Trekking to see the mountain gorillas of Africa is one of the most amazing things you can do. It is a magical wildlife encounter with the World's largest living primates.
Sadly, mountain gorillas are critically endangered due to poaching, wars and human encroachment on their habitat. There are now estimated to be less than 750 in the world (all living in eastern central Africa). Because there are so few it is even more special to be able to encounter one in the wild and a real privilege.
I was lucky enough to be able do this and I will always treasure the experience!
My encounter was in Rwanda where there are seven habituated gorilla groups that tourists are allowed to visit. There are other groups too but these are off limits.
Before encountering the gorillas there's a few things to bear in mind. Permits are required which cost $500 and they need to be bought in advance. Only eight permits are issued per gorilla group per day. There is also a code of conduct for visiting the gorillas that must be adhered to keep the animals from harm: The encounter will be no more than one hour from first sighting (as they are susceptible to human diseases), no-one can eat near them or go to the loo near them, the minimum distance you can get from them is 7m, no flash photography is allowed and absolutely no litter should be left in the jungle. Those unfortunate enough to have a cold or infectious disease will definitely not be allowed to see the gorillas.
Good walking shoes are necessary as the terrain is tough and the paths are narrow. Waterproofs are a good idea too as it is a rainforest. A bottle of water is essential, as is a decent breakfast to make up for all the energy that will be expended with the climb. Gardening gloves and tough trousers are a good idea too as the forest contains plenty of plants that can sting and scratch you – but don't let that put you off.
My encounter started with early arrival at the meeting point (7am). We were put into small groups and a briefing took place. The park wardens choose which people are to visit each gorilla group. We were off to meet the Umabano - a group of nine individuals led by a silverback called Charles. The name Umabano translates as neighbourliness.
The village of Ruhengeri is the start of the trail and where the jeeps from the base take us. Be prepared for a rough ride - the roads are very bumpy. The guides joke that this is an ‘African massage' and it feels like one of sorts, but maybe not the type you'd pay for!
The guides cut us walking sticks to help with the climb and we set off into the primary Rwandan Parc des Volcans rainforest.
The guides are in frequent contact with the trackers who are up ahead searching for the gorillas. The trackers look for trampled vegetation and dung that mark a gorilla trail. Our guides use their machetes to slash some of the undergrowth from the tangled jungle at the edge of the path and they make sure there are frequent stops for us to rest and have a drink.
It depends on where the gorillas are as to how long you will be trekking for. You should expect at least an hour, but it could be many hours!
Luckily for us, after about 90 minutes of trekking, we were told to leave all food and our sticks behind for the final push to the gorilla group. The sticks needed to be left behind because the gorillas could associate them with poachers and become alarmed.
It was really exciting. After a bit more walking they were actually there in front of us – fellow primates. They were difficult to spot at first but the movement in the trees gave the game away.
A fantastic sight – my first wild gorilla in a tree only a few metres away.
And then there were more family members - little ones swinging playfully on branches and juveniles crashing about in the undergrowth. The female seemed more bothered about sleeping than anything else but her baby clambered about on her, ensuring she didn’t get too much sleep!
By now we were venturing off the paths and teetering a little precariously on the hillside. It was hard to see where there was solid surface under foot and a few falls were inevitable. We did try keeping our distance but a juvenile came close and there was nowhere for me to move to. It passed just inches away, barely noticing me. An amazing experience!
Charles the silverback was a magnificent sight. He was majestic and of a size no one would want to mess with. He was no threat if you were respectful.
The animals carried out their daily life in front of us – sleeping, eating leaves and playing. The trackers communicated frequently with the gorillas in low grunts. The group are followed daily and are used to the trackers.
All too soon our hour was up and we had to go. We were escorted out by one of the male juvenile gorillas. I was sad to be heading back but really exhilarated. Despite the tiredness and the stings (which had managed to get through my precautionary clothing), every penny and every step was worth it.