I recently enjoyed a sublime holiday in the amazingly beautiful country of Rwanda. You can read my trip reports here:
- Review: KLM A330 (new) Business Class from Amsterdam to Rwanda
- Review: Kigali Serena Hotel
- Review: Bisate Lodge by Wilderness Safaris, Volcanoes National Park
- Review: Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park (today)
- Review: One&Only Nyungwe House (Nyungwe National Park)
- Review: Ruzizi Tented Lodge (Akagera National Park)
- Review: KLM A330 (new) Business Class from Rwanda to Amsterdam (via Uganda)
Today (February 27, 2019): Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda).
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is often described as a life changing travel experience and with good reason. With only an estimated 1000 mountain gorillas left in the world, to observe these gentle giants in their natural habitat ranks among the most epic wildlife holidays in the world. Mountain gorillas make their homes on the bamboo-covered slopes of Volcanoes National Park in northwestern Rwanda, close to the border with Uganda and Congo. About 12 gorilla families in the rainforest are fully habituated to the presence of humans and can be tracked on a daily basis; once they are found, you can stay with them for an awe-inspiring hour, while they go about their daily lives, often just a few feet (meters) away. The strenuous and muddy hike in the jungle can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours (one way), depending on the location of the gorillas, but the phenomenal experience is well worth the efforts. Here’s a review of what to expect on a gorilla trekking and a trip report of my own amazing gorilla adventure, which ranks among my best travel experiences ever.
Have you ever tracked the mountain gorillas? If so, what was your experience? Leave a comment.
In this review (more information below my Youtube clip):
- Volcanoes National Park (home of the mountain gorillas)
- Booking a gorilla permit (+ cost)
- The hike in the forest to the mountain gorillas
- The encounter with the mountain gorillas
- Characteristics of the different gorilla families
1. VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, HOME OF THE GORILLAS
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park shelters the highest number of the critically endangered mountain gorillas in the world. The strategic location of the park roughly two hours by car from Rwanda’s capital Kigali makes it the most accessible place in the world for gorilla trekking. Located in the northwestern Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park is part of the greater Virunga Volcano Conservation Region, which also includes Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park Uganda. The park is home to five giant volcanoes – including Karisimbi, whose summit at 4507 m or 14,787 ft makes it Rwanda’s highest mountain – and is covered in thick rainforest and bamboo. Besides gorillas, Volcanoes National Park is also home to golden monkeys, a variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. The park is known all over the world because of its turbulent history, and of course, its association with Dian Fossey, the world’s most famous primatologist. Some facts:
- The park was first gazetted in 1925 as a small area intended to protect the mountain gorillas, which were facing the threat of extinction as a result of poaching. It was the very first National Park to be created in Africa. In 1929, Volcanoes National Park was extended into Congo, named Albert National Park, and managed by the Belgian colonial authorities. During the early 1960s, the park was divided as Rwanda and Congo gained their independence and by the end of that decade, the park was almost half of its original size.
- In 1967, the American zoologist Dian Fossey – who had been doing research on mountain gorillas in the jungle of Congo – fled from insecurity and established her research base at a place between the Visoke and Karisimbi volcanoes that would become known as Karisoke research center. She spearheaded the conservation campaign of the mountain gorillas and mobilized resources to fight against poaching in this area, a fight she put up until her murder in 1985. She is buried at the research center next to the grave of her favorite gorilla called Digit.
- During the 1994 horrific Rwandan Genocide, the park became a battlefield for the country’s civil war which paralyzed tourism activities until 1999, when the area was deemed to be safe and under control again. In 2005, in a bid to boost conservation and tourism in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda introduced the annual baby naming ceremony for baby gorillas known as ‘Kwita Iziina’ which has seen great results in as far as gorilla population in volcanoes is concerned.
2. BOOKING A GORILLA PERMIT
A gorilla permit in Volcanoes National Park costs USD $1500 USD per person. The funds that are generated from the sale of the permits are used for the running of the National Park. A percentage of the funds are also donated to local communities living adjoining to the parks to contribute to their expansion, development and also improve on the natural resource management within the area. The current fee of $1500 USD was increased in 2017 from $750 USD, so it’s clear that Rwanda is heading for a high–end tourism strategy. However, discounts are possible:
- Tourist who visit Nyungwe National Park and Akagera National Park for a minimum of three days during the low season (November-May) receive a discount of 30% on their gorilla permit.
- A 15% discount is valid for conference tourists who stay in Rwanda pre-or post-conference dates to see the gorillas.
There are two ways of acquiring your gorilla permit:
- You can book your permit via the RDB (Rwanda Development Board), the foremost organization handling tourism in Rwanda. Gorilla permits can be booked at the RDB Tourism and Conservation Reservation Office in person, by use of telephone (+252 57 65 14) or even via email (email@example.com).
- The other (and most convenient) way to acquire a gorilla permit is to book it through a travel agency like a tour operator (I highly recommend Uber Luxe Safaris) or your hotel.
Always keep in mind that you need to be book your permits months in advance (as there are only 96 permits available each day, with a maximum of 8 tourists per gorilla family) and that you need to be older than 16 years to get a permit.
3. THE HIKE IN THE FOREST TO THE MOUNTAIN GORILLAS
Visitors are expected to be at Kinigi – the headquarter of Volcanoes National Park – by 7am early morning. Here, you’ll meet your guide as well as the other travelers in your group (maximum 8 tourists per group). The guide will brief you about the gorilla family that you will visit and the rules of conduct in the presence of these giant gentles. Next you are driven to the starting point of your trek and guided to the rainforest’s edge. Once inside the jungle, the hike becomes more strenuous and can take anything from 30 minutes to as long as 6 hours (one way) depending on the location of the gorilla family that you are tracking: some families are living high up the slopes of the volcanoes in areas that are difficult and demanding to hike, while others are nesting in lower areas close to the forest’s edge. Lacking true trails, the terrain inside the forest is often hilly and rugged with precipitous slopes and muddy paths, and you will need to support yourself using a walking stick and tree branches.
During my trekking, I was assigned to the Sabyinyo group (the most famous and also easiest to find gorilla group in Rwanda) and the hike – mostly on flat terrain – took about 90 minutes, one hour longer than expected, demonstrating that it is difficult to guarantee that the gorillas will be found in the particular place they are expected to be.
Some important remarks/tips regarding the trekking itself:
- You cannot choose the gorilla family that you want to track. However, during the morning briefing at the park’s headquarters, the park rangers will take into account the condition of the travelers: older people will often be assigned to the gorilla families that are easier to reach, while younger and physically fit travelers will often get to track gorilla groups that are located further away from the forest’s edge.
- The chances that you don’t find the gorillas are extremely small. Early morning, before tourists gather at the national park’s headquarters, a group of trackers are sent into the jungle to ascertain the actual location of the gorilla group or their movement, after which they will inform the guide of the tourist groups so that they find a suitable way to reach the family. Those trackers keep a day long vigil on the gorillas, even after tourists have left, to protect the gorillas and also to document their location at sunset (so they can be easily found the next day). In the unlikely case you would not find the gorillas – this only happens around 10 times a year – trekkers are offered a chance to try again the next day.
- As a National Park policy, each group of people tracking a gorilla group is comprised of eight tourists (maximum), three park rangers (including a professional and highly qualified tour guide), and a number of porters. Two of the park rangers carry a rifle in case elephants or buffalos are encountered (one moves in front of the group and the other behind); in case of a charge, they will fire in the air to scare the aggressive animals away although that rarely happens. A porter can be assigned to you when you need help to carry your luggage during the hike (recommended though not compulsory to hire). When you use their services, you are expected to tip them ($15 to $20 USD per porter).
- Make sure that you are dressed appropriately for the gorilla trekking. This includes wearing gloves, long-sleeved shirts and long trousers (not shorts) to protect your hands, arms, and legs from scratches by tree branches, grasses, and stinging nettles. Always carry a rain proof jacket with you because there’s always a chance for (heavy) rain, even in the dry season. Rain proof, sturdy hiking boots and a walking stick (the latter will be provided) are necessary to walk on the slippery, muddy and sometimes steep paths, especially when it rains.
4. THE ENCOUNTER WITH THE GORILLAS
The moment you sight the gorilla group that you have been assigned to, you are only allowed one hour with them. This one hour is one of the most exhilarating moments that you will live to treasure for the rest of your life. What happens during this magical hour will largely depend on the behavior of the gorillas during your visit, and may include playing on tree branches, feeding, caressing one another, social grooming and moving around and about. During my trekking, I was extremely lucky to observe some amazing gorilla behavior, including a baby gorilla touching me and a silverback performing a few nerve-recking bluff charges (which you can watch in my clip below):
There are certain rules you need to stick to in the presence of these wild gorillas:
- You need to maintain a distance of 7 m (23 ft) between a gorilla and yourself. Even when they come closer to you while running and playing around, it’s advisable to try to move away to maintain the recommended distance of 7 m (23 ft).
- You cannot come close to them in case you have a cough, cold or flu because they are close cousins to humans and can end up catching those same diseases.
- You cannot eat or drink in the presence of these animals.
- Your guide will insist that you do not move up and down but instead sit down or squat down when observing and taking photographs of the gorillas. Sudden movements can scare the gorillas or make them aggressive.
- You need to keep voices low and be as silent as possible.
- You cannot use cameras with flashy lights or loud sounds because this can scare them.
- You need to avoid eye contact because they are shy creatures and would perceive direct eye contact as a way of confronting them. Once you realize they are charging by making loud noise or beating their chests, it is advisable to avoid eye contact by lowering your head, this will indicate submission and you don’t want to confront them.
5. CHARACTERISTICS OF THE DIFFERENT GORILLA FAMILIES
Today, there are 12 habituated gorilla groups that can be visited in Volcanoes National Park. This means that 96 gorilla permits are available each day for tourists since each gorilla family can be visited by a group of maximum eight travelers. Surprisingly, each gorilla group has distinct and unique characteristic quiet different from another. Below are the main Rwandan gorilla groups that can be visited (information provided by the official website of Volcanoes National Park):
- The Titus group is the original family named after the silverback Titus which was born during the days of Dian Fossey’s research at Karisoke. Titus lost his family to poachers including his father, uncle and brother; his mother and sister joined other families leaving Titus to be raised by an unrelated male gorilla. According to Dian Fossey, Titus the infant seemed ‘underdeveloped and spindly’ and had difficulty breathing, but Titus overcame these difficulties.
- Susa group (Susa A) is well known as the group studied by Diana Fossey during her time in Rwanda from 1967 to 1985. In 2008, the group of 42 individuals split into two as it had become too large. The breakaway group was later known as Susa B or Karisimbi group. Susa A group is well known for its playful twins of Byishimo & Impano and was named after the Susa River that drains through their home range. The group is composed of 33 members including two silverbacks and inhabits the forests on the lower slopes of Mt. Karisimbi.
- The Karisimbi group is sometimes referred to as Susa B and is the group which split from the original Susa in 2008. It is made up of 16 members including two silverbacks. The group is the hardest to track as it inhabits the upper slopes of Mt. Karisimbi at an altitude of more than 4500 m (14,700 ft) and is only suitable for trackers interested in serious hiking.
- The Amahoro family is known for its peacefulness and congeniality, which has caused its silverback Ubumwe to lose some members into another group called Umubano. The group is composed of 18 members including two silverbacks and is a bit strenuous to track as one has to endure a hike up Mt Bisoke slopes where the group established their home.
- The Umubano group broke away from the Amahoro family as a result of constant battles between Charles and Ubumwe, the two leading silverbacks. Charles consistently challenged the supremacy of the leader Ubumwe and eventually succeeded in breaking away with some members hence forming Umubano group. The group is composed of 13 members including two silverbacks and its name means ‘living together’.
- The Sabyinyo group – which I tracked during my stay in Rwanda – is the easiest group to track, since it inhabits the gentle slopes between Mt. Sabyinyo and Mt. Gahinga, not far from the forest’s edge. The group is popular for its giant silverback known as Guhonda (the largest silverback in the park) which has kept its main challenger, Ryango, out of the family to remain as a lonely silver back. The group is composed of 16 members including three silverbacks. The group was named after the Sabinyo volcano that means the ‘old man’s teeth’.
- The Agashya group was initially led by a silverback called Nyakarima but was later over thrown by Agashya – meaning the ‘News’ – which is now the leader and the family was named after him. The family has grown to 27 members including one silverback (Agashya). The group occupies the same territory with Sabyinyo group but sometimes Agashya takes the family deeper into the mountain when he senses danger.
- The Kwitonda group is a migrant group from Democratic Republic of Congo which was named after its dominant silverback called Kwitonda, which means the ‘Humble one’. Because of its migration background, the group wonders in the lower slopes of Mt. Muhabura and like the Karisimbi group, it is onerous to track as it sometimes moves to the upper slopes. The group is composed of 23 members including four silverbacks.
- The Hirwa group was formed in 2006 by some members of Sabyinyo group and the Agashya group. More gorillas joined in and now the group is composed of 16 members including one silverback. The group inhabits the foothills of Mt. Sabyinyo to the side of Mt Gahinga.
- The Ugenda group is named after the Kinyarwanda word ‘Ugenda’, which means ‘on the move’ or ‘mobile’. Displaying a unique behavior of roaming from place to place, the group consists of 11 members including two silverbacks and is very difficult to track since it has no particular home.
- The Bwenge group was formed in 2007 by the silverback Bwenge. The group occupies the slopes of the Karisoke volcano between Karisimbi and Bisoke mountains and has witnessed dark times when its six infants died. However, the family has recovered and now has 11 members including one silverback. Bwenge is the Kinyarwanda word which means ‘Wisdom’ and it’s no wonder that this was the group that featured in the Movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’.
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