Gorillas! An hour with the Sabinyo Group

Trip Start Jun 08, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2005

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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Day the Thirty-third - in which we Go Ape. Yeah baby!


Up early for the trek. I felt much better and not even the bumpy truck trip up to Kinigi was a problem.
At the ORTPN Headquarters we met up with all the other permit holders and after signing in went and stood in four groups, a group of 8 for each of the 4 gorilla groups. We had heard the Susa Group was good because of its size and also the presence of twins born last year. Bonny and Donna had already been tracking once and seen the Susa Group so we were happy joining another one. Also, the walk to the Susa Group can be strenuous and I'm not really up for strenuous right now.
So Sabinyo Group it is.
The walk was nice - no great proliferation of giant stinging nettles as we had been warned about. I felt vaguely nauseous and kept having to spit to rid my mouth of saliva [mmm nice] but other than that it wasn't really any harder than a walk in the Welsh hills. I can imagine it gets more difficult in the wet season though. The guide offered walking sticks to anyone that needed one.

Our group [the people, not the gorillas] consisted of myself, Stef, Bonny and Donna, then a talkative 60 year old American lady, a British traveller, and an American son and mother. Neither of the latter two seemed particularly bright, and the son, Ben, was a complete plank. He didn't seem interested at all. Muppet. This was especially annoying because the Brit had come with 2 friends and one of them had to stay behind because there wasn't space. How gutted would you be? And then to learn there was a boy in one group who didn't seem to realise he was going to see rare gorillas and how fricking amazing that opportunity was.
Bonny and Donna were not impressed with their country's ambassadors...

The Sabinyo group territory is situated on the slopes of Mt Sabinyo, in the saddle between Sabinyo and Mt Gahinga. Mt Sabinyo is massive - 3634m - and is smack bang on the meeting of the corners of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. The walk initially gives great views west, with Mt Visoke [Bisoke], 3711m, and Mt Karisimbi, 4507m, in the foreground and Mt Mikeno, 4437m [in the DRC] behind. I think the picture below shows Mikeno, with Mt Ngezi in front of it, and the slope of either Visoke or Karisimbi to the left.

Then the trail heads up Sabinyo and the views are limited to the looming Mt Gahinga and Mt Muhabura.

Part the way up we all stopped for a breather [the 60 year-old did very well], and the sound of singing floated up to us from one of the villages on the lower slopes. It's Sunday today, so it must have been a church service. It was a lovely moment.

The climb flattened off and the trail took us through a bamboo grove and out onto an open plain area.

We sat down to for a bite to eat while the trackers went ahead. They returned to tell us that the gorillas were just up on the slope ahead and to the right. Eee!
We left our bags on the plain, and headed up. And there, in the tall thistles, a big shaggy black gorilla. You can't quite believe it - your brain initially thinks, 'man in a monkey suit'. We became aware of more around us, and in the shade of a bamboo thicket near by. The big dude got up, revealing he was indeed the silverback male. Awesome.

They were so placid. Completely unfazed by our presence. The guide knew 'gorilla' and occasionally reassured them with a two-part grunt sounding a bit like someone clearing their throat. Apparently it means, "It's ok." These guys - both the guides and the armed guards - are recognised to an extent by the gorillas.

You aren't allowed to go tracking if you have a cold or anything else contagious. Obviously with only about 600 gorillas in the wild [split in half into two distinct populations - here and in Bwindi in Uganda] a contagious disease would be catastrophic. You also aren't allowed closer than 5 meters, though the gorillas don't know this and the young ones sometimes approach visitors for a closer look.
The stay is limited to an hour, to not disturb them too much, and you aren't allowed to point. Apparently it's not a welcome gesture. It's remarkably difficult not to point, since it's actually a pretty instinctive reaction to seeing something amazing.
[And, as I discovered in Asia with Jem, where pointing is considered rude, you actually point a lot more often than you would think.]

They just sat there eating thistles [ouch!] and regarding us with a casual gaze. It was incredible.

Getting them to look directly at you while you take a picture is quite a challenge. I wonder if they'll ever start not liking having a camera pointed at them?

One female had a newborn baby, but we didn't really see her - she spent the time hidden in the bamboo. There was an older baby, right cheeky sausage!

Rather a lot of photos were taken. When the group all retreated to the bamboo thicket, we were still able to take pictures when others couldn't due to Stef's digital camera and changing the ISO. Flashes aren't allowed for obvious reasons. We even took a couple of short videos of the baby messing around.

I love this photo - Stef's the one in the foreground - because the gorilla is casually plucking at a chunk of vegetation in the background. Bless.

The baby and his mom came closer, and sat nearby. The baby kept trying to climb all over her, and she kept him at bay with her elbow. Their expressions are classic.

Toward the end the Silverback decided to remind us exactly who is boss, and charged beating his chest. Everyone kind of cringed and crouched down, except Stef who took photos. Alpha males... honestly. The photos were full of blurry black fur, so that didn't work, but hey.

Then the hour was up and we left the group in peace. The walk down was smooth, though I was getting pretty tired. Having not eaten much in the last few days I'm feeling weak.
We bought postcards at the headquarters - the first we've really found in Africa - and then drove back to Ruhengeri.

I had a nap, and then we met up with Bonny and Donna for dinner in the courtyard restaurant of the Hotel Urumuli again. This time I was up for eating something, and yes, the goat kebabs and tilapia with avocado are divine. Really really good. Especially if it's the first food to pass your lips for days.

We talked for ages - it's nice to meet other people who are like-minded and have a decent intelligent conversation. And then back to bed. My tummy was slightly off, probably due to the sudden influx of food, but it was totally worth it!
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