Day 330 – Gorilla Day, Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri, Rwanda
Once the singing and dancing group had finished the nine of us from the truck were split into two groups. Only five groups are allowed in to the forest each day and each group has a maximum allowable size of eight people plus guides. The five of us in our group were joined by an American couple, who were doing three trips into the forest, lucky buggers!
Each group goes to visit a different gorilla family and are only allowed one hour with the family. There is only one trip per day to the gorillas so their exposure to humans is minimised. At $750 USD per visit it is a very expensive hour !!! Fortunately the hour only starts when the gorilla group is found, some of the groups can be a three or four hour walk away from where the vehicles can access.
We were joined by two guides who introduced us to the forest and the family group we were going to visit.
Our trip is in the Volcanoes National Park which is located in the Virunga mountains and part of a massive national park with areas in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the only place on the planet where mountain gorillas live. The park has an altitude range of 2400 – 4500 metres, so all walking is tough going !
There are eighteen family groups commonly found in the Rwanda part of the park and eleven are visited on a regular basis, the others are just monitored by researchers. We were going to visit the Agashya (The news) group, which is twenty three strong and like all the groups, is named after the dominant silver back.
The gorillas in the park face numerous threats, however their numbers are growing steadily since Dian Fossey first took a stand on protecting them back in the late 1960’s. All the families are tracked 24/7 by armed guards. The gorillas have no natural predator and are rarely directly hunted, however they do get caught in traps and snares set by the local villagers who trap antelope and other mammals for food. Like their human cousins the gorillas are also susceptible to disease and colds. In fact if you are sick you are not allowed to go and see the gorillas.
Once we given the run down on the day we jumped back into our vehicle and drove for about twenty minutes to a small village near where our family was currently located. We were all given walking sticks to use as the way is slippery, steep and FULL of stinging nettles, and the nettles are head high in places. We were all told to wear long pants, long sleeved jackets and everyone except me were told to bring gloves ! oh well !
We met our armed guard here, there are still illegal poachers working in the forest who do not take kindly to meeting strangers and there is always the potential for danger from some of the other wildlife living in the forest,such as buffalo and elephant – however rare they are. We are also very close to the border with the Congo and much as no one likes to talk about it there is armed conflict between the Congo’n government and Rwandan backed insurgents.
The first fifteen minutes walking was through farm land. No longer a danger to the forest fortunately, the forest area is marked by a stone wall now, partly to clearly define the boundary but mainly to prevent grazing forest wildlife from raiding crops. The farms look to be very productive and the soil looks amazingly fertile.
We soon crossed the stone boundary wall and were immediately into thick forest.
As the gorillas roam around we were not entering via a defined path into the forest, so there was a bit of hacking of undergrowth for a while until we hit a buffalo path that we followed before heading up a hill through some heavy nettle infested foliage. Our guides were on the radio to the gorilla trackers and after about forty minutes of clambering around we caught up with them near the gorillas, I was soooooooooo excited !! We were told to drop our bags, water bottles, walking sticks, any food from pockets and just take cameras as we were going to move up towards the family.
I hummed and hahhed about camera lenses and decided I would take a punt and just take the 50mm lens for the Canon 5d Mk1 as well as my little Panasonic point and shoot as I wanted to do some video – though I had never done it before ! I didn’t want to have to change lenses in the forest and the wide angle zoom may have been too wide.
We were given clear guidelines by the guide.
– Not to go within seven metres of the gorillas, unless they come to you.
– If you are in the way, move slowly out of the way, they may want to eat the tree you are under.
– Keep low down so you appear subservient – especially to the dominant male !
– Don’t look them in the eye as it may be seen as a challenge.
-If they are walking down a path, get off it
And then we were off up the hill for our first glimpse of the real thing in the real wild… and this was the first photo, crap I know but it was the first one, and with a 50mm lens – we were close…
We seemed to have arrived in the middle of a family walk as we only found three smaller gorillas. We watched them for a couple of minutes while they munched on things before they headed off to join the rest of the group – in our direction ! We moved out of the way to make a gap and two of them passed through the gap , the last one however decided on a different route and went between the legs of the American woman, it was a massive wow moment for all… They really don’t pay us any mind at all, completely unconcerned by our presence, amazing.
Over the course of the hour we probably only saw ten or so of the group, we assumed the others were about but we didn’t see them. It was good and bad that the group moved around a lot, it was very hard to take photos as the jungle was dense in places and they and we were constantly on the move. It was also quite dim, so high ISO’s and wide open apertures were essential to get any chance of capturing a motionless face. However, I would rather this than watch them sitting in a sunny clearing doing very little like the group our American friends saw the previous day. Plus, those who know me, know there is nothing I like more than scrambling around in the mud in the bush. The thought of snakes and spiders and sharp thorns just never came into my head – for a change !
We followed this small group up through the nettles for a while until we came across a dense patch of bamboo near a path and low and behold there he was – Agashya himself. Wow, he is just so magnificent, you could feel his strength – not just the physical, you could feel his strength of character, that he was the dominant character in this group, incredibly powerful. Yet, watching him later interacting with the young members of the family, you can see how gentle he is as well.
I spent most of the hour observing rather than taking pictures, as I said it was tough photographic conditions so rather than take hundreds of rubbish pictures I elected to watch and wonder instead, I think that was the right option.
We followed the group down the trail for a bit and then ohhhhhh, the baby, Iwacu !! I really didn’t expect to see Iwacu, and though we saw it a few times, I only managed to get one shot worth keeping.
We then stopped to watch the next oldest male stop and eat for a bit.
The group spent a bit of time on the move after this, at times they crashed through the dense (for us humans) bamboo forest and other times they were on the more open buffalo trails. Our guide managed to short cut a section of forest and we were on a piece of path as they were coming down, we crouched down low to the side and for once, I decided to shoot some video.
 Just learnt a lesson. I cannot upload video using the free version of WordPress 😦 I have just created my first YouTube video. lets see if it works 🙂 [/edit]
Wow, they came so close, one of the others said in the group said he saw the silver back brush me as he walked, so regally, past me. I did not notice a thing. It was very very cool and I was so glad I chose to video, not the best video ever, but they were so close I would not have got photos anyway. I love the two young ones at the back having a bit of a play, though I was bummed to have not quite got the baby on mothers back very clearly.
We followed them through a thick section of vegetation, where again they stopped for a feed.
And then they were off again, we managed to get ahead of the last couple.
We were following the guide down this section of path when he stopped dead in his tracks and started backing up. “Elephant” he whispered. I was third in line behind Martina and Chantil and just around a bend in the track. As they came slowly back I got a glimpse of an ear and what appeared to be a large tusk through the bush. Even though our guide was saying they are perfectly safe, we beat a rather rapid retreat straight up hill !
Once we were safely a few metres away, our guide said that though we had five more minutes of our hour left we would have to leave, the gorillas had taken off once they had gotten wind of the elephant and the elephant would be agitated after smelling the gorillas. We all concurred – it had been a magic fifty five minutes anyway.
We spent a further twenty or so minutes crashing around in the jungle, with the guide on the radio to the others and then we came across them by the wall, with all our belongings.
We bade farewell to the trackers and followed our guide back down over the farmland to the vehicles.
For a rough rock and roll ride down the worst road I have ever been on !!!
It was a magic morning, a wonderful experience and one I will never forget. The mountain gorillas are the most wonderful animals, lets make sure we protect them. There are only a few hundred left.
All the gorilla photos were shot on a 50mm lens and are, in the main, uncropped. that is how close they came to us.