Mountain Gorillas, Rwanda

July 14, 2002

Dave Svilar, Fred Sheffield

 

The Virungas can be found in the NW corner of the country.

I figured this was my one chance to see mountain gorillas.  Not only would I probably never return to this part of the world, but 1) Rwanda/Congo would be at war 2) if not at war then too many tourists would make it impossible to get a permit 3) the gorillas become extinct.  Reluctantly Fred and I parted with $250 for an hour with the famous mountain gorillas.

One of the last sanctuaries of mountain gorillas  reside in the steep, jungle-covered slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, which straddle parts of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda.  Dianne Fossey's movie (and book) "Gorillas in the Mist" brought popularity to the gorillas back in the 1980's.  The Volcano Park closed its doors in the 1990's for the war (see the genocide and Goma, Congo), but reopened them in late 1999.  There was still unrest in the region as witnessed by the murder of 8 tourists tracking gorillas nearby a couple of years before.  Tourists were still wary of Rwanda, so the authorities took no chances of losing our group of mzungus (white people) and the ensuing bad press that would result.  Therefore, just like our hike of Mt. Visoke, we had six armed guards accompanying us.  The group also consisted of six other mzungus, a guide and two trackers.

Getting a permit in Kigali to see the Susa group was easy - just tell them which day we desired to go.  It was our job to get to Rhuengeri and meet at the headquarters.  They provided rides in the back of a truck up rutted dirt roads to over 9,000 feet on Mt. Karisimbi (15,000 ft).

The symmetrical 15,000 foot cone of Mt. Karisimbi.  Fred looks down from Mt. Visoke into the jungle between the two mountains where Dianne Fossey's cabin used to stand.

We started up a path winding through thick bamboo forest.  The Susa group is supposed to be the hardest to reach.  It also happens to be the largest wild group of mountain gorillas in the world, and the one originally studied by Fossey.  There were a couple of slugs in our group that should have picked an easier destination, and it took two hours just to get to where the gorillas were off the trail.  We descended a steep ravine and traversed across a  hillside through dense growth.  The trackers had machetes which made our going easier, but still difficult for someone wearing tennis shoes.  Finally we spotted a couple of gorillas and all of a sudden we found ourselves in an opening (bushes only ~4 feet high) with gorillas surrounding us.

A bald guy and the rest of our group approaches the "opening" where we were surrounded by gorillas for over an hour.

 

Dave and Fred with a gorilla peaking up from the bushes on the left side of my head.

Gorillas with their hulking builds and shaggy coats look like they should be dangerous, but they have amazingly good demeanors.  I was told that one can look into the eyes of a gorilla and see a recognition.  As if the gorillas had human qualities.  I was never able to make this connection and felt like this was what I had paid $250 for.  In fact you could make the argument that these gorillas who spent all day grazing and eating were more like cows with hands.

Our guide points out the obvious silver back.  Gorillas grow silver back hair upon reaching sexual maturity.  From there he starts to build his harem often obtaining four or more female gorillas. 

Our group was supposed to stay tightly packed during the hour with the gorillas, but at one point Fred and I followed our guide to get a closer look at a silver back.  We heard crashes in the bushes behind us and assumed it was the rest of the group following until we heard a member of our group scream.  We spun around to see a gorilla galloping straight toward us.  At the last minute he veered off and ran in the opposite direction passing within an arms length.  Groups visiting gorillas are restricted to one hour with the animals to minimize contact and prevent the gorillas from catching viruses passed by humans, so we headed back to the truck even though the gorillas hadn't moved.

 

 

Gorillas in the mist.  Actually there was no mist - we were there during the dry season.

Fred was hesitant to drop the money on the gorillas, because he thought better adventure could be found just walking along an African road.  After living for two months on less than $10/day it just didn't make sense to spend twenty five days worth of cash on one hour with the gorillas.  Hopefully the money I spent will somehow go to help preserving the gorillas and their habitat.

-written October 2002

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