Day 8: Gorillas!

I have so much to share about my day, so I apologize in advance that this post is long. Today was really one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I posted a few gorilla pictures on Instagram–> and will post more later. 

We drove 3 hours north from Kigali yesterday and spent the night in Musanze at a lovely hotel called Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel. It was very nice and had a beautiful garden, pool, and view of the volcanoes. We left the hotel early and drove about 30 minutes to the entrance of the Volcanoes National Park.

We met our guide, Bernice, who accompanied us for the entire trek. She told us about the family of gorillas that we would be visiting (Titus) and all the family members we might see. Our family was a group of 12, and we ended up seeing about 6 of them. We then drove in to the base of the Bisoke Volcano, where we met our porters. These are men who will carry your bag and help you up and down the trail, and I was go glad to have Gustauve help me. Many of the porters previously worked as poachers. The poachers would set traps for other animals (to feed their families) and ended up injuring or killing gorillas unintentionally. 

Now the porters make an income and are part of the growing conservation movement. We were encouraged to hire them, even if we didn’t need help, but I think all but the 22 year old in our group did need help. The trails were uneven, muddy, and I slipped multiple times. The altitude made it tough to climb quickly or with my usual sea-level agility. I wa happy to pay $12 for several hours of help with tough climbing and cheering me up the mountain. Our hike up and down was about 4 miles total and took us about 3 hours (plus an hour of observing the gorillas).

We spent about 1.5 hours hiking up to the edge of the forest, where the trail becomes so thick with vegetation that it’s nearly impassable. There we met the trackers, who go out early in the morning to locate each gorilla family. Bernice said that there are about 20 gorilla families in the area, with 10 being accessible only to researchers and the others accessible by one tour group per day for one hour only. This prevents the gorillas from becoming too accustomed to humans, which could impact their behavior and potentially bring in illness. We were not allowed to eat or drink and were cautioned to sneeze into our arm to avoid transmitting germs to the gorillas. Humans share 98% of our genes with gorillas, and they are susceptible to the same illnesses we are. 

Within 15 minutes of hiking inside the forest, our gorilla family appeared. They were very content to lounge while we took photos and were awed by their beauty, size, and gentle nature. Bernice and the trackers communicated with the gorillas by making a sound (like clearing your throat with your mouth closed). This is thought to mean hello, I will not hurt you. Apparently the memory of the poachers still lingers in the minds of the older gorillas.

I had no idea we would be so close. The rules are that you should maintain about 7 meters (22 feet), but we were much closer most of the time. The gorillas would walk by us, within touching distance, without a second thought. We saw 2 silverbacks, one of whom is the alpha leader of the group. Silverbacks are adult male gorillas, but only the alpha is allowed to reproduce with the females in the family. Cheating is not tolerated, and is punished by biting. We saw two black backs, which are males who are no longer juveniles but are not yet silverbacks. We also saw an adult female and her 4 month old baby (see picture–>). Once the female becomes old enough, she will leave the group to prevent in-breeding. This is a pretty amazing instinct.

One of the most entertaining parts of our trek was watching a 3 and 9 year old male play-fighting. The 3 year old would chase, wrestle, and push the older male. He would beat his chest then attack. They chased each other in circles until the older male would tire. Then the 3 year old would start pushing and taunting him again. I could have watched them for hours. I took some video, so will post that when I can. 

When our hour was done, we headed back down the hill (more slipping and sliding) and said goodbye to our porters and trackers. We then went to the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge and enjoyed a buffet of Rwandan food. They cleaned our hiking boots as we ate, which was well worth the $2 I paid.

One of the other highlights of these past two days was getting out of Kigali and seeing the countryside and people who live there. These are the same women that we treat for fistula, so to see how they carry full jerrycans of water or bags of potatoes on their heads, along with the babies on their backs and the men who use their bicycles to transport enormous loads of produce or water or doors and windows…and the hills here are very steep. This is called the land of 1000 hills for a very good reason. 

Must sleep now. More soon. My last day is tomorrow!