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AUGUST 09, 2007

Dian Fossey's Gorillas in the Mist



We had travelled half way around Rwanda to the resort town of Kisenyi in the hope of ducking across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to see the nearby active volcanoes and the town of Goma which after several recent eruptions is now half covered in lava. Unfortunately the situation in the Congo has recently deteriorated and based on local advice we have shelved this idea for a later date. As it was we had an enjoyable day at La Mama's before heading back inland to Ruhengeri (now renamed to Musanze).

We are getting very close to the end of the dry season - as it is the rains are coming worryingly more frequently. Halfway between Kisenyi and Musanze we came across several floods, houses covered with water, mud slides covering houses up to their roofs. UN Tents lined the roadside and their shiny 4x4's plied the road helping the survivors.

From Ruhengeri we caught a converted truck, the Bisoke Express, further into the hills to the small town of Kinigi where we dismounted and in true African style (and obviously not white person style) walked about 2-3 km's to our lodge, the Kinigi Guest House. En route we managed to collect a small gathering of around 20-30 followers, children who had finished school for the day and thought it more entertaining to trail us than help their parents in the fields.

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For almost 20 years Dian Fossey studied the Mountain Gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park. The National Park is 160km2 which protects the Rwandan sector of the Virunga Mountains. There are six extinct and three active volcanoes which straddle the borders with Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. The three parks (Volcanoes National Park - Rwanda, Virunga National Park - DRC and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park - Uganda) are all managed separately, however together form a borderless 433km2 sanctuary for wildlife.

The Volcanoes National Park ranges in altitude from 2,400m to 4,500m and is dominated by a string of volcanoes. The mountains are very tall, steep, free standing and linked by lush fertile saddles which were formed by solidified lava flows. We are sure you aware of who Dian Fossey is and her commitment to protecting the Mountain Gorillas, as depicted in the movie "Gorillas in the Mist", so wont babble too much about her. We would like to point out however, that if it were not for Dian's determination, we may not have experienced such an amazing day. Whilst poaching has largely been curtailed, military still roam the hills and guide all visitors on the gorilla trek.

Before we even began the 'Living the Dream' trip, I was nagging Matt about getting gorilla permits, obviously difficult as we have no plans or timeframe. Arriving in Nairobi I was shattered to hear that they were sold out till Christmas, thankfully Lynita at Wildebeest knew someone at JK Safaris who sold us two permits. Huge thank you to all!

I had also been hounding Matt with all my gorilla knowledge (the only section of the guide book I actually read) and had set my heart on seeing the Susa group. Not only is this group the original group studied by Dian Fossey, but it is also the second largest group of Mountain Gorillas in the world numbering 39 (the largest being a research group of 65). Located on the slopes of Mount Karisoke, the Susa Group is also the most difficult to reach and consists of three silverbacks, juveniles, a rare set of twins, babies as young as one month old and of course the mamas. Aside from this, as we were paying US$500 each for one hour with the gorilla's I wanted to make the most of our day in the park. Some groups are only 15 to 30 minutes from the park gates, the Susa group is over an hours drive away and much deeper into the park (a good two hour walk each way).

The night before the trek, I slept little as my mind ticked over, hoping that we would be allocated to the Susa Group (the rangers only allocate eight people per group and you can not pre-request) and also convincing myself that it will still be a great experience regardless of group. Waking early, we rubbed sleep out of our eyes and chowed down on omelettes - of course Matt guzzled a few cups of coffee, it was after all only 6am!

The previous evening we made a few phone called and tracked down a driver, thankfully Francis was waiting patiently in the parking lot and aside from the customary greetings, his first words were: "Rose tells me you want to see the Susa Group". Remember when we crossed into Rwanda and I was supposed to hand over all our plastic bags? Well this good little Christian girl has now added bribery and coercion to her growing list of crimes. We paid a 'petrol supplement' to ensure we were allocated to the Susa group. True to his word, Francis signs us in and then heads over to the Chief Warden for a quiet word. He turned around with a huge grin on his face and gave us the thumbs up. My heart started pounding and more excitement kicked in. To say I was stoked is an understatement. I restrained myself from giving him a big hug and kiss and instead shook his hand and gave him a pat on the shoulder.

With the groups assigned, we were introduced to our guide for the day, D, and the remaining six members of our trek group - two Kiwi's, one Frog and three Yankee's. After a briefing on the size and members of the Susa Group, we were advised that for safety's sake, we should not be closer than seven meters to the gorillas. Oh, and if a gorilla charges at you, never run!

Finally leaving the ORTPN headquarters at 7.30am, we headed for Mount Karisoke. The road which starts off nicely tarred, very quickly turns into a bumpy, rock laden mountain climb. Winding our way through villages with the usual cries of Muzungu and children waving from every direction, we arrived at the starting point at 8.45am.

Waiting for us were several armed military soldiers as we were hiking near the DRC border. In 1992, trekking was halted as Congolese rebels crossed the border, killing several rangers. The genocide in 1994 also saw a cease in trekking which did not recommence until 2000.

The trek saw us walk through local crops, at the gates to the national park we passed into bamboo forest and at higher altitude semi deciduous forest. We were not eased into the walking with D setting a solid pace along the path, which was straight uphill - quite a change from the Pole Pole on Kilimanjaro. Radio receiver in hand, D would constantly chat with the trackers to see where the gorillas were. After crossing the top of a waterfall and walking for several minutes, the radio crackled and we were told to turn around and re-cross the waterfall. The gorillas had changed direction - let me tell you, this was real tracking! Slipping and sliding our way uphill, we wound through bamboo, ducked branches, were stung by nettles and spattered with mud. The excitement just kept building.

After hiking for about two hours, the radio burst into life for the last time. We were close, however we did not realise how close. Before we knew it we entered a small clearing where we met the trackers, we were told to leave our bags and get cameras ready, we lined up single file and barely took three steps around a corner before I turned to Matt and said "oh my gosh Matt, they are just there, can you see them?"

Initially only seeing a silverback, young female and a juvenile, my eyes scoured the hillside and I noticed many other gorillas dotted around. Cameras started clicking and the adrenaline was pumping. The seven metre rule seemed to go out the window, with the guides moving us closer to take photos, stomping grass so it was not in the way and even telling us to sit down whilst they took our photo with gorillas in the background. Hearing the gorillas beat their chest, eat and communicate with each other and us was incredible. It is difficult to put into words the feeling I had when seeing the gorillas and standing less than three feet away.

Before we knew it, a mother with baby aboard came out of the bush and ordered everyone to follow her further up the hill. She was initially not too pleased with all the attention and after a mock charge stood guard for several minutes before it was safe for us to pass by. D and the other guide constantly made noises to assure the gorillas we were friendly visitors who meant no harm.

I became quite nervous when a silverback decided to walk right past, in fact I had to hand the camera to Matt till my hands stopped shaking. These animals are huge, weighing about 220 kg's and after all I was on their territory. Everywhere we looked there were gorillas - babies rolling around and playing, mothers feeding their young, some in trees and the largest silverback eating without a care in the world.

After spending ten minutes with the first small group, D took us further up the hill to where the larger group was feeding on bamboo shoots. We were instantly surrounded by nearly 30 gorillas and no matter where you looked or stood you were only feet from a small bundle of fur. The temptation to reach out and touch them was immense.

Whilst trying to get the perfect shot of a baby, I did not notice a juvenile who decided that he would like to eat leaves from the branch above my head. Before I knew it he had leapt up, grabbed the branch and swung down next to me - bringing the branch with him. Both D who was standing next to me and I got the fright of our lives, when we realised what happened everyone had a good laugh.

All too quickly our hour was up, it seemed like we had only just arrived when D was shepherding us away from the gorillas back to meet the guards and trackers. Once we were clear of the gorillas everyone started babbling away like excited school children. It is so hard to put into words how we felt during this experience - with only a few hundred of the creatures left, and being able to get so close to them in their natural habitat it really was a special moment on our trip so far. Flicking through the photos immediately afterwards it was a relief to see we had managed to get a couple of beautiful shots (in the dim light under the rain forest canopy we did not think we would be able to get any).

After the exhilaration of spending an hour with the gorillas, the walk back to the vehicles seemed to just fly past. While everyone else was talking amongst themselves we managed to chat with D about the gorillas and conservation activities in the area. Here, unlike in the Congo, the proceeds from gorilla trekking is channeled back into the local community including supporting projects like the installation of rain water tanks (for clean drinking water) and improving the road infrastructure.

Once in the car we were shuttled back through the remote villages - this time along a different route that brought us out onto the main road and back to Musanze. As per usual I was totally disorientated and confused about where we were heading, thinking we were in fact heading in the absolute opposite direction...

Click here to see the Gorillas Photo Gallery (52 photos)

     
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Whew, Whow and Gosh. How amazing, fasinating, exhilarating, scary, adrenaline rushing and extremeley humbling that these incredible creatures allow us into there space. A treasured memory and we envy you both xo

Mum and Dad - November 03, 2007

oh my...that is just amazing and I could feel it, your writing is fantastic and the photo's and are simply AMAZING!!!

Salley - October 10, 2007

I want to play with gorilla's too :-(
How exciting is that! gorillas in the mist.

J & S, October 04, 2007

 
     
     
 

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