Ruhengeri-A close encounter with mountain gorillas

Trip Start Dec 16, 2005
Trip End Jun 12, 2006

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Awoke at 4am. This always happens when I have a big event I have to get up for. I'm always concerned the alarm will not go off and spend the time clock watching! Never mind, 4:30am and the mosque chants kicked into top gear. 5am and there is someone somewhere in town playing some sort of bugle - no I'm not going mad, someone else confirmed my suspicions later that day! 5:30 and the room is vibrating with the snoring of someone next door and by 5:45 as my alarm goes off I'm already well and truly awake! Quickly packed the bag and then outside for 6am to meet Francis, my driver for the day, where we got on the road to Kinigi, a town laying at the base of Sabinyo. Great views of the volcanoes, Muhabura, Gahinga, Sabinyo, Bisoke, Parisimbi and one over the border in Congo I don't know the name of, that apparently started blowing out smoke the previous year. I guess they are still active!

There are 5 habituated gorilla groups in all, I was assigned to go and see the Susa group, the hardest one to get to and the one furthest away from where we were. It is however the largest group with 37 members and is situated high on Parisimbi.

We got an interesting talk before we left, some of the stuff I can remember was how the males develop. From 8-12 years they are called blackbacks and can grow up to 180kg. From 12-15 they get the distinctive silverback that gives them their name. One of the silverbacks in each group will be the chief. The Susa group for example has 4 silverbacks weighing in at180-220kg (that is 400-440lbs!!!). Also yhey identify the gorillas by their nose marking, similar to the way we identify humans by their fingerprints! Despite their size and look of ferocity they are vegetarians and pretty save to be around.

It was a 90 minute drive over mainly rough tracks to out starting point. Lots of kids waving and shouting the whole way, views of the volcanoes and sorghum fields (a local grain). I'm glad we had the long drive to get where we were going as the scenery was fantastic.

To be honest I was worried I wasn't going to enjoy the gorilla experience that much, a bit commercialised, too many people all crowding around to get a look, blah, blah, blah. One of the main reason I'd done it was my book described it as most peoples favourite experience in Africa!

It was a nice trek up through rainforest and bamboo. One guy who had an altimeter said we were just below 10,000ft. We had to leave out packs with the trackers and head off with just our cameras to see the gorillas. These trackers had already done the job of finding them and they would stay with them the whole day to protect them from poachers.

It is difficult to describe our first encounter, I thought we were in for a longish walk once we dropped our packs, but literally 20ft in the guide moved away some vegetation and there laying down 5ft away was a large female gorilla! I'm not too sure what I was expecting but I was shocked. Our guide pushed on and within 10 minutes of seeing plenty more we ended up in the middle of a circle of at least 10! I was literally stood over a blackback who had rolled over and was napping at me feet. All the young kids were playing with each other and rolling around and one of our group had a fit of laughter when one of the older males let out a rip roaring fart! The laughter certainly got the gorillas attention.

The gorilla that was lying at my feet had a big gash on his eye and a huge one on his chest. The guide mentioned this was probably due to him trying to get a bit too friendly with a female and been put in his place by a silverback.

There were a couple of the large silverbacks hanging out with us but eventually the big boss came onto the scene. This caused a bit of movement amongst the other gorillas. He was actually coming down directly towards us so we had to stand right back and got pushed into some bushes, stinging nettles and trees. As he came through the other silverbacks made a bolt for it and the big guy came running through the bush chasing them and within a foot of us! I found out later that he had whacked one of the Dutch guys on his leg as he came through!

We moved on with the family as they fed and played before a similar incident happened. This time the guide had hold of my arm and as the silverback charged passed he hit my guide squarely on the chest with a crunching punch narrowly missing me. I asked my guide if this was usual, and he just replied they're only playing. I was hoping they didn't want to play with me!

My guidebook mentioned you should not get closer that 15 to 30ft from the gorillas. We were clearly a lot closer, I'm not too sure if my guidebook was just been over cautious or if our guide was trying to increase the thrill factor to get a big tip. He had certainly done this as a couple of the guys had crouched into balls at certain points and even turned to run (a definite no no with the gorillas). I have to say though that my one hour with the gorillas had to be one of those life time memories that I will not be forgetting anytime soon! I'm still trying to process that whole experience - in some ways it's so surreal it's almost like it didn't happen.

Back in Ruhengeri and I hiked a local hill to watch the sunset behind the volcanoes, I was a bit worried as there was cheap corrugated tin housing at the top of the hill and I wasn't sure how the people would react to the tourist, camera in hand. The guys I met turned out to be some of the nicest people with some of the best English of anyone I had met in Rwanda!

Back to the hotel and into the bar for the African Cup of Nations final. It was my one white head amongst 200 black ones! The first thing I noticed about this bar was it was a no smoking bar. They are more advanced than England in that respect! The support was definitely for the Ivory Coast. Not too sure if this was because as Paul Theroux put it in Dark Star Safari - 'Egypt is not really Africa' or if it was on religious grounds. Rwanda has a huge Christian population and there were churches all over the place.

Thought it best to join in with the locals and support Ivory Coast so it was a bit of a disappointment when Egypt won on penalties, against the run of play I may add.

Back to the Urumgli Hotel for chicken in cream of mushroom sauce and chips. What a day, it doesn't get much better than this!
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jonclark2000 on

Re: catching up on trek news
Glad you're enjoying the journals - hope you're taking out my nasty language before you read it to your kids!

lindalequesne on

Thank you so much for sharing your day with the moutain gorillas. I'm going to Rwanda in August and have a permit to see them on the 28th - I can't wait!! I hope my experience is as wonderful as yours was. Great photos, by the way - what kind of camera did you use?

jonclark2000 on

You will have a ball - a truly magical experience. I had a Digital Rebel XT - pretty old camera by today's standards! The main thing is the light can be pretty low, so if you can manually set the ISO to a high number and get a lens with a wide aperture you'll do a lot better - hope that helps :)

lindalequesne on

Thanks Jon, I appreciate your reply. I'm going to have to invest in a proper camera before the trip - and learn how to use it - words like "ISO" and "aperture" don't mean much to me at the moment (although I DO know what "low light" means! (ha ha)
I read most of your blog in detail....and I'm curious....did you end up marrying Erika? I'm a sucker for a good love story!

jonclark2000 on

Married with baby on way living in Australia - have a great trip :)

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