I had always been fascinated with gorillas since I was a little girl, I was simply amazed how identical they look to us. The ears, their fingers, their posture when standing up and their piercing eyes. How related are we?
I had heard for years that the gorilla trekking experience in Rwanda was a life changing experience. I had no idea how to make it happen, how to get to Rwanda, where is Rwanda, where are the gorillas, when is the best time of year, who can help make this happen?
So, I started asking my Eastern African contacts all these questions and slowly started building the journey. Finally in 2018, I made it happen for 4 of us. Our trip started on safari in Masaai Mara in Kenya, then we headed to Kigali, Rwanda. I did not know much about Kigali except for the movie Hotel Rwanda, about the 1994 genocide, 100 days of slaughter. Needless to say, I was apprehensive to enter into Kigali. However, to much surprise, Kigali was wonderful. Rwandan president Paul Kagame has emerged as perhaps the most enigmatic and controversial figure in Africa. He has principled the leader of ‘one of the safest and most orderly countries in Africa’, he rebuilt Rwanda. Kigali is a fantastic hustling city, filled with cafes, clean streets, hotels and restaurants, and locals exercising to shuttling to work. Kigali was impressive.
The following day we were met by our driver, to start our travels into southern region of Uganda. We drove from Kigali to the border town where we entered Uganda. The passport control was a little shack with a crowd patiently waiting for approval, the wait was a long one Once we crossed into Uganda, the reality of our trek was in a matter of hours. Traveling through the small towns climbing deep into the mountains, the views became more magical by the mile. I stared into the distance recalling vividly the beauty of the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ and now I am driving into the beauty. As far as my eye could see, the glorious lush mountains were so much larger than imagined.
Upon arrival to our hotel based at the start of the trail head in Bwindi National Park, we were greeted with smiling faces, wash towels and our view faced more of the mountains. My heart was so excited knowing at the rise of the sun, we would be heading into the forest in search of a Gorilla Family, I would be within feet of the worlds infamous silverback gorilla.
The following morning, we woke with the rise of the sun, had a nice bite and off we went to our introduction of our rangers, guides, and porters. I was so impressed to have 22 men guiding the 4 of us safely into the jungle. The lead ranger clearly explained our hike, which started with an elevation of 2500 ft above sea level. The start was a wide trail and a gentle slope. Slowly that trail disappeared and we relied on our guides to lead us through streams, over fallen logs to get us across rivers, we were hiking through dense forest, so gorgeous hiking into and through the clouds. It was muddy and slippery, there were spots where we saw fresh elephant prints. We were truly in the middle of the jungle, our guides hacked away through the plants creating our trail. These guys were paving our way, up and down the hillside. My mind wondered about poachers, how they could be so hiding so easily in this forest. We joked that this hike was tough, tougher than any CrossFit.. but there was no stopping us, we all wanted to get to the family.
As we went deeper, our pace slowed, as the lead guides were really clearing our path, and I will never forget my sighting of the first gorilla, it took my breath away. I almost wanted to cry, it was so magnificent. Our lead ranger reminded us of our guide lines and safety protocol. We walked a little further in, to see the giant SilverBack high resting high up in a tree and we sat down looking up, it was amazing that such a scrawny tree trunk could support a giant beast. It was beautiful, all the greenery, the tall trees and the rich blue sky with the SilverBack. It could not have been more perfect. We stayed near to ease this family to comfort with our presence. After a while, the SilverBack slid down the tree and that is when we were able to see the entire family of 9 including one baby. We stayed quietly, absorbing every movement, every glance in our eyes, listening to them eating, breathing, their communication, what are they talking about? The Silverback definitely looked over the family, he set the pace of movement. The female gorillas were relaxed in the trees, some walked right past my legs like we were long time friends. I remember clearly sitting with one female about an arms length away and her staring into my eyes, she just watched me as I sat next to her. We were not allowed to touch, but they could touch us. I begged her to reach out, but, I respected her comfort zone. There were times, I laughed watching the Silverback look into my camera lens and then pull the plants over his head, as if telling me he wants his eating privacy. I was sad when it was time to leave, wanting to stay and spend more time with them, not knowing when I will return, but I know I will.
There was not a moment that I was scared. Truly amazing to spend 4 hours with this family, at arms distance and feel utter peace, to share that beauty with these magnificent creatures. Mountain Gorillas are the largest primates in the world, typically 4 to 6 ft tall and weigh between 300 to 485 pounds and live in altitudes ranging from 2,300 to 4,500 meters. They live in the lush volcanic mountains in Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Today it is an estimated population about 1063 individual gorillas in the Virunga Mountains, Bwindi Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, they are severely endangered species. Humans, particularly poachers, hunters and land encroachers are the largest threat to these mountain gorillas.