The alarm went off at 4:40 so we’d be up in time for breakfast. At 6 we loaded ourselves into two 4×4s for the 45 minute drive to Volcanoes National Park, where we met up with the other 50-60 people who’d be trekking that day. Around 8 we divided into groups of 7-8 people. Each group would be visiting their own gorilla family for one hour. At $500 per person, I believe this ranks as the single most expensive activity we’ve done on our adventure.
Our guide for the day, Oliver, said we’d be going to visit the Titus group, a family of 12 mountain gorillas living on the Karisimbi Volcano. We drove for another hour over bumpy dirt roads to get to the start of the trail.
Around 9 we began hiking straight up the volcano—starting at around 3500 meters above sea level. As we were not yet within the boundaries of the park, the hillsides were cultivated like the vistas we saw upon first entering Rwanda. The “trail” was essentially a series of small, makeshift pathways between various plots of land. Children who lived at the farms along the way would run out, wave, and shout “How! Are! You!” The weather was overcast, which seemed to get thicker the further up we climbed.
Immediately a few people in our group started feeling the effects of altitude sickness, particularly nausea and dizziness. In addition, none of us had been doing much in the way of physical activity for quite some time, so it was slow going. I might be mistaken, but I believe our total ascent was in the neighborhood of 500 meters (1640 feet).
After nearly an hour of uphill hiking we reached the boundary of the park, a stone wall demarcating the jungle from surrounding agriculture. Apparently its purpose was more to keep farmers and poachers out than it was to keep animals in. In addition to our guide, there was a man with a machete who helped carry some bags, and a man dressed in military fatigues with an AK-47 machine gun—for our protection: poachers not being the most scrupulous type and of course the wild animals.
Once we crossed the stone wall boundary, we entered the thick jungle. The trail, if one could call it that, consisted of several inches of thick, slippery mud. We must have slogged through that for another 45 minutes before we finally got word that we were close. We turned off the “trail” and into the untrammeled jungle. The man with the machete went ahead and cleared somewhat of a path. Finding a sturdy footing amongst the dense undergrowth was next to impossible.
Without much warning, we stumbled upon Rano (which means “reconciliation”), the silverback and leader of the Titus group. He was by himself, nestled in the bush, munching on the surrounding foliage. Initially we had been instructed to keep about 7 meters (~20 feet) between ourselves and the gorillas, but given the thickness of the jungle and our surprise at stumbling upon him, we were no more than 3 or 4 meters away. We just stood silently and watched as he munched. Eventually the guide instructed the man with the machete to clear a path further along so we could get a better vantage. After a while Rano ambled along, out of view.
We followed the guide deeper into the jungle, eventually coming upon Pato (named after the man who discovered him), a large adolescent male “blackback” who was sitting Indian style under a tree. By this time it had begun to rain lightly—which the gorillas did not like. So they were seeking shelter and not displaying much of the behavior for which they are well-known (running around, playing, chest-beating). And of course we were getting wet too (hurray for my weather sealed camera and lens). On the upside the guide didn’t see any problems letting us get close to him, in some cases within 2-3 meters.
We stumbled upon another male gorilla, Urwibutso (which means “souvenir”), hidden in the bush and looking none too happy, and then a male and barely visible female, Turakora (which means “we walk”) and Imuune (which means “casualty”—she was discovered with a broken leg) who were both seeking shelter from the rain. The gorillas didn’t seem very interested in us, or the rain, and turned away. There was a funny moment where we had been watching the back of Turakora’s head at some distance for several minutes. The rain kept falling, and no one was sure what was supposed to happen next. The guide said, “Well you have 20 minutes left,” and I thought to myself “But yeah, it’s raining, and I’m standing in the jungle on a slippery hillside looking at the back of a gorilla’s head.”
Eventually we returned to Pato, the first blackback, and watched him sit for a while. Then the guide found Rano, the silverback, sheltering itself under a tree, so we stayed with him for the rest of our hour. Obviously we didn’t have anything to compare the experience to, but I got the sense from Oliver’s behavior that it hadn’t been the most spectacular of mountain gorilla encounters. That didn’t bother me. The hike up the volcano and through the jungle and the rare opportunity to hang out with several mountain gorillas “in the mist” (ok, you can call it “rain”) was amazing.
At that point we made our way out of the jungle and back to the mud trail, which thanks to the rain was now 3-4 inches of treacherous goop. We slipped and slid and struggled to keep our balance all the way to the boundary of the park. The rain fell at intervals. We descended between the fields with our ponchos on. By the time we made it back to the campsite, it was after 2pm, and we learned that the other half of our overland group had been back since around 11. Apparently they got the luck of the draw. They stumbled upon their group of gorillas almost immediately after leaving the visitors center, got to experience a lot of animated gorilla activity before the rain—including babies!—and thus returned dry and early. We, on the other hand, looked more hardcore all caked in mud!