Walking with Gorillas
By Kathleen Ricker
It was a long strenuous hike. Our guides were swinging their machetes back and forth to make a path through the jungle. Sweat was dripping down my face and my knees were shaking in pain from keeping my balance in the mud. My bare skin was being attacked by mosquitos and stinging nettles. We had been hiking for a little over 2 hours but it seemed like forever. This was my second time in Virunga National Park which is one of very few places you can find Mountain Gorillas still in the wild. This part of Congo still has a lot of problems with poaching. Gorillas are killed mostly for bush meat but also for their land.
Today we were going to meet a family of 9 gorillas. Three Silverbacks, four little ones and two females. This was my 5th time trekking to see Gorillas in Africa. Second time out to Africa in 6 months to see them. I set a goal for myself 4 years ago to travel the world and see wildlife in their natural habitat. Gorillas were pretty high on my list.
Finally, we reached the trekkers. They told us the family was just around the corner. We put on our face masks. These masks prevent the transfer of germs between us and the gorillas. We are so close genetically that even a small cold can be transferred back and forth between our two species.
I got my cameras ready. I had three cameras with me one with a 150-600 lens so I could get close ups and one with my 24-70 lens for portraits. I also had my 70-200 lens in my bag which came in handy. In my pocket I had a little point and shoot that I would use for video. We have to stay a minimum of 6 feet from the gorillas but the gorillas can move as freely as they want. The little ones, like all little kids are often curious so they will come a bit closer which I had learned while traveling in Bwindi.
We started towards where the family was. From one of the bushes we could hear the grunt of a silverback. He was letting us know he was there. Our guide grunted back letting him know it was safe. We turned the corner and there just laying out under the trees was the beautiful Munyaga Group. As we walked toward them Jason, my husband felt a pull on his shoe lace. One of the younger gorillas was laying under some brush and grabbed his lace as he was walking by. As he looked down the little guy let go of his lace and shot out from under the brush to join his family. In the center of the group was Bilali the oldest female. She was watching over the three little ones as they ran around wrestling. I sat and watched her for awhile. She was so beautiful. Her facial expressions reminded me of any mother who was tired and her kids just wouldn’t nap. She sat straight up and I watched as her eyes grew heavy and closed for just a minute until one of the little ones jumped on her. At one point Bilali and I made eye contact. We both sat and stared at each other. I just melted into her big brown eyes wondering what was going through her mind. The books will tell you not to make eye contact with wild animals... I disagree. Unless there is aggression I find making eye contact engraves those moments and encounters in your mind forever.
These gorillas are habituated but still extremely wild. Habituated gorillas means that they have been made familiar with humans. Gorillas who are not habituated will typically just move or hide when humans are nearby. Many Gorilla families associate humans with poaching or kidnapping of their babies for zoos. Even habituated groups are extremely protective of newborns. While trekking with Gorillas in Uganda our guide got a little too close to one of the newborns. The mother sounded alarmed and within seconds the Silverback had crashed through the brush up the hill and started swiping at our guide. I was sitting on the ground in front of our guides feet as this silverback came charging. I watched in awe. This male gorilla with his teeth barred could have easily taken down the guides and myself (since I was the closest to the gorilla) but he didn't. The gorilla didn't even seem to notice me sitting on the ground. He charged and swiped at the guides for about 10 seconds. Our guide was able to calm him down so we could continue our experience but he kept a constant eye on us the whole time making sure to keep his family safe.
Habituation can take two to three years. It’s a process where trekkers will come across a wild family of gorillas and essentially join their family. They will eat like them, travel with them, behave like them. During this time they are learning more about each individual gorilla in the group. They learn how they behave and their different characteristics. With time, these gorillas get used to these trekkers and then the trekkers give each individual gorilla a name based on their personality. Once they are sure that these mountain gorillas are comfortable they bring a group of scientists or journalists to visit them. If everything goes well they open the family up for public trekking.
There are roughly 880 Mountain Gorillas left on our planet. They are only found in two isolated groups. One in the Virunga volcanos which spans the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and one in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
I’ve been to all three locations to see the Gorillas and DRC’s Virunga Park is my favorite although Bwindi National Park plays a very close second. Bwindi is home to 480 gorillas which is half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. While all the locations are mountainous. Bwindi feels more like a tropical rainforest and where you would imagine gorillas to be found. Bwindi is also home to many other primates, some of the most rare birds, and forest elephants which I have yet to see!
In Bwindi I was able to visit the Nshongi Group twice in 9 months. The Nshongi group is the largest family of gorillas in Bwindi with about 18 members but they often split off into smaller families. They were named after the Nshongi River where this group was first found.
In June 2016, I trekked with the Nshongi Group when I met this little guy named Raha (which means someone that likes enjoying) who was about 3 or 4 years old. He was jumping around in the tree tops banging his chest and then falling down rolling in the leaves laughing. He loved our attention. He climbed from tree to tree making sure that we were watching him the whole time. In March 2017, I was back with the Nshongi group and within minutes I saw Raha again. This time I would have the experience of a lifetime. Tired from the uphill trek I sat in the brush and photographed one of the mama’s and her little babies as she was cuddling him. All a sudden out of the corner of my eye I catch Raha coming right at me. I stayed still to see what he would do. My guide who was not far behind me told me to pick up my camera so he doesn’t grab it. I did what I was told. Raha moved right in front of me. Like my guide said at first he reached for the camera but I moved it before he had a chance to grab it. He had this curious look in his eye and he reached out and touched my leg. My heart was racing in excitement and then he did it again! After the second time he jumped out of the way and moved to sit right next to me. I sat there with tears sitting in the corner of my eye barely breathing. His hand on my leg felt so human. Just a gentle curious touch to see what I felt like. For an animal lover this was the ultimate moment. For a minute I felt like I was Dian Fossey an amazing researcher that lived and died with her Gorillas. You should never ever approach wildlife. However, under the right circumstances, if you are calm and patient sometimes wildlife will interact with you. Always remember wildlife is still wild and it is still extremely dangerous.
Each trek with these beautiful animals has been so different and so magical. You only get one hour with the gorillas which is never enough time. I could spend the whole day just watching them. The more I look at them the more similarities I see between Gorillas and Humans from the way we move our hands to the way we interact with our young. The idea of a world without Gorillas is heartbreaking. If we keep spreading the word and educating people about how precious these animals are and their habitat is for their survival then hopefully in the next 5 years we will have 1000 Gorillas and then some day they will no longer be Endangered.
What you need to know about Gorillas Trekking:
1- There is no guarantee that you will see gorillas. Although there is a 98% chance you will.
In each of the parks Trekkers are sent up in the morning to go find the gorilla families. Once they find them they call down to the guides who will lead the guests up to experience the groups.
2- Your trek may be 15 minutes and an easy walk or 8 hours and an intense hike.
Your guide will typically put you into a group that you can handle. You can also ask your guide ahead of time for an easier trek. Either way you still only get 1 hour with the gorillas.
3- You need an advance permit for trekking with gorillas.
In each country you will need to contact the National Park ahead of time to get a permit. There is a very limited amount of people who can trek per day and the permits are not cheap (but so worth every penny).
Uganda Permit- $600
Rwanda Permit- $750
DRC Permit- $475
A portion of the permit fees goes to the villages & villagers that surround the parks to encourage the people to take care of the park and it’s gorillas versus cutting down the forests for farming or poaching the Gorillas.
4- Warning ! There will be mosquitos and stinging nettles on the journey!
They call it trekking for a reason. You are in the wild and will encounter mosquitos and flies that bite. You’ll also experience stinging nettles which are the worst plant I have ever encountered. These plants have little tiny needles that as you walk past them they stick into your skin. You can’t see them but you can feel them and they sting!
5- Anyone over the age of 15 can see gorillas.
While you have to be over 15 to see the gorillas (for safety reasons) there is no age limit. Even if your 95 years old and can’t walk you can see them. Porters have a chair that for a smallish fee they will carry you up the mountain to be with the gorillas and then carry you back down. They have brought people up who were blind so that they could experience what it’s like to sit with gorillas.
6- Is it safe?
Keeping in mind that these are wild animals and that you are trekking through mostly undeveloped trails in a jungle it is pretty safe. Your guide travels with a rifle not to use on the wildlife but to scare them away if necessary. In DRC you do travel with two armed rangers just in case you run into poachers.
7- Is it easy to get there?
Virunga National Park in Congo is the easiest to get to. You can fly into directly into Goma and the park is about an hour drive from there.
Bwindi is about 5 hours from Kigali Airport in Rwanda and 8 hours from Entebbe in Uganda. If you are going to go to see the gorillas I recommend doing a full tour of Uganda. Although Gorillas and Chimps are certainly the highlight of this country you can also see the big 5 in many of their parks. Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls are the other two highlights. Queen Elizabeth also is the only place you can find tree climbing lions!
Volcanos National Park in Rwanda is about 3 hours from Kigali airport. Since this park is the easiest to access it is a little more touristy then the others.
On top of the permits for each location you will also need to apply for Visa’s for each country.
I recommend doing at least 2 treks. One hour is certainly not enough. You can do two treks in one location or you can do two treks in two different parks. If you are on a budget you can travel on your own and camp along the way. However, it’s much easier and safer (the roads are not the best or well-marked especially travelling to Bwindi) to travel with a group. I highly recommend Wilson with Saso Uganda Safari’s.
I have travelled to see the Gorillas twice with Saso Uganda Safari’s. Wilson was our guide and is probably the best guide I have ever had. He is dedicated to making sure that his clients have the best experience possible. In Rwanda he didn’t like the room they gave us and then convinced them to put us in a suite.
I also highly recommend Rushaga Gorilla Camp. It’s right up the road from the meeting area for Bwindi National Park. The owner of the lodge is Francis who not only manages the camp but also runs a woman’s group in the village and is helping to bring nearby medical care to the villagers. The camp itself is stunning. The rooms sit on the side of the cliff overlooking the valley. I stayed here twice and both times it felt like I was at home. The staff was so friendly and the home cooked meals were delicious! Oh and in the room we stayed in the second time we could poo with a view.