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Checking Off The Bucket List - Gorillas In Rwanda

By: Peter I. Volny
Photographs: Linda Goddard

Having checked 122 countries off my bucket list, I've seen a lot of amazing sights and have experienced many incredible adventures, but right up at the top of the list is trekking Silverback gorillas in Rwanda.

gorilla

Flying into Kigali, Rwanda's capital, the lush, forested hillsides belie the country's tempestuous past – having been the scene of mass genocide less than 20 years ago. Today, there is no immediately visible evidence of these horrors, but rather a serene and attractive city of a million or so friendly and inquisitive inhabitants.

The two-hour drive to our lodge in the Virunga Mountains on the border between Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is very scenic as the well-paved road winds up through verdant terraced hillsides. Throughout the entire drive, we saw colourfully attired people carrying heavy loads – the men on their backs, the women on their heads. There is no denying that life is difficult here, but the children still stare and disarmingly smile at us.

'Gorillas In The Mist'

The heavily treed mountains are the place at which the famed Dian Fossey lived for 18 years studying and campaigning for the mountain gorillas – the setting for 'Gorillas in the Mist,' the movie based on her experiences. The gorillas were driven almost to extinction by poachers, but thanks to Fossey's efforts, approximately 375 remain which, tragically, amounts to half the global population.

Arriving at a small hut at the base of a steep path, we came to the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. It is situated at an altitude of 2,500 meters and only minutes away from Parc National des Volcans which is home to five of the eight volcanoes in these mountains. Here porters waited to carry our bags, leaving us hands free to start photographing. And believe me we did, as ever-present mist swirled and parted to reveal the 2,500 to 4,500 meter surrounding peaks in this 'Garden of Eden' landscape.

Now some people may worry about what the accommodations are like in third world countries, but Sabyinyo, part of the luxury Governors' Camp Collection, will delight even the most demanding traveler. The five spacious cottages – two suites and one family suite – are secluded stone buildings with terra cotta tile roofs and feature large sitting areas, wood-burning fireplaces, ensuite bathrooms finished with Venetian plaster, a dressing room, and a sheltered veranda. Heat exchangers in the fireplaces provide a plentiful supply of hot water. The main lodge building contains the reception, a sitting room, dining room, library/games room, small shop, and bathrooms. Two patio areas afford wonderful and dramatic views to the Virunga volcanoes and surrounding lowland farmland. Sabyinyo is owned by a community trust which uses rental and community fees from the lodge to drive socio-economic and conservation initiatives in the communities adjacent to the national park.

There are several other accommodation choices available such as Gorilla Mountain View Lodge, which are far more reasonable in cost. This lodge has 20 large, simple rooms built in the local style and with private bathrooms.

Sturdy Hiking Boots

Of course you will need comfortable hiking clothing and layers are advised as it can be quite cold when you set off before sunrise, but the temperature does rise as you climb and exert yourself. Sturdy hiking boots are an absolute necessity.

This is not an inexpensive destination, but, as a once-in-a lifetime adventure, it's well worth the cost. Park permits are issued at a cost of $750 per person per day. However, since only 64 permits are issued daily, which are divided into eight groups of eight, there is never any jostling for position or views. Each group has its own guide, tracker and armed guard – not that the guard was ever necessary. We certainly never felt threatened.

What you are not assured of is actually finding the gorillas. However, we found them on both days, within an hour's trek. In fact, everyone we spoke to in the other groups also found them. These amazing creatures share between 95 per cent and 98 per cent of their DNA with humans and, therefore, are our closest living relatives after the chimpanzee. Adult males weight between 135 and 180 kilograms and are 1.7 to 1.8 meters tall, while females are between 70 and 115 kilograms and correspondingly shorter.

Each gorilla group has its own territory at different altitudes and the tracker guides know these very well. You are offered a choice of easy, moderate, or difficult treks, but the guides also size you up to ensure that you are capable of the more strenuous ones.

We wisely decided that we were here to see gorillas and not just spend hours climbing and hacking through dense undergrowth so we selected moderate treks and were fortunate to find the gorillas within an hour. The easy groups found gorillas within a half hour while the most difficult took several hours.

On the first day, our guides hacked a trail through dense undergrowth and clinging vines as we climbed ever higher, but the combination of the scenery and the anticipation of the gorillas was enchanting. After only an hour or so, our guide raised his hand in a signal to stop and stay quiet and sure enough, ahead of us sat a family of gorillas happily chewing on leaves for breakfast. There were three very large and ominous looking Silverbacks. We had been forewarned to be quiet and not make sudden movements or attempt to approach them, which was not a problem as we were utterly spellbound by the serenity of these magnificent creatures. Of course, nobody had told the gorillas not to approach us and they certainly did as they moved silently among us looking for fresh, tender, juicy leaves. We marveled at their dexterity as they climbed into the trees and used their own weight to bring branches crashing to the ground to allow easier access to then strip the tender young leaves from their favorite vines and trees.

Obvious Leader

One very large and obvious leader of the pack, in a none-too-subtle display of leadership, reared up on his legs and while thumping his chest bellowed out a mighty roar. Rather than being afraid of this, we were all thrilled and mesmerized.

Groups are strictly limited to no more than one hour with the gorillas and the time to leave came all too quickly. We could have quite happily stayed all day. They were certainly not threatened by us or us by them. Except for the occasional mock charge by a pint-sized juvenile, their movements were slow and gentle. Very reluctantly we commenced our hike back down, but our spirits were soaring from an experience none of us will ever forget.

On the second day, our guide took us to an entirely different area where we set off through fields of potato crops, but soon were delighted to enter a mystical bamboo forest with close-set stalks rising 20 feet and more into the sky above. We trekked upwards to an altitude of almost 2,800 meters.

Suddenly there was a very large Silverback with his family of 13 coming downhill on the very narrow trail we were climbing. Our guide was most concerned and instructed us to press back against the thick undergrowth and to crouch down so as not to appear threatening to the Silverbacks – as if! Of the 11 of us in the group, including guides, the leader of the group of gorillas decided to stop right in front of me and for an eternity, well actually only a minute that seemed like an eternity, he stared into my eyes from less than a half-meter away. My wife claims he recognized me. Surprisingly, I was not scared because those big, fathomless, sad, brown eyes actually looked imploring. Still, I was relieved when he shuffled off and left me intact.

The family stopped in a small clearing right beside us and settled down for a short break. Mothers nursed babies in their arms while several others lovingly groomed each other in the proverbial Kodak moment. Both mature males and females kept an eye on the several babies who were especially inquisitive while as cautious of us as we were of them. The scene was not unlike any family picnic.

gorillas groomingFamily of gorillas

The gorillas are most active in the morning and rest during the middle of the day so it does require an early start to see them at their best. The pre-dawn start allows you to see the sunrise over the jagged peaks and the day comes to life as villagers trek to market with their merchandise. It's also a kaleidoscope as the blackness of night turns to the lush greenness of the forest.

While an hour with the gorillas passes very quickly, it's enough to appreciate these gentle giants and it leaves you wanting more. You'll leave Rwanda with never-to-be-forgotten memories and gigabytes of photographs.

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge - Double Cottage, $680 per person, including all meals and house beverages. Gorilla Mountain View Lodge $180 per person including all meals.

Peter Volny, originally from Australia, has lived in seven countries including many years in Canada. He now resides in Arizona. He has visited 122 countries on all seven continents including a month spent on a Russian icebreaker in Antarctica. His wife is from Shawinigan.

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