Gorilla Trekking in Volcanoes National Park, Virunga, Rwanda
What can we say about this unique part of the world that will help you to truly understand the magic that permeates through the mist? We lived in Rwanda for two years before finally venturing into the park to see the pride of the country, its Silverback Mountain Gorillas. We wish we’d been sooner. Those few hours spent walking through the local villages, waving hello to the children and women working in the fields, climbing over the handmade stone wall (all that separates you from nature), and into the forest jungle were some of the most magical hours I’ve ever experienced. As we stood at that pebbled wall, surrounded by meticulously made farming fields, with local greens peeking out through the freshly dug soil, I looked up at the side of the mountain. It was hard to even see the top, as the thick jungle and vegetation was overpowering, as if growing into the sky. It reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk, although at the top wasn’t the unfriendly giant, but the male gorilla, weighing up to almost 400 lb (180kg). As I imagined what they would be like in person, a man beside me said “I was here six years ago, and stood in this exact place.” He pointed to a hill jutting out from the side of the volcano, overlooking Musanze town, where we’d all stayed the night before. “I heard some rustling last time and looked up there, and there was the male gorilla, standing out on the hill like something from the Lion King movie, just staring out at his kingdom”.
Humans and Gorillas - One in the Same?
He’s right, as once you see the gorillas in person, that 1.6% DNA difference between us and them seems to fade away. Their facial structures and movements are so similar to ours that you really can’t believe you are any different. In Rwanda, you have only sixty minutes to spend with the gorillas once you reach them. This is both to protect the gorillas from human diseases, and to ensure that they are not too disturbed. During this hour you can walk and sit with the Gorillas and just take in their magnificent beauty. They are so used to people, it’s as if they’ve let you into their home to observe their daily routines. Eating bamboo, climbing trees, the adolescents playing with each other, the mother and aunties sitting together, entertaining the baby. They groom each other, hate the rain, and when the sun comes out, they venture into the clearing and welcome the opportunity to relax and just enjoy their surroundings.
Once we entered the park, it was a steep climb up the dirt and brush, although our guards and porters were always there if needed. I’m not a nature fan, but found the hike decent, as we went at the pace of the slowest person, and it’s mainly like walking up a steep hill. You stop along the way for short breaks (we walked in total about 1.5 hours), and you can look out occasionally through the clearings to see all of Rwanda’s hills in the background, protruding through the clouds and covered in bright green banana tress.
Suddenly the jungle changes, and you entered vegetation full of tall bamboo trees. You can hear the chirping of birds in the background, and if you’re lucky the golden monkeys as well. Often it’s raining, and the bamboo is a welcome protection from the thick droplets of water that seems to pound down endlessly from the abyss above.
The Gorillas Emerge
And then, the guards get quiet, and stop. They turn to you, and ask you to put down your bags (which are protected). You walk in silence, feeling the crunch of each stick breaking below your feet, and feeling your boots squidge into the mud below. And then, you’re there. Right in front of you are Gorillas, just sitting, looking back at you. You are no more than 2 metres away, sometimes closer if they walk past you. You hear their breathing, their communication, you see their love and affection. Regardless of spiritual belief, you feel calm and grounded and realise how insignificant you are in the world when standing powerless and humbled next to the Silverback Gorillas.
Apparently one time a ranger dropped his phone and couldn’t find it. Someone else called it, and when they did, the Gorilla walked over and picked it up. He put it to his ear and grunted, then got annoyed that the ringing stopped and threw it back onto the ground. Imagine that in the distant volcanoes of Rwanda!
The Great and Powerful Guhonda - Sabyinyo Gorilla Family
We visited a family named the Sabyinyo group, led by Guhonda, the powerful silverback and the biggest of all male silverback Gorillas in the region. His family consists of eight gorillas - Guhonda, three females, one male, two teenagers and one baby. The baby was dying for attention, and the mother did her best. After a while, she was clearly tired, and laid down exasperated, as the baby kept laughing and rolling around. The auntie pulled him tight into her arms and cuddled him, nuzzling her cheek against his. He smiled, until he realised it was time to be groomed. Then suddenly, like a baby on a changing table squirming and squealing to be left alone, the little baby started kicking up his feet as the women laid him on his backside, pulled up his legs and pulled bugs and dirt from around his legs and bottom. I swear, if there had been a diaper, it might have been next. I couldn’t believe how similar our rituals are.
Feeling Blessed & Why You Should Go
I also didn’t feel time passing. My friends who had been said to me “take some pictures, but then put away your camera, and just observe where you are, and appreciate it”. They were right, as no sooner was I snapping away that the Park Rangers said “ok, five minutes left”. It felt like 5 minutes! Looking back at my incredible photos, I would definitely go again, both to appreciate the immense amount of effort that Rwanda/Uganda put into looking after the Gorillas, but also to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see our distant relatives carrying out their daily activities like they’ve done for thousands of years. Then again, I supposed that’s why it’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.
****Want to see the Silverback Mountain Gorillas? See information at the bottom on how to visit Virunga National Park****
How to Get to the Mountain Gorillas - Travelling to Musanze
Rather then spend a lot of time telling you all the details on the Gorillas, I highly recommend this blog for travel information on Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda/Uganda, and also the Rwanda Development Board for up-to-date information on prices and permits. You can easily hire a car and drive from Kigali to Musanze, which takes about 2-3 hours. You can also take the bus, but if you do I’d suggest buying one of those seatbelts you can put on the bus, as my friend was in a major bus accident in Rwanda, so be aware. You can also use a local tour company or just call your hotel and ask about them finding you a driver. Lastly, you can post on the Living in Kigali facebook page to find others who are going, or find a driver.
I recommend this driver Gregoire to help!
Having lived in Rwanda for two years and worked at the British Embassy, I highly recommend Gregoire (Gregory) Kayumba, a part-time driver for the High Commission (Embassy), and part-time travel guide. He’s excellent and will not rip you off when finding you a vehicle to drive (with insurance), or he can get a driver for you. You can call him on +250 788447706 and tell him you were recommended by Laura-Ashley at Little Jars (I get no commission, I just think he’s a reliable and kind person with excellent English and French).
Where to Stay
Once in Musanze, you can stay overnight at a hotel, and then head to the Gorillas Park Entrance early the next morning. It takes about 30 minutes to drive, and hotels can also organise this for you if you are not with a package tour. If you want a good place to stay that is simple, affordable and has excellent company, I recommend this British/Rwandan guesthouse (Garden Guest House), as the owners as incredibly welcoming and I can guarantee you’ll love it. You can also walk to Volanca Lounge, a decent place to eat (not a lot of options), in less than 10 minutes, and it’s completely safe at night.
If you have limitless funds you an stay at Virunga Lodge, perched on the stop of a mountain overlooking the volcanoes. I will be doing a post on this soon. It’s hundreds of dollars a night, but is a pretty special experience. Personally, I’d go for lunch to see it, and stay at a guest house, but that’s because I’m watching my pennies!
Best time of Year to see the Mountain Gorillas
I can tell you that the best time of year to go to the Gorillas (Jan-March, June-November). This is dry season, so you will not be stuck in the mud as much. Although lately, the weather has been unpredictable! If it’s sunny in Kigali, doesn’t mean it’s not raining in Musanze! Also, summer is often peak time as many people visit from Europe and North America.
How to Book and How much the Gorilla Permit Costs
that it costs $750 for international visitors, and $375 for Rwandan residents (anyone with a residence permit of 3 months or more). You can book your permits at the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) Tourism and Conservation Reservation Office in person, by telephone (+250 252 576 514), or you can email RDB directly. Make sure to have a photocopy of your passport ready, and bring this when you go to check-in. If it's too much, go and see the Golden Monkeys in the same place for $100USD. It's an easy walk, you can go while others see the Gorillas, and there are over 100 of them (so cute, see pic below!)
What to Wear to see the Gorillas
I also recommend wearing rubber boots, as these or waterproof hiking boots are a must (I’ve tried both, and loved the waterproof boots as they were cheap to get and are so high, helpful for all the mud, the fire ants on the ground that can bite you, and to avoid the poison ivy on the ground. Also bring some gardening gloves to protect you hands from the poison iby, and some light waterproof trousers/jacket. I got all of this for $50 in Canada, so you don’t have to splash out with crazy North Face stuff just for a day’s hike (unless you’re hard core like that!) Bring some water, and some snacks. Please be kind to the environment, and remember that plastic bags are banned in Rwanda for environmental reasons, so use plastic containers or other things to transport your food. Musanze doesn’t really have a lot in terms of groceries, so stock up in Kigali, or before you come!
I brought my DSLR and two lenses for the visit, and safety plus hiking was totally fine. Obviously bring things to protect your gear, but you can take these with you into the forest no problem. If you have a cover for your lens, bring it, as if it’s raining your lens can get water on it very easily which will blur your photos. On the reverse, it can also get quite dusty, so a cloth and filter to protect your lens is also a must. The light in the forest can be quite poor if the sun is not out, so keep this in mind when choosing equipment, as low-light is a factor for your exposure. To take these photos I used my Nikon D5200 body [$550], with a 35mm f1.8G lens [$200] (but as the camera is not full frame it acts more like a 50mm lens, and for the close up photos I used a Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens [$675]. Both are fixed lenses, and provide amazing photos. I'm still an amateur, so I can't imagine what a professional could have taken with this kit! If you are trying to identify a good camera to get, I recommend Ken Rockwell's blog for amazing camera reviews (and you can write him for advice). If you want to improve your photography skills, the best youtube videos hands down are from Mike Browne. I used them to improve, and still refer to them (again, all these views are my own, I don't know these people, just love em!)
If there’s anything I missed, just post a comment and I’ll edit the post to include it. I wish you the best time in Rwanda - I really, really love this country and hope you will too!