Rising early in the half light of dawn, I stumbled around my cabin on the outskirts of Ruhengeri, the closest town to the magical Volcanoes National Park. I hadn’t slept well, the night was filled with unusual noises and was surprisingly cold, but these weren’t the real reasons for my fitful night’s sleep. I was too excited to sleep: in the morning I’d have the chance to see Rwanda’s famous Mountain Gorillas. The excitement I felt as I tried to rustle up a cup of coffee can only be described as ‘child-like’.
There are few animals on the planet that have captured the imagination in the same way as the Mountain Gorilla. In part, this is due to the work of controversial zoologist, Dian Fossey, who dedicated her life to the study and survival of the Mountain Gorilla. Fossey did much of her research in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and it was here in 1985 that she was murdered and buried. The film Gorillas in the Mist, staring Sigourney Weaver, made Fossey’s story – and the Mountain Gorillas she loved – world famous.
The Mountain Gorilla is still endangered. Approximately 880 survive in the wild, all of them wedged into a corner of East Africa which has seen decades of conflict, poaching and habitat loss. While gorilla populations in Rwanda and Uganda have stabilised, the lawlessness of the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen massive habitat loss and many gorillas killed by poachers. Half of all Mountain Gorillas live in Rwanda, and I had secured a US$500* permit from the Rwandan Tourist Board to visit one of the eight habituated groups.
The driver I’d hired to take me to the National Park headquarters was late, my initial frustration gave way to gratefulness when we stopped to pick up two National Park guards hitching a lift to work. We had a chat about their work and, when it came to sorting the assembled foreign tourists into groups (maximum of eight people per group), they sorted me into the Susa group with only three other people. The Susa group is the largest of all gorilla groups, with over forty members, including two Silverbacks and a pair of twins.
Its a long drive to the volcano where the Susa group lives, and they’re often found high up the mountain – requiring a long and steep climb. The scenery en route up the volcano was glorious. We passed small farm huts and people working in fields of what looked like potatoes. Our guide said they were ‘Irish’ potatoes, a staple crop in this part of Rwanda. In the past, the gorilla habitat has been destroyed by farmers. Much work has been done with communities to reinforce the gorilla’s importance to the local economy, most are now supportive of the national park.
We reached the boundary of the park – little more than a wall – and suddenly we were walking through dense vegetation. It was a hot and sticky climb, but we got lucky, the Susa group was quite low down the mountain. After a surprisingly short walk – we’d been warned it could take five hours – we found them, along with the armed park guards who protect them.
We heard the gorillas long before we saw them; several young gorillas were charging around chasing each other and play fighting. They were so oblivious to our presence that a young gorilla even ran into the legs of one of our group. That was unfortunate, but unavoidable. Typically, tourists have to keep a good five meter distance from the gorillas. Because of our shared ancestry, anyone with a cold or similar infectious disease cannot visit the gorillas for fear of transmitting human diseases, to which they have no immunity.
While we were watching the young gorillas playing, and taking in the sheer magnificence of these truly amazing animals, the dominant male Silverback made his entrance. I can say, without fear of exaggeration, I have never seen a more noble and commanding animal in all my life…he was so human in his attitude to his unruly family, casting a fatherly eye over the group, chastising the occasional miscreant and showing a remarkable amount of affection for such a powerful and intimidating animal. Basically, a model father.
It was pure joy to watch this family of gorillas interact, to see the group dynamic and to see them at play in the safety of the national park…but more of that later…
* The price has been increased to US$750 in the last year