Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is home to the world’s largest population of mountain gorillas, with a range spanning into Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Rwandan gorillas were famously studied by Dian Fossey until her death in 1985, and were the inspiration for Gorillas in the Mist. There are only about 800 of our endangered cousins living in the wild today. As part of its conservation efforts, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) now tightly controls access to the park and has created a tourist industry in a community with few economic opportunities.
About a month before Joe’s arrival in Rwanda, I had secured some gorilla trekking permits from RDB, and on his last few days in Kigali, we were finally able to do the thing I’d been most anxiously awaiting since well before my arrival in Rwanda. Trips into the gorillas’ habitat begin early in the morning, before the afternoon rains, and while the gorillas are still active. On a Saturday afternoon, we drove about two hours to Musanze (or Ruhengeri, depending who you ask) to spend the night so that we could wake up slightly brighter and less early than if we had made the trip straight from Kigali in the morning. By around 7 o’clock the following morning, we were presenting our permits to the National Park officials, enjoying the scenery provided by the Virungas, and waiting to find out which gorilla family we would meet that day.
We were assigned to visit with the Amahoro family, and undertook our bumpiest ride yet, over lava rocks towards the volcanoes and the forest. Just before departing, we were reminded of the rules for interacting with the gorillas:
- Maintain a distance of 7 meters from the gorillas
- Do not visit if you have or recently had any kind of cold, flu, or other respiratory illness
- Use only quiet voices
- Do not point or gesture towards any gorillas
- No flash photography
- No food or drink
All of these rules are meant to protect the health and wellbeing of the gorillas (as humans can spread disease and be generally annoying if not advised otherwise). Groups of visitors are kept to fewer than 8 people (ours had 4) and visits are limited to one hour per day. I still have some mixed feelings about gorilla tourism, all of which I won’t go into here, but in the end, I feel that the gorilla population in the Virunga Mountains has fared better in the last 20 years than the 80 preceding years. What connection it has to tourism as a means of conservation, I can’t say.
The hike began near the base of several volcanoes, in farmland fully saturated with potatoes and pyrethrum plants. We followed our guide to a short stone wall marking the official border of the park. Here were greeted by two armed soldiers who accompanied us for the duration of the hike, and whose main purpose I am still not quite sure of (To protect the gorillas from us? To protect us from the gorillas? A precaution due to our proximity with the DRC border?). From there we headed into the forest.
The forest was lush with so many plant varieties it didn’t take long for it to become a blur of green. The paths were narrow, with low-hanging branches and vines overhead, and rocks and mud beneath our feet. I had heard warnings about the quantities of mud we would encounter, and was glad to never sink in more than a few inches, a depth my running shoes could recover from. I did, however, regret ignoring advice on hiking attire every time I brushed into the stinging nettles along the trailside and they poked through my too-thin hiking pants.
About an hour and half into our forest hike, we were told to stop walking and put down our packs. And then suddenly, gorillas!
It’s hard to narrow down the pictures to just a few.
All in all, it was an awesome experience, and I’m glad I didn’t pass it up. It was hard not to see some of ourselves in the gorillas, and I hope their interests continue to be protected in the coming years.