Some species are so charismatic that as and when we read about them or watch them on television we wish we could be face to face with them if not more, than at least once in our life time.
Mountain Gorilla is one such species on my bucket list for quite some time. However many factors, like high cost, lack of information and scenario of trekking through tough terrain to track them, deterred me from pursuing on this adventure. Last year in August during “Predator & Great migration tour” my friend and an extremely enthusiastic photographer Anand Sachdeva convinced me to make this journey. We did the R&D, took advice from photographers in Africa who had been on this trip and decided for a 2 trek tour in August.
Today after completing this trip,I can safely say that the few hrs what we got to spend with this Magnificent Ape is among the most satisfying moment of my journey as nature lover & nature photographer in last decade. Each dollar we spend & each step we took through tough terrain of the Virunga volcanic mountains was well worth the effort.
I will take you through this life changing journey through photographs;
We arrived at the Kigali International Airport, through flight from Nairobi. Our guide was waiting for us in the arrival with his Toyota Prado. Rwanda is 80% hilly area and a 2.5 hr Scenic drive through rolling hills took us to Musanze (Ruhengeri), at the foot hill of Volcanoes national park.
The Volcanoes National Park shares the border with Democratic republic of Congo and Uganda, all together these area is last stronghold of remaining 800-900 of these critically endangered APE, which shares 98% of DNA as we human, so you consider them our closest relative outside human race.
Once you arrive early morning with your permit to Park head quarter around 6:30 -7 am. You will be greeted with Tea –coffee and very rhythmic and high intensity tribal dance performance. You can join them to charge your body for the arduous trek ahead. Meanwhile the Park director will be busy allocating various Gorilla groups to tourist. Approximately 400 Mountain gorillas are in the Rwanda side of the Virunga Mountains. These are divided into 20 family groups of approximately 18-20 individuals. 10 Gorilla Groups can be visited by tourists while the others are for researchers to study. Every day a maximum of 80 tourists are allowed in groups of 8 people each.
Once the Gorilla Group is allotted to you, your guide for the days trek will have an interaction season, to educate us about the Gorillas behaviour and introduce each individual member of the gorilla family to the group. Many people have questions about how tough the trek is. I think it all depends upon your desire to be face to face to with this magnificent primate. The lady on right of our Guide Bosco, is 75yr old. And the lady with a cap at bottom must be around 90-95 kg in weight. They were both motivated enough to complete trek. Also trekking is not time bond, the pace of trek is set by the slowest person and also Guide and porters really help you.
After the orientation, you will be driven to the point where the vehicles will be parked, and trek begins. At this place you will be given a nice crafted wooden stick to help you in climb and you will have the option to hire a porter. We decided to hire a porter, as he will not only carry your camera bag but also pull or push you through though terrain. This also helps in involving the local community to join the effort of conservation of the mountain Gorillas.
The walk shall begin through agriculture fields, then we enter park stone wall. An armed guide will join you. Your guide will be in touch over radio with Trekkers who are with Gorilla group. Depend upon your gorilla location and movement it can take 2-5hrs to reach the group.
One we reach the group, We have an hour at our disposal to absorb and photograph the Gorilla family. This timeline is strictly enforced and even the Gorillas tend to move on after an hour.
Silverback, Head of Gorilla family.
Most of time we spent with them, the adults & teenagers were busy feeding. The way they hold branches and leaf, it seems so much human like.
Baby playing in mother arms,while she is watching cautiously to visitors. The Gorilla family is very possessive and caring for babies. During the hour we spend with this family whole group was very calm and busy in their own business, only once when a young baby reached too close to the tourists, the Silverback showed some signs of aggression. But the trekkers who spend every single day with this group made few sounds to calm them down.
Baby having free ride on Mother back.
The moment of tour.
The Silverback was sitting at distance, I was busy photography him, then he got up and walked straight towards me. I kept clicking and he rubbed his left shoulder with my right shoulder as crossed.
Useful info to plan your tour.
Best time: Gorilla trekking can be done throughout the year but hiking can be more tedious in the rainy season of April-May & Nov month. But then its near equator at rain forest at elevation of above 2000m, so it can rain any time of year.
Clothing: It may rain all around the year and a light breathable rain jacket is essential. The terrain is muddy and slippery so waterproof trekking shoes are recommended. Comfortable trousers and gardening gloves for protection of hands while grabbing the thorny vegetation are also recommended.
Photography gear: A light photography gear is recommended. Most images can be made in the 70-200mm range. Light is a challenge and circumstances can be dark in the undergrowth hence a fast lens and a high ISO camera is useful.
I would like to add that when it comes to Africa tours, many people have apprehension. I can’t vouch for everything but the experience which I had over the last 5 years in Kenya and now in Rwanda, I have come to the conclusion that the tourism industry is very well organised, park are well maintained and adequately governed. The Guides & forest staff are well educated about their subject. And most importantly, you always made to feel WELCOME.
Though I had my wish of seeing the Mountain Gorillas fulfilled I am looking forward to spend some more time with them. I will be planning another trip next year, so keep watching our tour page.
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