Gorilla Business

On 2 April 2012, our alarm wakes us at 6am for (what we hope will be) the most expensive day of our journey. This is the day that we will track the mountain gorillas at the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda.

It’s a US$1000+ day as we have paid $500 each for our gorilla tracking permits. We have tried to compensate by cutting corners on every other aspect of the trip. We are pleased to find that (contrary to what is written in the guidebooks) there is public transport to Kinigi village near the Park, and that it is possible to camp at the Kinigi Guesthouse located 500m from the Park headquarters. On the day we arrive, we confidently say that “we won’t have lunch” and wait hungrily for the hours to pass until dinner. The cleaning staff watch us with concern as we pitch our tent in the guesthouse lawns. A few minutes later, they emerge from one of the rooms with two thick wool blankets which we happily spread on the floor of the tent and fashion into a pillow ­­­­– ­to be used as a blanket if our down sleeping bags are not warm enough. Kinigi is cold!

We have also decided not to hire a car for US$80 for the day. Strangely enough, private transport is required to take you and your guides to the trailhead once all of the visitors have been divided into groups, each of which is assigned to track one of the eight habituated gorilla families. We intend instead to show up on foot and hope that there will be room in our fellow trackers’ vehicles; if not, we have a driver’s number to call.

We put on our layers of clothes (long pants over leggings to protect against the stinging nettles) and by 6:45am we are ready to walk to the Park headquarters. As we leave, a British couple also staying at the guesthouse offers us a lift.

The headquarters is full of people milling about, taking pictures with giant camera lenses of the mountain view and the Rwandan dance troupe energetically jumping around in the early morning. The parking lot is an impressive row of SUVs. We are in a sea of tourists.

Park headquarters parking lot

We are assigned to the Umubano gorilla family that lives on the Mount Bisoke volcano. We are grouped together with the British couple that has given us a lift in the morning, on the assumption that we share common transport. Fortunately, they don’t mind. In any case, almost everyone has arrived with their own private safari vehicle and there countless empty seats.  We drive to the foot of Mount Bisoke and walk through a village and farmland to enter the park gates.

The drive to the trailhead

Farmland in the foothills of Mount Bisoke

Ready to hike, with our pants tucked into socks to protect against stinging nettles and red ants.  Fashionable!

Our guides are in contact with trackers on the ground who update them on the location of the Umubano family.  We begin trekking, straight up the mountain through dense jungle. The path disappears and we are led by a man wielding a machete who cuts a path through the bush for us. The jungle environment and the views over the Rwandan countryside are stunning. It is wet, slippery, steep, and bursting of stinging nettles – but we heed the advice of our guides to “enjoy every moment.”

Trekking through the jungle

Human in the jungle

It takes approximately 1.5 hours to find the Umubano family. A few metres away, our guide instructs us to leave our bags behind and we follow him quietly through the jungle. Through some trees… and there they are.

Two females roll around on the ground playing and fighting with each other. She beats her chest and looks directly into my eyes. A four-month old baby bounces between them. Their faces full of expression, they are less than five metres away. We can see every furrow of their brow, purse of their lips, movement of their eyes, grasp of their fingers, smile, frown, grin. A male sits off to the side in the trees. We tourists clamber around each other, backed up against a wall of jungle and slipping on the mud, all trying to get the best picture. One member of our group has a digital SLR camera that clicks continuously at a rapid pace: klaklaklaklaklakak.

A young male approaches the group from behind us. We slip around and try to find a way to move aside. I am squatting on a slope of mud and struggle to stand up. The guide tells me, “You are fine, stay.” I wonder whether that’s a good idea, but obediently stay squatted and look away from the approaching gorilla, intimidated. Suddenly, BAM-BAM!! I feel a hefty powerful hand and foot whack my back, pushing me aside. The young male, named “Hakuna Matata”, barrels past.

Later, the silverback Charles joins his family. We stay well aside and I am too awestruck to take pictures. The gorillas, including Charles, are much shorter than I expected, but they make up for it in bulk. Charles’ chest puffs proudly, his stomach bulges, and his buttocks are two thick masses of muscle. He watches us out of the corner of his eyes.

Charles the silverback

Our one hour with the Umubano family passes all too quickly. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and we slip back down the mountain through the muddy jungle.

We paid a lot of money to see the rare mountain gorillas. They saw us for free.