Gorilla Tracking Day 1: Susa Group

Trip Start Feb 06, 2008
Trip End Mar 03, 2008

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Flag of Rwanda  ,
Monday, February 25, 2008

They say that tracking the mountain gorillas is a magical experience that can be life changing.  We had many expectations as we prepared for our first gorilla trek.  Breakfast was at 5:30 am and we left the lodge at 6 am in order to drive to the gate of the Volcano National Park.  At the gate we gathered with the other wazungo (Swahili for white people, or foreigners in our case) to be split off into the different groups who would track the various gorilla families.  We were set on visiting Susa Group--the largest family with 39 members (including 4 silverbacks).  Soon after our initial introductions with Paul our guide, we had made our desire to see Susa clear.  We even considered introducing Mel as "Susa", here to see the Susa Group.   Our resourceful guide ensured our spot with Susa--the farthest and most difficult group to reach.  The max for each group is 8.  We were joined by 3 other couples who had all specifically requested Susa.
Francis our gorilla tracking guide gave us a short briefing on the mountain gorillas.  Each of the seven habituated families are led by a dominant silverback.  Consequently, all of the children in the family are his--though there is "cheating" involved and if discovered the offending subservient silverback is punished.
A bumpy ride took us to the edge of the park.  We walked for another 45 minutes through the tilled fields of a local village until we reached the park boundary.  We dove into the thick bush after Francis, along with our porters and two soldiers armed with AK-47s (for the elephants, buffaloes, and poachers from bordering Congo).  Francis was in contact by radio with the advanced trackers who had preceded us at 4 am in order to locate Susa.
The going was tough and the high altitude didn't help.  The bush was dense and by trial and error we discovered that certain plants in the unfriendly foliage delivered painful stings when touched.  We were thankful for our 99 cent gardening gloves from Wal-Mart.  One Australian girl found the going very difficult and we had to periodically stop in order to wait for her to catch up.  At the frequent stops, Francis spoke in the local language (Kinyarwanda) with the advance trackers over the radio.  There were no updates given in regards to time and distance to Susa--this was a bit troubling.  The higher we got the tougher the trail.  The ground was soon replaced by a mess of roots and foliage.  The path was slippery and springy and you had to test the ground ahead with your walking stick to ensure your next step was on firm ground.  We thought we would reach the top of the volcano and head into the Congo (it borders Congo) before we reached the group.
To make things easier, Francis and the other rangers walked around periodically swinging their machetes at the offending plants.  Over four hours after we had left the track, we encountered our first black and hairy behemoth.  The first glimpse stuns you.  The second and third are captivating.  After our first sighting we left our bags and walking sticks and continued on to get closer.  Because of the tight conditions in which we encountered Susa, the gorillas were within an arm's length of us.
We all stood in awed silence watching the dominant silverback and his large brood lounge and eat in the dense foliage.  While the adults tore at the surrounding bamboo trees, eucalyptus trees and other delicacies, the young babies clamoured around, clumsy at times, eating and playing.  The gorillas would periodically move to find fresh food and if we were in the way and could not get out of their way in time, they would just brush by with a swipe and a grunt of annoyance.  The rangers would grunt back in a fashion that meant "everything is okay".  The one hour we had with Susa was a blurry kaleidoscope of awe, fear and fascination.  We trekked down tired but content with our encounter with the hairy giants of the volcanoes.
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