July 2, 2011
From Kinigi we drove to what the rangers call a “parking lot,” which is basically just a patch of dirt at the border of the fields outside the National Park. Each trek leaves from a different spot (unless two gorilla groups are close to each other), but generally you walk for about 20 to 30 minutes through the cultivated fields and then enter the forest by climbing over a rock wall that surrounds the border of the park. The wall is there to keep the buffalo in and people out. Anyone found inside the park without a permit is subject to a hefty fine and prison time.
We went trekking at the end of the rainy season, which lasts each year from March-May. The rainy season makes for much harder treks, but much better photography. Most people mistakenly think bright sunshine makes for good photos, but actually the best light for photography is overcast clouds that make the light smooth without harsh highlights and shadows. Especially when you are photographing an animal with black fur or hair like a panda bear or gorilla you want overcast skies or the surroundings can get blown out with harsh white highlights to compensate for the exposure of the black animal. However, overcast skies mean rain and lots of it! I am talking mud up to my knees and cars not being able to drive down some roads. We were in a four-wheel drive land rover, but the other people in our trekking group weren’t and we ended up having to give them a lift on the roof of our car to the starting point because their car got stuck in the mud.
Our first group consisting of 25 gorillas was supposed to be a medium-level difficulty trek, but turned into a much harder trek when at the end of the trek the gorillas moved into a deep crater with nearly vertical walls that we had to climb down into and then up the other side to find them. They are wild animals and they move so you have to move with them!
The name of the first group we visted used to be the 13 group, but it has been renamed the Agashya group after the silverback whose name is Agashya (meaning special in Kinyarwanda). The group consists of 1 silverback, 12 females, and 12 infants. Apparently the silverback in this group is known for being lazy and laid back, which we definitely saw as he lazed around in the crater, munching on everything around him and completely ignoring us. Occasionally he would look up at us and the rangers would make a low grunting noise that mimics the noise gorillas make to each other to reassure them that we are friendly and come in peace. My dad thought the noise was great and much to my entertainment tried to make it himself when we were with the gorillas. I don’t think his attempts had the same reassuring effect as Felix’s or Francois’ deep “mmmm” noise. I’m really not one to make fun though- if you ever need a good laugh ask me to show you my tiger chuffing that I learned when I worked with baby tigers at a breeding center.
The group in general was very laid back and they all ignored us, except for one baby who took an interest in his reflection in my camera and came close to check it out then ran back to the rest of the group to eat more. Most great apes like bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans and humans recognize their own reflection. Gorillas were originally thought not to be able to, but captive gorillas like Koko have proven that wrong. However wild gorillas don’t often see their own reflection and have been known to get aggressive when they see their reflection in a lens thinking it’s a different gorilla looking back at them so I got lucky it was just a baby who quickly lost interest in his reflection.
The second trek we did was to the Umubano group and really can hardly even be called a trek. After 30 minutes of walking through the fields we heard one of the guys in our trekking group yell “GORILLA!” It was his first trek and my dad and I were at the back of the group so we laughed thinking he must be mistaking someone bent over working in the fields for a gorilla. But low and behold we saw a male blackback (almost at silverback age) sitting in the fields. Behind him the rest of the group led by a gigantic silverback was making their way towards us out of the forest. The gorillas walked around for about 15 minutes exploring the fields and eating the plants. It was an amazing and pretty unique experience to see the gorillas come out of the park and made for some awesome photographs of them in the field.
We got to get very close to the dominant silverback as he chomped away at some leaves oblivious to us standing right in front of him clicking away with our shutters. After a little while he seemed to just get bored and climb back over the wall and the other gorillas followed.
We followed them back into the forest where we had some very close encounters. The Umubano group has 11 gorillas in it, 1 silverback, 1 blackback, and a mix of females and infants. This group was much more aggressive then the Agashya group and we saw multiple displays of dominance by the females (chest pounding and ground slapping) and we were charged by the silverback and two of the females. You are supposed to stand still, hold your ground and look submissive when a gorilla charges, but it is really difficult to fight the natural instinct to run. When the silverback charged the 8 of us were lined up on a narrow pathway in the forest and he charged on the left and I was on the far right so he didn’t come close to me, but the people on the left all pushed in to the right as he ran right by them. Luckily they didn’t run further and the silverback decided we were okay where we were and went back to eating. At one point the trackers moved me between the group of gorillas and one female who was on her own so I could get better pictures, but that meant turning my back to the lone female. The light inside the jungle was diffused and beautiful for portraits. I asked if she would charge me if I squatted down with my back to her and they said no, but of course as soon as I did she came barreling out towards me and I tried to squish in with the rest of the people on my right and luckily like the silverback she just ran right past me and decided I wasn’t worth her time and went back to eating. Each gorilla group is completely different and has their own distinct personalities.
Trekking for gorillas is an amazing experience that may be hard, but is definitely worth it. If you don’t care as much about the pictures you take I suggest going in the dry season because the treks are a million times easier than in the wet season. The forest is pretty dense and almost everything around you has thorns, or is covered in biting ants and stinging nettles so you want to be very covered up. The temperature fluctuates and in the rainy season it can pour down at any minute so you want to have layers. From the bottom up I would suggest you bring:
A good pair of hiking boots
Thick socks you can tuck your pants into (keeps bugs out)
A pair of gators to go over pants
Cargo pants or comfortable khakis
A long sleeve shirt
Trekking Gloves (ones with rubber on the fingers is great for photographers to help grip the camera)
Sunglasses and a hat (I didn’t wear one, but they I hate hats)
Walking sticks are given in Rwanda for free, but are not always available in Uganda. A porter can usually find you a walking stick along the way, but it may be worth it to bring your own collapsible one, or buy one of the beautiful carved ones in Rwanda if you don’t want to risk it in Uganda.
You can basically get everything you need at REI and do not bring anything you care about wearing again because you will get covered in mud. I prefer to take vertical drops by scooching down on my butt so I was completely caked in mud (and unfortunately had a few stinging nettles to my butt). Below is a picture of me and my dad in all our gear before our trek. I refused to let an after photo be taken. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
All of our treks were done through a 12-day Rwanda and Uganda itinerary with Volcanoes Safaris, which is widely regarded as the number one company for gorilla trekking. We had a few small issues with Volcanoes, but over all loved the experience. Rwanda and Uganda are still developing their tourism and have some kinks to work out. It wasn’t at the level of &Beyond’s lodging or service that we experienced in Kenya and Tanzania, but it was pretty amazing. More importantly it is a very eco-friendly and socially responsible company. It is paramount that anyone going on any kind of trip involving wildlife research the company they are going with before they leave to make sure the company practices sustainable behavior and respects the wildlife they work with. After all if you care enough about animals to spend your time money visiting them in the wild you should also care enough to want to keep them in the wild for future generations!