My clothes were stuck to me and I was tired from crawling for ages on hands and knees through the undergrowth (there are no roads in the rainforest!) ….. Realising that I was extremely unfit and embarrassed that the porters had to keep helping me along, I wondered why I was paying to be struggling up a mountain in central Africa! Then, round the next corner, the guides signalled to us to stop and stay quiet ….. through the bushes I heard a grunt and something moved. Just a few feet away was the most magnificent creature I had ever seen. A huge silverback Gorilla lay on his tummy resting his chin on his hands in a human-like pose with his gentle eyes watching us. From somewhere beyond him a few screeches announced the arrival of black balls of fluff cavorting at top speed towards the big daddy, who tolerated their bouncing and chasing in the way of a wise old Grandpa watching the children at play. We forgot the pain and the dirt of the climb and sat enthralled for our allotted hour and observed the family life of one of the world’s most endangered species, the Mountain Gorilla.
This was from my diary notes in 1999, the first time I was privileged enough to see these incredible creatures. Everyone remembers David Attenborough sitting whispering in the giant thistles on his Life on Earth programme and it truly is like that! I returned again recently and the climb was harder than ever (or I’m older, probably!).
There are two species of gorilla, the most well known fluffy variety is the Mountain Gorilla which spans the range of mountains and forests along the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (scientists still argue whether the Bwindi population are a different subspecies!). The Lowland Gorillas have less fur and live in the thick forests of Central African Republic, Cameroon and Congo. There are a few safari operators just starting to offer tours to see the Lowland Gorillas, ask me to find out more if you are interested, I have details of three or four operators in different parks. If you would like to join a small group safari including gorilla trekking, take a look at the Rwanda Primate Safari or the Gorillas and Mara tour.
Mountain gorillas have a home range that is decided by food source and usually includes various zones of vegetation including bamboo forests, hagenia forests and giant senecio zones (up to 14,100ft). They prefer the Hagenia forests and the vines that are found there year round, travelling lower to bamboo forests when fresh shoots appear. Their social structure is arranged by long term bonds between individuals and they are led by a dominant silverback (sometimes there are several silverbacks in a group). They are usually very closely knit groups and are not territorial. The Silverback will fiercely defend his group and they are usually dominant for around four years or so. The usual group would have one leader with a few blackbacks (young males) and three or four mature females plus their young. Most males and some females leave their birth group, and join others after about the age of 11 years. The Silverback is the one who keeps peace in the group and is especially protective of the youngsters, often adopting them if anything happens to their mother.
The trek itself
When you go on a gorilla trek to the Mountain Gorillas, you must be in good health, as the Gorillas are sensitive to human diseases and a reasonable level of fitness is required. You have a very early start in the morning and your driver takes you to the park headquarters, where trekking groups are allocated (so you can actually request an ‘easier’ group if you like but there is no guarantee!). There are also other treks in Rwanda such as the hike to Visoke and Dian Fossey’s grave and the Mount Gahinga Trek, plus the Golden Monkeys – who are in the same area as the Gorillas but on the lower slopes in the bamboo forest.
You are then driven to the trail head and off you go! Take plenty of water and snacks with you, keep your camera handy and dry and take a few porters with you. Even if you think you don’t need them, you will! It helps the local economy too, by paying a porter to carry your bag and help you. You will also have trekking poles. Once you enter the park perimeter, your guides are in touch by radio with the tracking teams and rangers who always go ahead and locate the groups at sunrise each day. As there are no paths or signposts and gorillas have a habit of charging off through twenty foot thistles or up and down steep slopes, you need to be prepared for a lot of up and down before you find them. Depending on the group and where they are, you can trek for anything from five minutes to nine hours. Once you find them, you leave all your bags, sticks and belongings (apart from your camera) with the park guards while your guides take you close to these wonderful animals. You then have one hour in their company which is rightly strictly adhered too. Make sure you take time to actually watch them, don’t spend the entire hour with your head in the camera!!
Returning to the base your will be presented with a certificate to confirm your achievement then it’s back to your hotel for a nice cold beer and a shower!
The Lowland Gorillas are not as ‘commercialised’ with very few habituated groups. Instead you can lie low in a hide or at a viewing site, usually with your Ba’Aka Pygmy guides and watch as many species of wildlife come down to the Bai’s (forest swampy clearings) to feed and drink. There are several places now in West & Central Africa where you can track and watch Lowland Gorillas, ask me for details of group tours or a tailor made quote. Take a look at my pages for Congo, Central African Republic and Cameroon.