Jill's African Adventure
* The Long Road to Malawi: Part 1
* Parc National des Volcans
* Kibale Forest
* Back and Forth from Kampala
* Rafting the Nile
* Murchison Falls
* A Day in The Life
* Hell's Gate
* Nairobi and Around (Part 2)
* Nairobi and Around (Part 1)
* A Dhow Trip From Lamu
* Watamu: Ruins, Monkeys, Shrews, and Jellyfish
* Hiking in Lushoto
* Changing E-mail Address
* The Problems of Itete
* Village Life
* Hanging Out in Dar
* Zanzibar - Music Festival & Prison Island
June 12, 2005
Parc National des Volcans
Last Monday I went gorilla trekking in the Parc National des Volcans in northwestern Rwanda. Everybody I had spoken to who had visited the gorillas said that it had been an amazing experience, but everyone also spoke of the hike up to reach the gorillas. Tales of hacking through dense, pricker-filled jungles with machetes. Four hours straight up a steep hill. People running out of water and being desperate enough drink out of mountain streams, knowing it might well make them sick very soon. Ankle-deep mud and areas so unpassable that they had to slither through the mud on their bellies. I was very excited about seeing the gorillas, but truth be told I was somewhat dreading the hike.
Arriving at the park office at seven in the morning I was put into a group with five other Americans for the trek. Our guides told us that we would be visiting the Sabyinyo gorilla group -- the closest group to trek to. The previous day it had been only a fifty minute hike. There was, of course, no telling where the gorillas had moved to, but in all likely-hood our hike wouldn't be too much longer than an hour. I was happy to hear that my hike probably wouldn't be too long - yes, the Sabyinyo group was the "slither through mud on their bellies" group - but I deemed a repeat of that to be unlikely. I was a bit upset to hear though, that we would not be going to see the Susa group, which was the largest group with 32 family members. The Sabyinyo had only 10 members: two silverbacks, 3 adult females, one subadult female, three juvenile males, and an infant male. Still, the Susa group was a 4 hour hike away, so I though that maybe seeing fewer gorillas was okay for that much of a shorter hike.
After being oriented to the rules of our visit, we were soon on our way. We began our hike up the volcanic mountain at a nice leisurely pace. We walked mostly through cultivated land, much of it growing pyrethrum (a natural insecticide), tobacco, and eucalyptus, which had been introduced from Australia. The areas under cultivation were usually rectangular fields with rows of raised dirt in which crops were planted. A lot of the land had also been set aside for grazing - there were grasses, mosses, and many goats. In the distance were small patches of pine forest. Behind us and to the left of us was valley, with many lower peaked mountains rising up, like islands in a sea. In front of us was the peak we were climbing and to our right, a great volcanic mountain rising up, the top shrouded in mist. The whole scene was gray, green, and stunning beautiful.
We were walking up, but I barely noticed -- it was such a slight incline and the beautiful scenery rendered everything else pretty much irrelevant. We walked for about 40 minutes, occasionally waving to the women and children working in the fields, before we reached the stone wall that marked the park boundary and separated the fields from the rainforest. At this point we stopped to put on our jackets to protect us from the prickers and to get a final briefing from our guides on the rules. They told us they expected it would take about 20 more minutes before we reached the gorillas.
As we entered the rainforest I was expecting thick foliage, lots of prickers, and the only path being that which was hacked away by our guides with their machetes. I was pleasantly surprised. There was a path we were following which was just slightly muddy and the prickers were all off the path. Based on what many people had told me, I expected that the easy-going would soon be at an end. Probably, it would have been, but after only a few minutes we heard the gorillas - fighting, I later found out. (The fighting, alas, was over by the time we reached them.)
The gorillas were spread out, not all clustered together as I was expecting. Other people I had spoken with had seen the gorillas when they were resting, and thus all together as a family. When we saw them they were foraging for food. I think that the first gorillas I saw were the baby and his mother. My first impression of the baby was that he had a very big head. He had big eyes as well, and was completely adorable.
At first, all our views of the gorillas were obscured by the foliage. The guides hacked away at it so that we could get a better look, but their efforts were rather futile since the gorillas were on the move. We followed them and soon found ourselves back in the fields on the other side of the stone wall. The gorillas were after the eucalyptus, which they quite enjoy eating.
This was an amazing stroke of luck. Out in the fields we had unobscured views. Gorillas standing on all fours, one sitting on the wall, the subadult pulling down a small tree to eat it, mom eating with baby on her back. And, in the background to all this activity, Sabinyo mountain, rising up, shrouded in mist. During much of this time, the gorillas were less than 10 feet away. They have been very well habituated to humans and did not seem to mind us at all. A number of times we had to move in order to get out of their way.
The gorillas stayed out of the park, in the open, for about 20 minutes. When the gorillas left the fields we followed them back into the park. We soon encountered the smaller silverback who had very visible wounds on his shoulder - quite bad looking - probably from the earlier fight that we heard. Mostly what we saw of him was his back. The gorillas whose faces we saw the most of were the baby and the dominant silverback. The dominant silverback was a magnificent animal, weighing about 240kg. One of the best moments of the day was when we were watching him. We were crouched down, maybe 10 feet away when another gorilla walked right past us and the silverback followed. I was so close to him at that point that if I had stretched out my arm I probably could have touched him.
Other favorite moments include: seeing the subadult climbing in the trees which were almost completely bowed over under her weight (I had not thought that trees were that flexible); mom and baby eating in a tree and getting to see their faces peeking out between the branches; the big silverback running a branch through his mouth, stripping it of its leaves in the process; just watching the gorillas' feet and their oh so human-like hands, and seeing how thick their fur is and how it sticks out from their bodies.
Alas, our visit with the gorillas was limited to an hour and our guides were soon leading us away and out of the park. It had been a truly magical hour. The small disappointment I had had at not getting to see the larger gorilla family had completely disappated. I don't think it could have been possible to have had a better visit. If there was any disappointment, it was only that I didn't get to spend more time trekking through the rainforest and viewing the beautiful volcanic backdrop.
Posted by Jillian on June 12, 2005 10:06 AM
Category: East Africa
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