Thursday, January 04, 2007


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to this park in 2004 and loved it. I went and saw the Suza family and we hiked for 3 hours up to about 3600 metres. I agree - definately worth money, the hiking and the mud!
Nicole (Jack Fleming's Daughter)

1/10/2007 07:43:00 PM  

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christmas day gorillas

christmas 2006, part 1…

parc nacional des volcans is the place to see gorillas in rwanda. rwanda, uganda, and the democratic republic of congo form the trifecta of gorilla hot spots as the only places left in the world to see mountain gorillas in the wild. knowing no international borders, the gorillas move freely among the 3 bordering countries. of course, each country has its pros and cons for gorilla tracking – we chose rwanda because that’s who still had gorilla permits last-minute during the busy christmas tourist season. pro for us.

tracking the gorillas isn’t an experience that comes cheaply ($375/person), but is an experience that is beyond worth any money you pay. i had my doubts on the cost:benefit ratio beforehand, but those doubts were completely erased as soon as i set foot on the trail and realized the unique, once-in-a-lifetime trip on which i was embarking. surrounded by misty volcanoes on your way to see gorillas? who can complain?

scheduled ranger orientation begins on the dot at 7am at the park headquarters. parc nacional des volcans is home to 5 habituated gorilla families, each of which welcome 8 visitors total per day (plus accompanying trackers, ranger guides, and guards). doing the simple math that means 40 visitors convene at the ranger center at 7am to be briefed and assigned to a particular family. you can imagine the scene – mzungus galore geared up with hiking sticks and boots and packs antsy to get hiking. but i can’t because we weren’t there. it’s somewhat comical, really…a tour guide who overslept his alarm, who didn’t know where the ranger station was, who took us up the mountain before turning around to go back down. we arrived at the ranger station by the skin of our teeth scrambling in at 7:30. just in time to register, get a quick rundown, and glom onto the last remaining group with 4 open trekking spots to be filled by us – me, phil, my brother tait, and my sister-in-law estela. i am sure i would’ve enjoyed the stories and information shared by the rangers during the briefing session (we haven’t met a ranger yet who didn’t dazzle with his breadth and depth of knowledge), but looking back on it i’m grateful that we missed it because in my mind our group of 8 was the only group in the mountains that day to visit the gorillas.

the parc is big and includes the string of virunga volcanoes, 7 volcanoes all told. the volcanoes are often obscured by mist and are (according to lonely planet) “the best place in africa to track rare mountain gorillas”….thus, gorillas in the mist. i like to think that our bad luck at getting lost and being late led to our good luck of getting to see the susa family. living on the furthest volcano (karisimbi), they are the most remote, the most difficult to reach, and the largest of all the families in the rwanda/drc/uganda gorilla triangle with 38 family members including 4 silverbacks, 3 babies, and a set of twins. talk about WOW.

some people hike 30 minutes to find the gorillas. roundtrip, we hiked 9 ½ hours. our trek took us thru farmland into bamboo forests up the mountain to mossy jungle and eventually to the family’s nesting place the night before. the trackers we followed cut the path with machetes as we scrambled thru mud, nettles, and all sorts of unknown brush. having overlooked the off-chance that we could be hiking from 9am to 6:30pm, none of us thought to bring food. starving half way up the mountain, i opted to eat a favorite gorilla snack – water celery. i wouldn’t have known what to eat, but when a ranger hacked off a stalk with his machete and offered it to me, i happily put it in my stomach.

we found the susa family at 3280m (about 10,000ft). the first sighting was when we crested one side of a ravine to find them on the other side. gazes of equal curiosity passed from one side to the other before they ambled up the embankment and out of sight. a gorilla/human disparity became quickly apparent as what took them 30 seconds to climb took us 10 minutes. we had been following their path thru the forest for much of the hike; no chance of us taking their path up the ravine, though. our upper body strengthen doesn’t hold one iota to a gorilla’s. when we rejoined them they were lounging, eating, playing, eating, and (oh yeah) eating in a clearing. technically hikers are only allowed 1 hour with the gorillas, but we had a generous hour – from the ravine encounter until we started our return hike was close to 1 hour 20 minutes. to be sure, we made the most of every minute.

some of our gorilla highlights…

- being surrounded by an untold number of gorillas. gorillas in front, behind, above, all around. we learned later that we saw close to 30 individual gorillas.
- looking into their eyes and seeing understanding. red, deep, soulful eyes.
- seeing a silverback papa and baby playing in a tree.
- watching a baby travel along on mama’s back. she gripped with all fours for most of the trip, but then sat straight up (mom’s still walking) to grab a veggie snack to eat on the move.
- laughing at an over-hungry, overambitious teenager fall out of a tree.

by far the biggest highlight of our hour+ with the gorillas was sharing their walking path. sharing a path means that at some point there is invariably going to be a person between where a gorilla is and where he wants to go. they may not mind us being around, but they surely notice when we’re in their way. this happened twice for us.

the second time i was last in line with only the ranger separating me from a fair-size adult female. as i calmly (outside calm, inside not-so-calm) continued walking i stole a glance over my shoulder. there she was raised on her back legs slapping her belly with her hands to intimidate me. she didn’t have to slap very hard, i was intimidated. (in case you’re wondering, females slap their stomachs, males beat their chests…a necessary distinction, i imagine). this particular close encounter put estela tumbling on the ground to get out of the way of the overly-close gorillas. a silverback, the twins plus mama, and several other family members continued in file and walked less than 10 feet away.

the first time phil was last in line and there was no ranger behind him. we had just climbed the ravine and we were walking down the path to the clearing to join the gorillas. our line of 10 humans was joined by several gorillas. most of the others took the higher road, but one remained…right behind phil. we did as told and followed the golden human/gorilla rule: walk, don’t run. again, i peeked behind me. only this time i saw a huge male gorilla so close on phil’s heels that phil later said he felt the gorilla’s head nudge his butt as if to say “c’mon, let’s get going already!” the gorilla momentarily raised an arm – i thought he was going to swipe phil off the mountain and out of the way in his impatience, but no such thing. he followed in our footsteps until finally there was a spot for us to step off the trail and the gorilla brushed past us. i could’ve reached out and touched him. that close.

our time spent with the gorillas was timeless. sometimes i wonder if the memory of an event is more valued than the event itself. do we ever fully appreciate an experience as it happens or is it only when we look back afterwards that events gain significance thru our memories? in this case i don’t care because i was fully aware how unique life was for my 80 minutes with the gorillas.

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