Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Mzungu in the Mist

One of the main highlights of the first section of “Africa Encompassed” is tracking the gorillas in the Volcano National Park.  Over the last week, we have been gradually making our way through Kenya and Uganda into Rwanda.

Mountain gorillas live in both Uganda and Rwanda but for a variety of reasons, it is felt that Rwanda is the better location, not least because you are not required to trek through the Bwindi “Impenetrable” Forest.

There is much written about tracking the gorillas and it all leads you to believe that it will be an arduous journey climbing through the dense, humid forest on your hands and knees with hazards at every turn.  As such, much preparation is needed: as much skin covered as possible and double layering to prevent the spiky needles from making an impact on your arms and legs.

The experience begins at the visitor centre where you can enjoy delicious Rwandan tea and coffee.  As you will only have bush toilets for the next 4-5 hours however, you should consume this in moderation.  After a briefing from your guide (ours was Oliver), you set off to your chosen group of gorillas.  Only eight people a day may track each set of gorillas and there are currently eight groups living in the forest.  The permits come in at a hefty $500 pp for non-residents but as we discovered, it was worth every penny.  We were allocated to the Sabyinyo group and so we set off in a rather crowded jeep to get to the starting point for our tracking.

This is a very professional operation.  In addition to our main guide, two experienced gorilla trackers had already been out since sunrise tracking the gorillas to help us aim for the right spot.  Each day these trackers follow the gorillas from sunrise to sunset when the gorillas go to bed.  As they will never move more than about 40 minutes away from where they slept the previous night, the trackers know where to start their task each morning.  Once they find the gorillas again, the radio through to the guide so that he can adjust the trekking path as necessary.  We also employed the services of a local porter to carry our non-essentials (food, waterproofs, suntan cream etc..) and his machete proved to be very useful in helping to clear our path through dense areas of forest. He will also be there to give you a shove if you are struggling to get up a tricky bit of the climb!  And last but not least, at the front and back of the group, there is man with an AK47… apparently to fire into the sky to scare away any aggressive forest elephants or buffalo but if you look on a map you’ll see just how close we were to Congo and so I think you can draw your own conclusions as we did.

The planned outfit worked a treat and I returned bite and sting free: thermal leggings, walking trousers, thick walking socks (trousers tucked in), long sleeve t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, neck scarf, thin skiing gloves (gardening gloves in the porter rucksack as a back up!) and cap.  You are given a walking stick to assist your progress and this proved essential.  The tracking started at an altitude of 2,400m (we reached about 2,600m) and depending on where the gorillas are hanging out, it can take you anywhere between 30 mins and a few hours to reach them.  In our case it took about 1 ½ hours of enjoyable walking through a mixture of open fields and light and dense bamboo forest.  We were walking in the footsteps of forest elephants and buffalo and some of the earth was fairly wet and churned up (it is rainy season here in Rwanda).  I’d like you to think that I was gazelle like in my ascent and descent through the forest but overconfidence and a more hippo-like walking style resulted in some very mucky boots!

Finding the gorillas was a very special moment.  You leave everything apart from your camera 100m away with the porters and AK47 men and pay very close attention to the guide’s instructions.  The gorillas are generally very relaxed in the presence of humans but the ideal scenario is to remain at least 7m away.  The guide and one of the trackers kept us all together as a group and were alert to the arrival /movement of any particular gorilla.  The Sabyinyo group contains 12 members including a three week old baby.  There was a slightly scary moment early on when the main Silverback ran across the guide but we were assured that he was just playing Oliver has been tracking the gorillas for twelve years so they are firm friends.

We moved up and down through the forest and watched these beautiful creatures at incredibly close range.  A 7m distance isn’t necessarily possible in dense forest especially when the gorillas decide to move and come closer!  We generally watched one gorilla at a time but also saw a couple of mothers with their young babies.  All the gorillas were busy feeding themselves from the vegetation in addition to general lounging around and much bottom scratching.  It is worth noting that many of these gorillas do seem to be playing to their audience – lying down on their sides with their backsides to you or lying on their backs eating and covering their faces.  For the last ten minutes, we were with Silverback no 2 who was eating away just 2m in front of us.  It seemed as though our guide had communicated with him (lots of funny grunting) and and so he humoured us whilst focussing on the important task of leaf eating.

When around the gorillas there are strict rules about no eating, drinking or bush toilet trips and absolutely no flash photography.  As such, when tracking the gorillas in dense forest (some groups can be found in open fields), photography can be tricky.  Quite a few blurry photos had to be deleted but the dappled sunshine was kind at times and some wonderful shots taken.  You have to be careful at any rate that you don’t spend all your time viewing the gorillas through the lens of a camera but take the time to just watch and enjoy.  Whilst the photos can be challenging, the very clear advantage of the forest is just how close you can be.  In an open field, the 7m rule will always apply.  Oliver always kept us in a tight group and when a gorilla decided it was time to move on or approach, we were kept away to ensure our and the gorilla’s safety.  If Oliver was relaxed then so was I.  I even trusted him when a gorilla was moving around above my head in a nest in a tree!

In the end, the trekking was not arduous but very enjoyable.   The layering was necessary but we were very lucky with the weather and had no downpours.  What a privilege to interact so closely with these fabulous animals.  I'll add some photos once I have a stronger WiFi connection.


  1. I just want you to know that I LOVE your blog and keep coming back for updates
    Travel safe and have fun!

  2. Cath,

    I am loving your blog. The gorillas sound amazing, and I am very impressed with your level of preparation for the jungle trek. Keep the updates coming, I'll be reading them,