Recent goals… get vaccinated, start ticking things off my bucket list. In April I got my second dose of Pfizer; not long after, I got on a plane for Rwanda. To see the Mountain Gorillas.
There are only about 604 in the world. They live in one place, the Verunga Mountains that spans Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. They do not survive in captivity. (There are also about 340 in the Bwindi forest of Uganda but many primatologists believe these are a different sub species).
I chose to see them in Rwanda. In part because of the amazing focus the country has on conservation, in part because this is where Dian Fossey did her research for 18 years before she was murdered and in part because of the luxury lodges. I am a girl who likes her comfort! That said, seeing them was worth getting covered in mud. April is rainy season.
The adventure starts at 7 am, at the park headquarters. I had a 5:45 wakeup call and a quick breakfast before heading to the briefing, meeting my guide and discovering which family I would be visiting. The gorilla family you see depends on the number of fellow trekkers and everyone’s overall fitness levels. You get divided into groups. I was beyond lucky… I was the only person trekking my morning. I had the Muhoza family to myself.
A permit costs $1500 usd. For one trek, for one person. 10% goes directly to the local community to build schools, health centers and roads. Some goes to a fund that reimburses farmers when gorillas damage crops.
The permit also covers the costs of the trackers and guides, employing locals. Many are former poachers. Poaching and loss of habitat are the biggest threats to these gentle giants. The government and NGO’s work hard to ensure everyone benefits from preserving the gorillas and the forest.
There are 12 gorilla families that have been habituated to human visitors. It can take between 1 and 4 hours of hiking to reach them. The trackers follow & protect them all day long until they go to sleep. Gorillas build a new nest every night. They sleep alone except for babies who stay with their mums. The trackers rush out in the mornings to be there when they wake up radioing the guides where to bring the guests.
Once you arrive at your family you get a strict one hour to observe them. Pre Covid, guests were divided into groups of 8. Now the max is 6. Mountain gorillas share 98% of our DNA. They are susceptible to our diseases. Covid is a huge risk. Everyone has to wear a new surgical mask and stay about 10 meters away. It sounds far, it isn’t. Each family is only visited once a day. Not many permits are sold.
I reached my family after walking for half an hour the stone wall edge of the park and a further half hour in the forest. The guide hacks a path with a machete. Four hours would have been exhausting, half an hour was exhilarating. Hiking boots are a must (I don’t know how my boys did it sneakers). Gators and gloves help, there are lots of nettles and prickly things. I also hired a porter from the local town. Not only did he carry my bag but he helped me in the mud and climbing over logs. The fee is only $10 (I gave a huge tip). He made my life so much easier and it further supports the local community.
Each family has a dominant silver back male. The hair on a male’s back changes color when he reach maturity. My Muhoza family also had a few young males, four adult females and lots of children. The Silverback was regal and relaxed, the mothers pretty chilled and the kids so adorable and playful! Mountain gorilla fur is longer and thicker than other species so they can live in the colder higher elevation. They eat a lot. Males consume 75 pounds of food a day, females about 40 pounds. Every nose print is unique (like our fingerprints). Adults spend most of their time on the ground; the young play & climb in trees. Neither like rain.
Was it worth it? A huge YES! My experience was special and unique. Most people have to pay 15K for a private tour. Watching them was a delight. It reminded me of Saturdays at the park when my kids were young. They are majestic, adorable and quite human. I felt honored and humbled. Everyone I met said the same thing.
While most people do see the gorillas there is no guarantee … after going all this way, it is probably worth buying two permits and trekking twice.
Are gorillas on your bucket list?