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Gorilla Trek – Virunga National Park, Rwanda

January 31, 2010

Hot pursuit! On the road to the park.

The first thing that makes the Gorilla trek in Rwanda’s Virunga National Park something special is the scramble up the slopes of one of the volcanic peaks, through heavy vegetation and sometimes

Surrounded by volcanic peaks

Charles, Inyongera, Bunyenyeri & family

steep muddy trails.

Focused on your footing and on dodging the odd wickedly barbed outgrowth that seem to snatch at you from harmless looking foliage,  it’s only at the rest stops or in turning a sudden sharp corner where the tree canopy opens out a bit, that you realise how beautiful the surrounding area is: long, softly curved hillsides covered in white daisy-like pyrethrum giving way to conifer trees that clad the upper slopes to where the forest proper begins; all of which is framed by distant volcanic cones, some neatly formed and others jagged-tooth, looming above the valleys. This is a lovely place, at a few thousand feet above the valley; from this height, soft atmospherics distract from the ground-level poverty of the region, a reality that dawns as you bump along in the 4WD van to and from the setting-off point for the trek…

A second element that makes the trek so special is the silence that falls over the group as, high up on a plateau, the guides start radio discussion with tracker colleagues to identify where, in the dense foliage spanning away in every direction from where we stand, puffing, the gorilla group we are here to see has wandered. A (literally) breathless few minutes of anticipation settles over us, as we wait for confirmation of a sighting. Then finally, contact – and for the first time we are off the well-worn path into heavy vegetation, beating our way to where the gorilla family we’ve come to see has been spotted.

Our family group comprises nine individuals, with a dominant male silverback and two ‘wives’ as heads of the family. It was a break-away, we had been told at the briefing by our guide, from a larger group; this male, brother to the other group’s dominant male, had ‘negotiated’ a split; 14 members stayed with the old silverback, and 8 followed the young buck. It beats fighting; our guide, Mr Beck, tells us that males will sometimes lose an eye or break a limb in dominance struggles. With just 300 gorillas on the Rwanda side of the border, and only 450 or so elsewhere comprising the world’s total, peaceful accord is a very good thing. The armed guards who accompany us, and the strict protocol drilled into us before launching off on everything from dos and don’ts about food to how to go to the toilet in ways that won’t contaminate the park, are welcome symbols of a resolve to preserve these vital (and as increasingly acknowledged, valuable) creatures.

Every day the family group wanders to a new area, trampling out an area for socialising, for lounging around between foraging trips, and then ultimately setting out a sleeping area for the night. Smaller gorillas make their sleeping quarters in trees; the bigger animals stay earth-bound and make a nest for themselves from branches and grass.

Another rule given to us was: stay 7 metres away and make no sudden noises or movement. Once we emerge into the gorilla-made clearing and allow ourselves to be marshaled into a viewing space against a mud bank by the guards, we take in the gorillas in their own environment, for the first time. Initially, not much happens; they have just fed and are calm, which means that most are snoozing. Two babies, just 4 months old, provide the initial entertainment; while his mother snoozes, one boy tried repeatedly to climb a thin branch, only to have it bend under his weight and tip him on the ground. After a few minutes, a series of low grunts from our guide (who had explained gorillas have a repertoire of 16 sounds) animates the group gradually; the male sits up, gives himself some leisurely scratches, and then embarks on some social grooming of one of the females. Others stir and start moving around; within minutes, gorillas are going about their rest-time business, walking this way and that, oblivious of the humans to whom they walk within a metre or two with complete self-assurance.

Adolescent energies: 90 seconds, then puffed out

You go to see the gorillas expecting anthropomorphic behaviour, and suspecting that you go seeking it. The reality is stunningly close to what you’ve heard. For the single hour that guests are permitted to stay with the gorilla group, in order to minimise stress, the sense of common heritage is profound. A dog may ‘smile’ and bound

Family time

up to you joyfully, tail crashing away in a frenzy to go for a walk – but a gorilla’s  expressions and social moments are simply jaw-dropping…. from the intense watchfulness of the mother tolerating the silly child as he or she scrambles, stumbles and pulls on parental ears, to the smothering hugs as if to say ‘enough, sit still for a minute’….or from the leisurely grooming of self and partner, thick fingers neatly picking out pests from thick fur, to the loud family argument of the silverback, rising up to full height with a throaty shout, at the late arrival of a spouse and her child from a foraging trip — domestic “rumble in the jungle”, to plagarise from the 1974 Foreman/Ali boxing match across the border in D.R. Congo (formerly Zaire)… knowing full well that this silverback could have decked Mr. Ali in 30 seconds flat — but right now all it chooses to do is scratch its armpit with a blase glance towards the skinny apes with the cameras.

The hour flies; I left exhilarated and slightly exhausted from taking it all in, snapping off pictures and some video but trying to avoid losing the moment peering through a viewfinder. I know I’d be (very) easily persuaded to bring a visitor back here some time.

Charles chills out

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sorny Dor permalink
    February 1, 2010 12:32 am

    Nice photos, shame about the bank eh!

  2. Andie T permalink
    February 2, 2010 11:07 pm

    This is awesome!! What about ‘jogging: sights and sounds’ and ‘journeying to Nyagatare’? 😀


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