Gentle Giants

In a word: Awe-inspiring. After much anticipation for the gorilla trek, the day finally arrived and exceeded all expectations. Seeing the endangered mountain gorillas was the genesis for this trip to Rwanda and well worthy of being considered a bucket list item. Mountain gorillas only survive in three mountainous areas across Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo. It was here in Volcanoes National Park in the northwest corner of Rwanda that Dian Fossey began her 18 years of research and efforts to save the gorillas from poaching. Thanks to her, the gorillas survive and are a major tourism draw for Rwanda.

The area is surrounded by five majestic volcano peaks, hence the name of our peaceful hotel, Five Volcanoes Boutique Lodge. We set off at 6:30 AM to check in at the national park and get sized up to determine which group of gorillas we’ll go after. There are an extensive twenty groups of gorillas here at varying altitudes and distance. On questioning our fitness, I mention that more than half of our group of 8 friends climbed Kilimanjaro last week, so I’m pretty sure that’s how we got assigned to the Susa group of gorillas, which is supposedly one of the furthest and hardest to find. Trackers head out early in the morning to try to locate them based on their resting place the prior night. They move around constantly but find an area to “nest” each night.

We drive to a village near the base of one of the volcanoes to set off on the trek. We initially passed through the village and its accompanying harvest fields of peas, potatoes, and beans, grazing goats and sheep, and children coming to say hello and sing a tune for us. Although English and French are also official languages here, most speak the national language of Kinyarwanda so the children here don’t know too much more than “hello” and “good morning.” We commence a two hour climb to somewhere about 10,000 feet, through thick bamboo forests, then dense vegetation including stinging nettles, stopping along the way to catch our breath due to the high altitude and inclines.

Soon we approach a small clearing with a few small wooden benches and put on extra jackets and gloves to protect from the nettles. The gorillas are just across a ravine where we tromp through thick brush. This group has several silverbacks as well as a bunch of young gorillas ranging 7 months to 2 years. We end up much closer to them than the 21 ft I’d read about, like we’re suddenly part of their group of 23. The first bunch is mostly sleeping and resting after eating, although the baby and the young ones play. Words can hardly describe the moment of seeing these giant creatures in their natural habitat. They are very accustomed to humans though we are limited to an hour of exposure to limit their stress.  The baby plays around with branches and his mother. The two toddlers wrestle and roll around in the vegetation and hang from tree branches. We get an occasional beating of the chest by the two year old attempting to demonstrate his strength. The large silverback rests quietly before sitting up in a full upright position, displaying his massive size. Despite this presentation, there was no fear.

We hear some crashing around in the brush below and find another large male out eating handfuls of delicate vines out in the bright sunshine. At close to an hour’s time, we get once last look at the group and catch the baby nursing from his mother before swinging onto her shoulders before they move off into the rain forest. Amazing experience.

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