needed as well because they are the ones who protect the gorillas from poachers and communicate with researchers on on-going events in their daily lives. After almost 2 hours of climbing, we met with our trackers, left our bags and were on our way to see the gorillas.
The group of gorillas barely changed anything they were doing when we arrived. They are very habituated to human presence and it was a rare treat to observe an animal without constantly worrying about whether you will scare it off or not. We were particularly lucky to be able to get close to a female and her baby and follow them around for a little while while she carried him around and found some delicious plants to eat.
At one point, the mama and her baby came right up to me and passed within 30cm of my camera. The baby was holding onto her head while she nonchalantly walked past, following the silverback over a ridge- not knowing that she had given me one of my top wildlife encounters ever!
The top silver back usually remained very close to the mother and baby, although he seemed to always be hiding behind something. We did meet a junior silver back who was definitely flirting with a female away from the top silverback. It would have led to some quarrels had he found out I’m sure.
The hour passed by way too quickly and before I knew it, the guide was saying that we had to stop taking photos and needed to say goodbye. The gorillas didn’t seem to even notice our departure, even though I kept looking back, hoping that they might want to follow us. It was another 20 mins walk up and down to get to our bags- I had not realized that we had moved so much in following the group. Neither R nor I spoke much on our way back down, relishing in the encounter we had just been privileged to. We’re already talking about potentially going back and visiting the gorillas in the DRC or Uganda.
On our way out of the National Park and back to the car, I could not help notice how close to the boundaries the farms were located. The population pressures in Rwanda are tremendous. It is Africa’s most densely populated country and the fact that you can hike up 2 hours and see some of the world’s most critically endangered animals blew my mind. Yes, it is an expensive endeavour to see the gorillas but tourism is the one thing that are saving them right now. The more communities are able to see direct benefits from protecting the habitat, the more they will want to conserve them for future generations. The Rwandan government is also doing a good job in ensuring that the revenue from the gorillas is being used for the development of sustainable tourism initiatives. If you have ever wanted to go see some of our closest relatives, I suggest you do. It is definitely an experience of a lifetime.
Tour Operator: Virunga Expedition Tours (email@example.com)
Hotel: Muhabura Hotel in Musanze (http://www.muhaburahotel.com/)
Cost (per person): 750USD (non resident gorilla permit), 20USD (porter), 25USD (guide tip), 20USD (tips for the two trackers)
Transportation: You can easily travel from Kigali to Musanze on a public bus through Volcano Express. It should not cost more than 800 FRW (~2USD), it’s very comfortable and safe. If you don’t mind a little bit of extra hassle, this is definitely the way to go. Otherwise, you will be charged more than a 100USD for the trip from Kigali to Musanze. Save the money for some nice souvenirs!
Clothing: Stinging nettles are no fun! Wear tough clothes that you don’t mind getting stained. I wore cargo pants made of canvas and they were much better at resisting the nettles than my husband’s fancy hiking pants. I think jeans would actually be the best things to wear. Bring long sleeved shirts and gloves, again to save you from the stings. A rain jacket might come in handy as it could have rained at any time.
Food and Water: Bring at least 2L of water per person, especially if you will be hiking up to the Susa Group and some snacks to share with your porters and guides.