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Gorillas in the mist

Fearless explorer Hannah Wayte treks to the heart of Africa on the trail of critically endangered primates in the lush Virunga National Park.

  • A baby gorilla in a playful mood.

    A baby gorilla in a playful mood.

  • The author, third from left, and her fellow trekkers.

    The author, third from left, and her fellow trekkers.

Hastily scribbled in my travel journal, a short sentence is all that remains of the awe-inspiring experience of gorilla trekking in Rwanda: “Today was a day that I will probably never, in the course of my lifetime, be able to repeat.”

There are various reasons why gorilla trekking is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. These primates are critically endangered, the most recent study estimating that there are about 880 left in the wild.

Happily, this is a number which is increasing slowly each year, in no small part due to the protection they are given through funds raised from the sale of trek permits.

Gorillas share 98.3 per cent of our DNA, making them our closest cousins after chimpanzees.

Spending an hour with them is going to cost you a good deal more than a tedious lunch with the extended family, however.

After a recent price hike, you can expect to pay €550 for a Rwandan permit.

Babies ran past us and clambered up trees over our heads, sometimes stopping to stare at us in equal fascination

It is cheaper to see these animals in Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, but there are fewer gorillas on the Ugandan side, which means there is a much smaller limit on the amount of people who can trek each day.

As for the DRC, entry visas can be expensive and many travellers have complained of problems in crossing the border into the country.

There are seven habituated gorilla families that may be visited from the Rwandan side of the border.

Trek groups are limited to a maximum of eight people, accompanied by two guides and, if needed, a porter.

Gorillas are non-territorial and tend to roam the mountains, moving daily to find better feeding grounds. Professional trackers monitor their movements, making it easier for trekkers to locate the families, but there is no exact science to it. It can take anywhere between 45 minutes and five hours to track these gentle giants.

So it was that I found myself trudging through a potato plantation and then helped over a wall into Virunga National Park. The park itself is worth visiting whether you are gorilla trekking or not.

It stretches across three countries – Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC – and is a great example of what can be achieved when different governments serve a common interest (in this case, the protection of a species).

Almost immediately upon entering the park, thick forest sprang up around us, making each step a challenge. As we traipsed in single file up the steep slopes behind our guide, the pace was slow despite his efforts to clear the path with a machete.

Hanging vines, fallen tree trunks and nettles all seemed out to get us. Our guide informed us of a new peril when one member of the group started to hop from foot to foot, yelping in pain: fire ants.

At the beginning of the day, we had been asked if we would prefer an easy or hard trek. Despite choosing the easy option, gorilla families’ movements are unpredictable, and it wasn’t until three hours and a few vows to quit later that we finally struck gold.

In a small clearing we found three armed trackers in charge of following and protecting the Kwitonda group, the gorilla family we were looking for. Many trekkers are ex-poachers; an ingenious idea as no one knows how to find gorillas better, and making their livelihood by safeguarding the species means an obvious decline in dead or captured animals.

We were immediately alert to the sound of something large crashing through the trees, and dropped our bags and walking sticks, as instructed. After following our guides a little further into the forest, there was a collective sharp inhalation from the group. Directly ahead of us sat a female gorilla, a baby playing in her lap.

Surreal doesn’t even begin to explain the next hour. While we had been instructed not to approach the animals and keep at least seven metres distant at all times, it would seem that the gorillas hadn’t been made aware of the rules. Babies ran past us and clambered up trees over our heads, sometimes stopping to stare at us in equal fascination.

The leader of the group, a massive silverback with a brooding expression, sat in his nest with his back to the group, occasionally turning to check if we were still there. Sharing a look with this gorilla made the trek a truly unforgettable experience for me. His eyes demonstrated a keen awareness of my presence and there was no denying the intelligence that lay behind them. It was a humbling moment.

Guides are strict about spending no more than one hour with the family and the time passed in a flash. Descending the mountain was much faster than climbing it and by the time we reached the bottom, it felt like we had stepped out of a dream.

Gorilla trekking is neither a cheap nor easy option but one quick glimpse of these creatures is enough to make none of that matter. It is undeniably one of the most memorable wildlife experiences to be had in the world.

Book your permit

Gorilla permits can be booked at the RDB Tourism and Conservation Reservation Office in person, by telephone (+250 252 5765 14) or via e-mail: [email protected].

Costs for gorilla permits: $750 (€550) per person for non-nationals, inclusive of park entry fees. It is advisable to organise your own transportation to take you up to the park boundaries.

Access begins in the lively town of Musanze, situated 12km from Kinigi, the base of the entrance of the park. Musanze is a 90-minute drive from Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali.

On the day you are scheduled to trek, you must present yourself for briefing at the RDB Tourism and Conservation offices situated at the prefecture offices in Kinigi at 7am.

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