Prior to leading our annual East Africa Photo Safari, we made a reconnaissance into Rwanda to experience trekking to see mountain gorillas. We had anticipated that it would be a very rewarding and strenuous experience, and it was both. Rwanda is a beautiful country with green hills layered with cultivated crops rising from every valley. It is also remarkably clean since the government has both outlawed plastic bags, and has one day of every month when everyone takes an active role in cleaning up roads and public areas.
Rwanda’s inhabited farmlands go right to the edge of the Volcanoes National Park that rims the Virunga Mountains where the endangered mountain gorillas live. Our local guide informed us that one thing we could count on would be having some rain every day. Fortunately he was wrong about that, as we had three days of perfectly dry sunny weather with the high coned peaks of the Virunga volcanoes clear against blue skies and the setting sun.
Tourism into the park is very regulated, with a limited number of people entering the protected forest each day with a park ranger. Local trackers locate the habituated groups of gorillas, and then parties of eight tourists are allowed to visit a single gorilla group for only one hour each day. The trekking at 8,000-9,000 feet is quite exhausting, especially for those of us who work the rest of the year at sea level. The treks initially crossed cultivated fields, and then into the forest. The forest trails passed through dense groves of bamboo, up steep grades and through tall swaths of stinging nettles. Fortunately we were well prepared for these outings, so the only thing we were missing was more oxygen in the air.
The gorilla groups were incredible to see, and their level of habituation was quite astounding as we had big silverback males that passed within arm’s reach on a few of occasions. Both of the groups we visited had at least one small infant with them that rode along on mom’s back, and even occasionally on her swinging forearm as she walked.
Near the end of our first visit with a group, our guide motioned all of us into and under a low tunnel of overhanging vines and bent limbs. We were crouching within this dark bower of vegetation watching a couple youngsters playing, when suddenly a big male silverback gently pushed one tourist aside and then ambled right past us to lay down about twelve feet away. He bent his arms and legs beneath him and lay on his belly, turning his face away from us. One curious youngster tentatively approached within about three feet of us, swaying back and forth and staring curiously at us. The park ranger said it was time to go, so we all began crawling back out in the opposite direction from the gorillas. Rikki and one other person were the last to leave when the big male got up and moved over to where he was facing Rikki. He rested his chin on his gnarled knuckles and gave her this very contemplative look. “It was breathtaking. I can’t imagine what he must have been thinking.”