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Gorillas in Our Midst
On the border dividing Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo is the natural habitat of the last 720 mountain gorillas. Gorilla Trek offers an almost mystical experience: a close encounter with these enormous African primates.
No matter how many times you’ve been to the zoo, how many wildlife shows you’ve seen on TV, whether you’ve been on safari or are just a diehard animal lover: nothing can prepare you for coming face-to-face with gorillas in their natural habitat. These silent and stoic creatures will hold your gaze in a near-spiritual encounter, free of fences, leaflets and audio-guides.
The journey begins in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, once the epicenter of a brutal genocide. Today, with the help of international aid, Rwanda and the neighboring country of Uganda are peaceful, stable and democratic countries. Thanks to tourism – and the popular expeditions to see mountain gorillas, in particular – these countries are currently the hottest destinations in Africa.
Visitors must first obtain a permit to track gorillas, and the Rwandan government grants just 56 such “Gorilla Permits” each day. Animal trafficking and poaching has reduced the gorilla population almost to the point of extinction, prompting the government’s strict control. According to the latest World Wildlife Fund census, only about 720 of this subspecies of primate remain, so officials are careful to protect their most precious assets.
The permits cost US$500 per person. Most visitors buy two in order to optimize their adventure. As a tourist from Spain noted wisely during his stay: “The first time you go led by your heart, and the second time by your head. That way, you are not overwhelmed by the encounter.” If you go twice, it’s recommended that you dedicate the first day to taking pictures and spend the second immersing yourself in the up-close experience with an animal who shares 98 percent of our DNA.
In Search of the Gorillas
Our adventure begins with a ringing alarm clock at 6:00 a.m. in the Lodge Virunga, where we’re staying. Tourists must be at the park entrance at 8:00 a.m. sharp. A friendly ranger welcomes us, verifies the names on our daily permits and assigns us a head guide. There are only seven gorilla families that tourists can visit (the rest are under observation and authorized for scientific study only).
Once we have checked in, a tall and smiling man greets us, “Welcome to Rwanda. I’m Hanu, your gorilla guide.” Hanu had the privilege of working as an assistant to Dian Fossey (see page 118), and since everyone in our group has seen the movie based on her life story, the battery of questions seems endless. Hanu answers them all, and then he grows serious, asking for silence. He clearly explains the rules of tracking, one by one, each of them inviolable. We are to stay at least eight yards away from the gorillas. If a gorilla approaches, we are to ignore it. We must not touch the animals and never use flash photography. We have to remain silent throughout the encounter. No sneezing. We must move slowly and, most importantly, never start suddenly or shout. The gorillas are peaceful, friendly and vegetarian – lucky for us! – but in the end, they are wild animals. However, there are no recorded cases of gorillas attacking humans.
Cameras at the ready and wearing appropriate attire, including gloves to push aside branches, our group of eight tourists begins the trek towards the jungle. We are accompanied by an additional guide and a team of porters, as well as two armed park rangers (with a radio in case of emergency). We pass tea and coffee plantations, as well as small rural villages, where children come out to sing, dance traditional dances and practice their English. To these delightful children, seeing foreigners of all stripes is a daily ritual.
After half an hour, we leave the farms, crops and villagers behind, entering the jungle. Vines hang from towering treetops among the dense bamboo foliage. There is a light mist, but you can still see a variety of birds, hear frogs croaking loudly and feel the crunch of each footfall. It’s like something out of a Tarzan movie. The guides tell us that the gorillas are about an hour away. There’s no hurry – this is the perfect warm-up for our Gorilla Trek.
“Stop, stop, shhh,” whispers Hanu, holding up his arm. In a matter of seconds, he climbs a tree and makes guttural sounds in a perfect imitation of a mandrill. Absolute silence. He makes more noises. In the distance, you can hear a reply, along with the rattle of trees and the howls of various monkeys. In his native tongue, Hanu orders one of the porters to check what’s happening. Within five minutes, he returns with good news. The gorillas are here. »
Hanu goes over the rules again. He asks us to remain calm, reminding us that we are visiting a foreign habitat and we must behave accordingly. We walk for another 50 yards until a group of young gorillas appear, jumping from branch to vine in a show of adolescent play. Then, a couple of yards further along, we see an enormous alpha male called the silverback for his shining platinum fur. He chews branches, showing a pearly white and extensive row of teeth in a sign of alertness. “Relax, relax,” Hanu tells a couple of Americans, trying to calm their fear. The band of gorillas is spread out, but they soon group around the silverback, watching us curiously. A young one skips over to cling to his mother, showing his uncertainty. The adrenaline is running high.
Each tourist deals with it in his or her own way. Time is racing. I put my camera away, drop my guard and watch them in silence. All of a sudden, one of the primates comes near. He’s just a few paces away, and on his own turf. The gorilla holds my gaze intently. And that’s when it clicks; a unique kind of sensory experience. The gorilla holds its ground, completely free and wild. As if it has something it wants to tell me. I try once again to read its eyes, trying to decipher its meaning. Nothing. It’s the law of the jungle. Behind me, I hear whispers saying, “Let’s go, let’s go. It’s their time.” It’s Hanu, who smilingly invites me to say a last goodbye. It has been an hour, and the gorillas want their space back. In
To Buenos Aires daily from Lima, Miami, Santiago and São Paulo, and once a week from Punta Cana. To São Paulo daily from Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Santiago, and four days a week from Lima. From Buenos Aires or São Paulo, a oneworld connection to South Africa and then to Rwanda.
Oscar Von Beringei brought the species to the attention of the Western world in 1902, but George Schaller was the first to undertake serious scientific research on these mountain-dwelling primates in the 1960s. Dian Fossey, his disciple, made her name with her study and tenacious defense of these animals until her unsolved murder (possibly at the hands of gorilla traffickers) in 1985. Fossey recounted her work in the book Gorillas in the Mist, which was later made into a feature film.
- A band of gorillas is made up of 15 to 20 members.
- The alpha male, known as the silverback, is the patriarch of the family.
- The alpha male is distinguished by the silver fur that runs down his back. He stands over six feet tall and weighs around 400 pounds.
- The silverback takes care of two to three females and their young.
When to Go
Any time of year is good to visit, but it is recommended you purchase your Gorilla Permit about five months in advance.
And With Whom
We recommend the following agencies:
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