Yes, the main attraction of most people's trips to Rwanda (and Uganda) involve the Mountain Gorilla. I started with this photo because it shows what lots of us are feeling in the moment---this photo is sort of like a psychological test---is the gorilla frustrated, sad or just being lazy in the time of social distancing? COVID-19 has already taken a toll on the Mountain Gorillas. We are genetically so close that diseases humans have (colds, flu, etc) can be spread to the Gorillas. Under normal circumstances, a viewing distance is monitored by the park ranger, but since we don't know what (if anything) COVID-19 will do to the Gorillas, Rwanda has temporarily stopped all visits. Ugandan visits are basically on hold because the borders are closed and there are no tourists there to visit the Gorillas. That is OK in the short term out of an abundance of caution, but in the long term it could destroy the progress made against poachers. Poaching was reduced because other ways to make money were introduced with tourism---from trackers to find the gorillas, to wait staff in restaurants and park rangers to provide security for both tourists and the animals, as well as craft people to sew linens, weave baskets, or paint for decoration or to sell to tourists. If those jobs are gone, so are the economic opportunities for the people living in these areas.
So, all of that to say, once borders re-open and travel is possible again, it is even more important than ever to support travel that supports the still endangered Mountain Gorilla (and other sustainable wildlife tourism). There are currently an estimated 1,000 wild Mountain Gorillas in the entire world....up from 480 in 2010. That is a huge accomplishment in a decade and will only continue if visitors come and support the infrastructure in place to save this species.
I know you have all come to my travel blog to hear about my experience. Visiting the gorillas in the wild had been a dream of mine for years. Probably since seeing Gorillas in the Mist or seeing their photos in National Geographic. Sometimes when you are so excited to see something---hype it up so much---the reality can be disappointing or underwhelming. Not so in this case! There are typically 12 gorillas families that can be visited---the other few families are for research purposes only. Each family can be visited by only 8 people each day (plus the warden and trackers). That means only 96 people can have this experience each day. Some families tend to be further away from hiking starting points and other tend to stay closer to the trails. The gorillas are wild, so they move each day. There are no promises as to how long it will take to see the gorillas or even if you will see them at all. Typically, about 95% of visitors see the gorillas, so those are good odds. I asked my driver for a shorter hike as opposed to a long one. I wanted to be in good shape by the time I saw them :) I also have asthma and hiking at 8,000-9,000 feet can be a bit of challenge. I was assigned my group and after a short briefing by our park ranger, we were on our way. We hired porters (similar to my experience on the chimp trekking). Our gorilla family turned out to be about a 2 hour hike in. We were not running up the mountain, but we were not slow.
We were told that we were close to the gorillas and so we had to drop our backpacks and walking sticks and leave them with the porters. We walked maybe 5 more minutes and all of a sudden a bamboo tree moved. We could see a black blur in the distance. We all fumbled for our cameras trying to capture a photo. Looking at those photos now, I could convince you it was a Mountain Gorilla, but you would have to use your imagination :) We were all excited that we had seen one gorilla....smiles all around. The warden used the machete to clear a bit of a path and when we popped our heads out the other side of the jungle there was a little clearing....filled with 10 gorillas! You do have to stay about 20 feet from the gorillas, so the 8 of us were all pushed up against trees to keep the required distance. The gorillas carried on about their day without caring we were there. There was a baby nursing on his mom, several juveniles (3-4 years old) playing and wrestling just like human kids do. They were vocal and grunting and squealing. Some of the younger gorillas were climbing all over their moms and the Silverback (the dominant male) and you could hear the sighs much like human adults let out when they are frustrated with their child. We were lucky and had found them on their rest period after eating breakfast. The guidance is to spend some of the time taking photos---you obviously want to document these beautiful creatures---but also to put down the camera and just experience. Take in the noises, the smell, the facial expressions. There were some shots I missed, but I don't care. The image in my head is as permanent as a photo. One was when the Silverback decided to get up and move. He didn't take his time....he got up and was moving our direction in seconds. Not threatening, just switching locations....but when 350+ pounds moves in your direction, it is hard not to hold your breath or let out a little gasp. You are advised to be quiet---limit talking and when you talk to just whisper. You are also told to stay put and absolutely do not run. This is one instance when the gorillas didn't get the memo about the distance we were supposed to be keeping. Occasionally gorillas make contact with the visitors (mostly accidental) and once the Silverback completed his move, there was about a foot between me and him. The park warden rearranged us to get back to the required minimum distance. You are allowed exactly one hour to be the Gorilla family and trust me, that time goes by in a blur. At about the 10 minute warning, the Gorillas decided it was time to eat again and one by one, they moved into the nearby trees and started climbing. Some of the branches were stronger than others....we heard a thud or two when a branch snapped. At least one of the juveniles thought it was the best game ever. He snapped a branch and came rolling out of the forest with the biggest grin on his face before heading back in and trying again. The gorillas were all either hidden or eating in the trees when we left. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to have seen what I saw. If we had found the gorillas even 30 minutes later, my experience would have been very different. Each family has their own dynamic and the trackers and researchers do get to know their patters well, but this is far from a choreographed event. This is their jungle and we are simply visitors. Talking with other tourists, the Mountain Gorilla experience is different for every group and every day. Some people saw even more playing than we did and others only saw a few members of a group and they saw no playing or interacting....just some napping.
These few photos give you an idea of what the jungle looks like. In the beginning, there are some basic trails. As you get closer to the gorillas, the paths are made by the warden. You basically walk right through the jungle. The photo is of me and Solange, my porter. Even though it is warm, you need to wear long sleeves and long pants since lots of vegetation has thorns or will scratch you. You also need gloves (sticking out of my pocket) as the area is full of stinging nettle---not a pleasant sting, short lived, but still something to avoid.
The hike back everyone was chatting about what they saw and how amazing it was. I was giddy...couldn't believe I had actually seen the gorillas and it was way better than I anticipated. My driver/guide has joked if I would be ready for some champagne when I was done. I thought he was kidding, but upon our return around 12:30pm, he pulled out a bottle from a cooler. The amazing people at the One and Only Gorillas Nest had added the special touch to my packed snack. I've toasted to less momentous occasions, so 3 of us enjoyed a glass while continuing to talk gorillas. I've smiled my way through writing this blog as well....this is truly my happy place. I know that my trip made a difference to the locals as well as the gorillas. I will never forget this experience.
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.