Among the mountain gorillas

Last Saturday, we hiked into the Volcanoes National Park to see the mountain gorillas.

A baby mountain gorilla.

It was an amazing experience.

Mother and baby mountain gorillas.

When we arrived at the park headquarters, we asked to see one of the gorilla groups who normally live closer to the edge of the park. We didn’t feel up to one of the really strenuous hikes. However, nothing is certain with wild animals, and we walked (and climbed) for 2 hours before we found our group (the day before, they had been right inside the wall of the park).

I would have liked to have taken some photos of us tackling the steeper parts of the trail (and skirting the edge of an old volcanic crater), but I was too busy trying not to die at the time.

Earlier — after the first (easy) 40 minutes or so — our guide had stopped and given us a Rwandan saying: if you kill a cow, you cannot stop eating until whole thing is gone, tip to tail (this obviously originated before the freezer). Then, he said that the trackers ahead of us had just radioed back that our hike would be 10 cows long, and that we had already eaten 4 cows. However, only the 6th cow would be a big one.

Holy cow! (An American saying.) I climbed up much of number 6 on my knees and came down it on my bottom. Thank goodness for our porter’s hand and my walking stick.

When we found the gorillas, though, it was well worth it. They were lovely — smaller and fluffier than I had expected. Their fur had a healthy sheen, and they seemed quite content to spend an hour with us. Throughout the visit, our guide made low “hrrmm hrrmm” sounds, asking the silverback’s permission to stay; sometimes he would rumble back similar sounds in return. Several times, the little ones showed off by beating their chests.

A baby gorilla in the ferns.

For more pictures and story, click on ‘Continue reading’ below and then on the first thumbnail to scroll through large photos and captions (and there are some travel tips afterwards). To see a short video that I made, go to this link.

If you go to see the mountain gorillas yourself, here are a few tips:

Dress in layers — long-sleeve cotton tee, cotton sweatshirt, wind breaker (switch the cotton for fleece in the rainy season). I wore leggings under cotton khaki pants. In January, February, June, July, and August, the weather will be warmer and dry. The rest of the year, you will probably have to contend with some rather chilly rain.

Take your rubber-coated gardening gloves to protect your hands against the nettles. (Bring a few extra pairs and make quick friends of your fellow trekkers. Then leave them with the porters.)

Take the walking stick they give you, and do hire a porter for your backpack. (This provides important local employment; also the porter has seen the trail and the view many times, you want to be free to marvel and to grab handholds of vegetation. And you will almost certainly need the porter’s hand from time to time.)

Take a liter (quart) of water and some snacks. You may also want to throw in some cleanser, band-aids, and hydrocortisone cream. Our group came out unscrapped, but sore and wanting Advil.

Take a camera with a fast shutter (one good for action, like sports). Mine isn’t very fast, and I got a lot of blurred shots.

If you not an experienced mountain hiker, consider asking to see a closer-in group (the altitude will affect you). But be patient, you may hike 20 minutes or 4 hours. Our guide was very good about giving us breaks along the way.

Afterwards, buy the tee shirt that has your gorilla group’s name on the front and “Mzungu in the Mist” on the back. (Mzungu means foreigner.)

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11 thoughts on “Among the mountain gorillas

    1. I really was! I thought, “What am I doing here?” and, more importantly, “What is my baby daughter doing here on the edge of a crater?” (even if she is 24 years old). (Actually, the crater was so full of vegetation that it would have probably been a soft fall, but my poor porter would have had to drag us up out of it.)

      It was a great experience — well organized, and the guide, porters, and trackers were wonderful and very concerned that we were having a good time.

  1. How many Mzungus in your group? Tell us more about gorilla conservation. this looks promising, and providing local employment is half the basis of successful conservation. I was expecting more tropical jungle, than chilly rain on a volcano!

    1. We were all foreigners — from Canada, U.S., Australia, New Zealand. Rwandans are relatively uninterested in seeing the gorillas, and view our enthusiasm with some bemusement, I think. The “mzungu in the mist” is a little tease. However, they are proud of the park and welcome the income that comes from tourism.

      I’m going to do a little research and follow up on gorilla tourism. I understand the numbers are growing. Our guide said poaching is a small problem; some of the poachers are now trackers.

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