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Giants in the Jungle – Gorilla Trekking Rwanda

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A Day with Mountain Gorillas - Trekking through Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

A Day with Mountain Gorillas

Trekking through Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

I was drawn to Rwanda through my curiosity of their wildlife conservation efforts. I wanted to understand how gorilla trekking has helped the mountain gorilla population recover. To satisfy that curiosity meant traveling to Rwanda and trekking into the jungle in search of wild mountain gorillas. I knew this would be unlike any travel experience. Perhaps even a little crazy. Was it wise to try our luck with 400-pound giants and their families?

The reality hit me days before the actual trek. I felt the same nerves that sky-diving or public speaking evokes. It was difficult to suppress the butterflies that were fluttering about in my stomach when I knew that the following day I would be in the company of the king of the jungle.

Our trek began at 7AM at the park headquarters. Huddled together with the other trekkers in an open-air welcome area, we awaited our mountain gorilla family assignment and the arrival of our trek Rangers. As hikes to different families range from one to four hours, thorough family assignments were important to ensure that we were paired with hikers of comparable fitness levels.

The rangers welcomed us with infectious enthusiasm. My excitement levels shot up; we were so close! The rules for our Gorilla Trek they announced were straight and direct:

  1. Do not touch the mountain gorillas, especially their children

  2. Do not run from the mountain gorillas. Always move slowly without any sudden motions.

  3. Keep your voices low and do not yell.

  4. Keep a safe distance from the gorillas—a minimum of seven meters (21 feet) was mandatory.

All of this seemed to be common sense. Then again, my life has yet to place a 400lb silverback mountain gorilla in my path. How I would react on the spot, I do not know. My gorilla confrontation reactions were untested. These timely reminders were therefore very welcome.

Francois and Jolie were our primary trek Rangers. Francois was the original porter of Diane Fossey. He is said to have spent more time with each family than any other Ranger. He considers them his family. Jolie had dreamed of becoming a ranger her whole life. Her goal is to educate and inspire others about mountain gorilla conservation. We were in the best hands. I considered myself very lucky to have them as our guides.

Each trekking group has a maximum of eight trekkers; we had six. After brief introductions, we headed to our Jeeps with plans to reconnect at the park entrance.

Our designated entrance to the National Park was a twenty-minute drive from the park headquarters, which we did not waste. Francois and Jolie offered us an energetic language lesson on communicating with Gorillas. It warmed my heart that they felt I was confident enough to engage a gorilla in conversation. I could picture the succinct conversation that would take place: “Do not pick me up and hurl me away. Thank you, giant gorilla.”


Locals farming along the hillsides as we make our way to the entrance of Volcanoes National Park.


Hillsides of Rwanda while hiking to the entrance of Volcanoes National Park.

We hiked from the car through local lands to the park entrance. At the entrance was a six-foot-high weathered stone wall that prevents the dense jungle from overtaking the hillsides. This was Volcanoes National Park, home to mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, jungle elephants, and many more majestic inhabitants of the wild.

We rested along the wall while we awaited the radio call that would inform us of the location of our Gorilla family. Every morning, a group of trackers trek into the park in search of the Gorilla families. Because the gorillas are constantly moving within their territory, these trackers stay with them from dusk till dawn to provide their accurate location for trekkers and conservation projects.

The difficulty of the hike to our assigned mountain gorilla family was categorized as ‘intermediate’. I felt it to be much exaggerated. It was also clear that ‘hike’ was defined very differently by us and the organizers—perhaps it was lost in translation. Our hike was just over an hour, nothing like the three-to-four-hour hikes that other trekkers I had spoken to had endured. However, onward we climbed. We had ground to cover.

There was no trail here. Hacking through the Jungle, Francois cleared our path while Jolee maintained our group formation from the rear. He wielded a blunt, rusted machete with might and sliced through dense jungle brush. I did ask if I could wield the machete and forge the path. With a smile and soft laughter, he simply said no. A devastating blow, but understood.


Francois leading us towards the Mountain Gorillas.


Dense Jungle terrain everywhere you turn as you forge through the Jungle.

The paths were very dense. At times, the jungle wall would open up to natural clearings, only for us to duck our heads and dive back into the brush. Thankfully, everyone in the group was relatively fit. We kept up with our leader, stayed together and pressed onward—no stops. We had gorillas to find.

 We were adventurers on an expedition, exploring new lands. We were uncovering secrets of the dense jungle and its mysterious wildlife. It only felt natural to tap into the adventurous spirit we are born with and feed into our curiosity of the unknown. We were miles away from any nearby town, sweating profusely and legs slowly beginning to tire, but there was no place I would rather be.

It was an hour’s hike until we reached the trackers. They gave our rangers the directions to the mountain gorillas. While we took a short break, I decided to leave my heavy backpack and extra gear behind. I wanted to be agile and stress-free in the gorilla’s house. Just as we set off, we were given pointers again on how to interact with the gorillas. The excitement that everyone felt was palpable. We were all giddy with nervousness.

With all of us at his back, Francois cleared one more path through the brush. This was a much denser area of the National Park. There was only enough room for us to walk in single-file. It was electrifying to feel the leaves and branches of the brush on my skin. Our group of six then split up and followed different rangers in different directions. Suddenly, we heard it: the first sound of a gorilla. Then another. And then another. They were coming from all around, and our heads could not swivel quick enough. 


Trekking through the dense Jungle terrain looking for Mountain Gorillas.

After another five meters, we stopped. Atop an old fallen tree ahead was a mountain gorilla—an adolescent—climbing towards us. The look on its face suggested intense curiosity. I reached for my camera and quickly snapped his portrait. This moment felt surreal. No walls, safari vehicles, or barriers. The only thing between us was the jungle floor. Our rangers kept us moving into a jungle clearing up ahead. “There are more,” they told us. And there were, indeed, many more.


At a small clearing, we looked around and realized we were entirely surrounded by mountain gorillas. They paid little notice to us as they went about their day. Young gorillas were fighting along the jungle floor. Small groupings were foraging and eating colorful fruits from high and low. A mother sat under a large tree cradling a newborn, only months old. The gorillas were constantly moving, and so did we. Our rangers continuously pulled us towards the optimal viewing spot.

I was living out a travel dream.

Sixty minutes flashed by. The six of us gathered together, ready to bid farewell to this sanctuary of joy and wonder. And then..

“Sit down. Sit down!” Jolie shouted to our group. We all dropped to our knees in an instant, scanning our surroundings frantically. What was it? Are we in danger? Moments ago, we were focused on an incredible Silverback mountain gorilla that was sitting directly in front of us. One by one, gorillas emerged from the rustling brush behind and approached us. We dared not move as the crossed through our group.

As I captured the scene before me, there was a gentle squeeze on my arm. I knew this was not a fellow trekker, as they were all in front of me. This could only be a gorilla, who was now grabbing my arm. This was it. I was about to be dragged away.

My heart was racing. At a sloth’s pace, without moving my torso, I turned my head and looked behind me. It was a baby gorilla. “There is a gorilla on me,” I whispered loudly to Kristen, who was crouched next to me.

Her eyes widened and her cheeks flushed. “Jolie, Jolie!” Kristen proclaimed in a hushed voice, trying to capture her attention.

It was at this moment that I vividly recalled an important trekking rule: do not interact with the gorillas, especially their children . It was perfect timing. However, it was questionable if I could actually communicate to the baby’s parents that it grabbed me and not the other way around, if they chose to turn their around around in my direction.

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As Jolie realized my impending doom, she rushed over fearlessly and challenged the baby gorilla, who scampered away playfully. My life was saved.

This experience left a profound impact on me. A community has worked together to create a harmonious balance between them and their wildlife. While it is not perfect, and still challenges ahead – it is a strong positive step!

Read more about how Rwanda’s Gorilla Trekking program has helped Mountain Gorillas climb back from the brink of extinction.

Thinking about Traveling to Rwanda? Great – do it! Check out some of these travel resources.

Rwanda Travel Packing List and Download

Gorilla Trekking Guidelines from Volcanoes National Park Rwanda

Responsible Tourism and Gorilla Tracking from Visit Rwanda

 

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