Volcanoes National Park
I pushed aside the curtains of my luxurious room in the Serena Hotel that we had checked into the previous night. It was still dark, after all, it was just 4 AM. I felt a strange excitement rising in me and it took me a minute to realize its source. Today was to be the climax of our Rwanda Odyssey! We would be embarking on the trail of the Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, which was about an hours drive from the Serena Hotel. We needed to be at the Volcanoes National Park before 7 AM and hence were scheduled to leave the hotel by 5 AM.
The excitement of the day was such that every one of the 20 member entourage was up and on time to board the bus, the hotel had considerately provided packed breakfast so that we did not embark on our adventure on empty stomachs.
The bus was off on time and as we cruised along at we were treated to some beautiful views of the inactive volcanic mountain, Mount Karisimbi. The Volcanoes National Park houses in its fold 5 of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains. Apart from Mount Karisimbi, they are Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga, and Sabinyo.
The drive across some of the most stunning landscapes of Rwanda was, to say the least, exhilarating. The emerald green pastures with the backdrop of the mountains seemed surreal in the early morning light. It seemed as if a giant painting had come to life in vivid colours.
We arrived at the Volcanoes National Park reception centre well in time and trooped out of the bus full of anticipation.
The Volcanoes National Park reception centre itself was buzzing with activity, guides and rangers moved around smartly turned up in their khakis. A big circular enclosure served as a place to get some hot coffee or tea.
In the lawns just beyond this circular enclosure we were greeted by the hypnotic beats of African drums as local dancers swayed rhythmically to the mesmerising music. It was a riot of colours blending with pulsating music and tinged with the graceful movements of the dancers. The performance set the tone for the day and our heart beats quickened in anticipation of the adventure ahead even as the drum beats enthralled us.
Very soon we were divided into groups based on fitness levels, interests and degree of difficulty of the treks. Five from our group were together for one of the more difficult of the treks in which we would be trekking to meet a Gorilla family deeper in the jungles of Volcanoes National Park. It is interesting to note that there are only 10 families of Gorillas which are accessible to visitors, the others are reserved for study and research purposes only in Volcanoes National Park. On a single day only one group of visitors of maximum 8 members can visit one Gorilla family which means only 80 people are lucky to rendezvous with the Gorillas on any single day in Volcanoes National Park. This naturally means that you would need to plan and book well in advance. You need to get a Gorilla Permit to be able to do the Gorilla Trek in Volcanoes National Park. All the formalities for the Gorilla trekking were taken care of efficiently by RDB (Rwanda Development Board) which is the apex organization that governs tourism in Rwanda.
A big man with a broad smile greeted us and introduced himself as Oliver, he was our guide and would be leading us to the Ntambara family of Gorillas, deep in the jungles of the Virunga Volcanic Mountains in Volcanoes National Park. We milled excitedly around Oliver who quickly and professionally gave us a briefing of what lay in store for us. He explained that the family we were visiting included a baby Gorilla as well as a Silverback, an adult male Gorilla. He explained that as the male gorilla ages, the hair on his back turns silver and incredibly this is not the case for the female gorillas who retain their black colour throughout their life spans. Oliver also promised us to teach the nuances of the language used by Gorillas to communicate, later in the jungle.
And then we were off! A jeep took us across some bumpy terrain where we held on for dear life and our insides received the shake of their lives.
A drive of about half an hour and we reached our final pit stop from where we would begin our trek that would take us up into the mountains and deep into the jungles of the Virunga Mountains.
Trek in the jungles of the Virunga Mountains, Volcanoes National Park
This is the place where you get off your vehicles and start walking. We were given walking sticks with handles shaped into small gorillas to help us on our trek. Time would prove the invaluable nature and contribution of these sticks to our trek. This is the place where one can hire porters at a fee of around 10$ depending on what help you would need from them. They can help by carrying your backpack or helping you negotiate the more perilous bends and curves on the trek.
We looked at the dirt road stretching in front of us and the mountains covered with a haze in the distance. We heaved a collective sigh as we thought about the Gorilla family that awaited us somewhere behind those mountains.
We started off by walking through some fields and were really wondering at the degree of difficulty of the trek, not aware what the immediate future held in store for us.
As we trudged on, we breathed the fresh mountain air which seemed like manna from heaven to our lungs more accustomed to the polluted air of urban centres.
We reveled in the beauty of nature that surrounded us and seemed to hug us in a mother’s embrace.
Soon we started huffing and panting, stopping to catch our breaths as we started climbing, in some places the climb was difficult and you had to cling on to a rock or a creeper to hoist your way up an almost vertical cliff.
The weather conditions in the Virunga mountains are highly unpredictable. It can be sunny one moment and pouring cats and dogs in the next. We were lucky that apart from slight drizzling we were spared heavy rain, however we witnessed the changing weather conditions starkly when we reached the top of one of the mountains and were met with a sheet of silvery mist and currents of chilled air which was so reminiscent of the weather in Switzerland.
We had been climbing steadily and all of us were out of breath and were wondering how far the Gorillas were when our guide Oliver, calmly announced that we were till now skirting the border of the forest and would be entering it now! A small ladder lay propped up against a stone wall and a forest ranger with an AK-47 stood menacingly, however he was a sweet chap with a smile that would melt your heart. So we clambered up the ladder onto the top of the wall, only to realize that there was another ladder on the other side of the wall and we needed to descend using it.
Mission ladder accomplished! We followed our guide deep into the forest. There were no discernible paths, the Rangers used machetes to cut a path across the thick vegetation that consisted of bamboos, wild grass growing to more than six feet and other wild forms of vegetations. Touching one of the plants accidentally resulted in burning nettle stings on the hands. Elsewhere a couple of safari ants seemed to have taken a fancy to my legs and I had to exterminate them reluctantly with the help of a porter who was accompanying us.
The ground was slushy and slippery, weeds and creepers lay, ready to trip you and send you sinking into the slush or into a bed of thorny vegetation. We cut our way through what to our untrained eyes seemed to be an impregnable forest cover in our search for the Ntambara family of Gorillas.
At this stage, Oliver got a message on his walkie-talkie that we were quite near the Gorilla family. He asked us to make as less noise as possible and we followed him to a small clearing in the forest where we were met by a few other rangers who were tracking the Gorillas. We were asked to let go of our walking sticks and backpacks here and it was time for a quick lesson about how to communicate with Gorillas from Oliver. He showed us the sounds that Gorillas made when they were in a friendly mood and what sound should be taken as a warning signal to stay at a distance. So practicing our Gorilla language we followed our guide towards our tryst with the Gorillas.
We stop in our tracks as we come across this dark mass, Oliver informs us that this was Gorilla poop and a thrill shoots through our beings as we realize that we are now officially in Gorilla territory. We walk in single file in the midst of tall vegetation across a path cut by the machetes of the Rangers, afraid that the sound of our heartbeats would disturb the Gorillas. We are wary of the slightest movement in the thick vegetation as we move forward in anticipation tinged with apprehension and fear at the same time.
Sighting of the Gorillas at Volcanoes National Park
And then we hear them! The silence of the forest is smitten by the blood-curdling and somewhat scary sounds of the Gorillas, probably fighting with each other or maybe playing with each other. We freeze in our tracks, hesitating to take the next step unsure where it would lead us to. But Oliver signals us to move forward, and we move forward, reposing our entire trust in his experience and wisdom. As another swish of a machete clears yet another path and we make our way gingerly through it, we have our first Gorilla sighting. He is just a few feet away from us and looks at us with eyes that seem to be mysteriously sad.
It was a moment that would stay etched in our memories as long as we lived, it was one of those defining moments that travel is all about. An experience which cannot be described in words, something that no picture, video or word could really do justice to. Oliver assured us that we could take pictures without using the flash and with sounds off. As I was busy taking pictures of the Gorilla in front of me, a black, burly shape whizzed past me, gently brushing me as he went past. To my incredulous amazement, it was another gorilla! I had experienced something that probably does not figure in the bucket list of any traveler, “being touched by a Gorilla”!
And then we saw the Silverback, the male Gorilla and the head of the family, he looked majestic as he sat brooding in the midst of the jungle. I discreetly observed that he seemed to have the same, strange meancholia in his eyes that I saw in the other Gorilla. I did not look straight into his eyes as you are not supposed to do so, especially to the male Gorillas as they may take it as a challenge and get irritated or hostile. Actually the Silverback must have taken our intrusion into his privacy as a challenge on his territory as he stood up and let out a war cry thumping his chest, a couple of times when we were there.
A little distance away from the Silverback we found this mother Gorilla lovingly cuddling her two-month-old baby and showering it with the kind of love, only a mother can. Behind her sat another of her offsprings, probably simmering with sibling rivalry, his back to the world, pining for his mother’s attention. It was the day after the world had celebrated Mothers Day and looking at the Gorilla Mother, we paid a silent tribute to the universal spirit of Motherhood and wished the Gorilla Mother a belated Mother’s day before taking our leave.
Elsewhere we came across this Gorilla who stretched languorously, unwilling to get out of bed, apparently a victim of the Monday morning blues.
After spending 60 life changing minutes watching this family of Gorillas and also with a feeling of guilt for having impinged on their privacy, we make our way hesitatingly away from them. I take a last look at the silverback and this time as fate could be, our eyes meet for a fraction of a second. I again see deep sorrow in the eyes and feel that the Silverback wants to communicate something. But it is time to move and I follow my group back through the jungle.
But I feel that I have left a part of me with the Gorilla family who look so fearful and powerful, yet are so gentle, peaceful and graceful. As I tread the path towards civilization, the sad eyes of the Gorillas haunt me and I mull over the causes for this sadness.
Are the Mountain Gorillas sad because there are only less than 1,000 of them left in the world?
Are they sad because they still remember the persecution that they have faced over the years at the hands of the wildest animal on Planet Earth, Man?
Are they crying for the hundreds of babies they lost to unscrupulous poachers over the years?
Are they sad for many of their ilk who laid down their lives fighting to the last to protect their children?
Are the Gorillas grieving over the murder of their well-wisher and friend, the American Zoologist, Dian Fossey, who today lies entombed beside the very Gorillas she loved and who had become victims of Man’s avarice and greed?
The questions whirred like a berserk fan in my mind and still do. The rendezvous with the Gorillas at the Volcanoes National Park seemed to have worked a transformation within me, it had been an experience that only the blessed or chosen few can have, an experience that touches you deep within and changes you at the core.
An adventurous Gorilla trek to meet the endangered mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda is an unforgettable experience in Africa. I know that Africa holds the promise of many exciting wildlife experiences in places like Cape Town, Serengeti, and Masai Mara and I hope I get to be a part of much more.
If you want to have a more immersive experience of the Gorilla trek and feel the excitement of getting close to the gentle giants, do watch our vlog here:
Have you had such life changing encounters with wild animals? Do share your thoughts with us through the comments section.
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This article about Gorilla Trek in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa was also published on Huffington Post. Check it out here
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