Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda is an experience like no other. Our Gorilla Trek was the ultimate opportunity to observe – very close-up – the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda. This is a truly exclusive program. Only 4,500 people per year can obtain permits to participate.
Ed & I committed to this about 18 months ago. Only 96 permits are issued daily and you need to book far in advance. They are not cheap. Leave it at that. Logistically, not the easiest of locations to get to either.
Early in the morning, everyone assembles at the entrance to Volcanoes National Park. It is there that the guides jockey for “the best Gorilla families” to suit their people. Once everyone is assigned to a group, the 12 groups drive to their start locations, which are based on the general area where their Gorilla Group is known to be. For that reason, the drive to a particular start point can be as much as 30 minutes. Each Gorilla family has a fairly extensive territory they call home and defend.
On the first day, our guide, Lyn, who was incredibly knowledgeable, capable and knew everybody in Rwanda – got us placed with the Kwitonda Gorilla Group, which is one of the largest families, with gorillas of all ages, including lots of babies.
The Kwitonda Gorilla Group
You can actually read the histories of these families on-line. I’d like to share a little bit about the Kwitonda Group with you. They were the first Gorilla family we observed in our Gorilla Trek.
Kwitonda Gorilla Group Family is one of the Mountain Gorilla groups living in Volcanoes National Park.
The Family group is named after Kwitonda, a Silverback male who died in 2012. The word Kwitonda is derived from a Kinyarwanda (Rwandan dialect) word meaning ‘Humble One’.
The group is now led by a Silverback called Akarevuro. The Kwitonda Gorilla Group family currently has 34 members including 4 Silverbacks.
The Kwitonda Gorilla Group family is known in history for migrating. Currently, it wanders in the lower slopes of Mount Karisimbi and Mount Muhabura. The slopes make this Kwitonda Gorilla Group one of the hardest to trek also considering the fact that it keeps moving far in the thick forest areas that cannot be accessed easily by the trekkers.
Yes, I italicized that part. I thought I was a decent little hiker. But nothing prepared me for uncut forest.
Here’s the picture. 8 actual participants, each with a minimum of one porter to carry their “stuff” and assist them up the slope. We had 2 experienced guides. They carry “in-case” rifles. These men are experts in the particular Gorilla family and had been visiting with them for years. Our group was led by 2 men with machetes to carve out a path through the forest. In addition, there were 3 trackers in the forest who were searching for the Family. While the trackers had a general idea where they would be, it’s pretty difficult to find them in the heavy woods.
Our trek began with a hike through fields of potatoes and beans planted by local villagers. I saw villagers hoeing and planting by hand. We stopped at the stone fence that surrounds Volcanoes National Park. The fence keeps elephants, buffalo and gorillas from traipsing over the village fields. We climbed over the fence and across a rickety wood barrier to start the official Gorilla Trek.
We trekked through the woods, up the slopes, under branches, over stumps and elephant-trashed trees. The hike up took about 2 ½ hours, some of it was in heavy mud. We went up and down. I must credit my porter, Dany, who schlepped me up some of the steep muddy areas and held back branches from hitting me in the face. The internet was right, this was a highly mobile Gorilla Group. They did not make it easy. It was certainly an exhilarating hike up.
And when we got closer to the Family, I could feel eyes on me. I guess they were observing me!!
We were privileged to spend 1 hour with the family. That is the maximum amount of time for the Gorillas to have human interaction.
Viewing The Family
The family does not all stay together. They hang out in different groups within the larger family. Because of this, I did not see Akarevuro, the Silverback leader. I did see two of the other silverbacks. They are huge.
The young gorillas – the babies and adolescents, are very active. I think they like their daily 1-hour interaction. There was one baby gorilla with was swinging on a branch near me. She really wanted my cross-body camera bag. For that reason, the guide had me move back.
The Gorilla mothers were watching their offspring. The 3-year olds were chasing each other around a tree. Some of them were simply snoozing.
While I was watching this family-segment, I could hear other gorillas moving in the woods around me. Certainly, they are free to do whatever they want. One literally brushed against my pant leg as she passed by me.
I took lots of photos and videos. Finally, I stopped looking through the camera and simply watched and observed.
I enjoyed the interactions between the mothers and their children. The antics of the babies were a joy to see.
It was an honor to watch them in their own environment as they went about their day.
The Trek Back Down
The hour went by so quickly. As a result, the guides told us to follow them and we re-united with our porters and machete people to go back down the slope. It was pretty steep but Dany was there to hold on to me when I slid in the mud. In contrast to the trek up, the trip down the slope took only 30 minutes. Finally, we trekked a mile through a different village’s potato field to get to a road where our guide and driver could meet us. I saw an old woman walking, bent over almost in half, supported with a walking stick. She was the village elder, a 90 year-old woman with over 80 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
During the trek to the ending point, we passed a community well. I took a photo of a Family at the Well. If you want to read about the family, you can click HERE.
Below are some photos of the Kwitonda Gorilla Group.
I am also sharing some photos from the Hirwa Group. This was the Gorilla Family we observed on our second Gorilla Trekking experience.