In Search of the Gorillas of Rwanda

My overland tour included a mountain gorilla trek as one of its highlights, and wild horses couldn't keep me away!

When I was about 10, I read an article about the incredibly rare mountain gorillas of central Africa. Something about it obviously stuck in my brain, because when I was thinking about exploring more of Africa in my gap year, I decided to go and see them.

John's Jungle (J)apes!

My trekking day started very early morning in camp in Kisoro, Uganda.

We had to leave before sunrise in the backs of pickup trucks. Crossing the border into Rwanda and setting our watches back an hour, we made it to the HQ of the Parc National des Volcans in Ruhengeri (where Dian Fossey worked and the setting for the film Gorillas in the Mist), and were separated into groups of seven.

Each group was then assigned a guide and a group of gorillas to trek to, and led into the forest. The mountain I climbed formed the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda, and we were told the gorilla group had been spotted at 3000m. We started hacking through the jungle.

Three hours later, sweaty, out of breath and having been scratched to pieces by the vegetation, we were told to put our bags down, get out our cameras and be very quiet - a gorilla had been spotted! Looking up the steep slope, we could see the dark shape of a youngster in a tree.

Edging closer, our guide started making 'soothing gorilla noises' (or grunting loudly)! The dominant male of the group, the Silverback, appeared to take exception to our presence, and started pounding his chest and roaring. We had been told to stand our ground, that he would do this to intimidate us, to prove he was bigger &mdash I wasn't arguing with him — and that he would settle down.

A young mountain gorilla in the Virunga region of Northern Rwanda

As he relaxed, a female emerged from the bush behind three of us, and walked back to the group, brushing past the backs of our legs. One of the rules of the park authorities is that visitors may get no closer than seven metres to the gorillas - that brush past my trouser leg will stay in my mind as one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

The next hour passed far too quickly - taking pictures (no flash, it apparently aggravates the animals) and just watching them. It sounds obvious, but they look intelligent, they care for their young, and I feel incredibly privileged to have spent that hour with them.

Facts about the Rwandan Mountain Gorillas

A few travel tips and facts about the experience:

  • The gorillas live in a mountainous, volcanic region called the Virunga, straddling the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
  • The Virunga gorillas have suffered a combination of habitat loss, illegal poaching, disease and civil unrest, bringing the population close to the brink of extinction in the 1970s and 1980s, but conservation is slowly having a positive effect.
  • There are now thought to be around 880 gorillas living in the wild, compared to about 550 just a few years ago, with as much as half of the world's remaining population living in the Virunga Mountains.
  • The area is remote, and it took days to get there from other tourist areas in Uganda.
  • The trekking permits aren't cheap, setting you back about US$750 including the cost of trekking in the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda. Mgahinga National Park and Bwindi National Park in Uganda charge about US$500.
  • This price pays for your guide, entrance to the park, and allows you to spend one hour with a gorilla group. It is a lot of money, but most of it is spent on directly conserving the gorilla population and in educating the local people in the importance of conservation in the fragile mountain forest ecosystems of the area.
  • In Rwanda, there are 13 groups of gorillas, but only four are used to tourists, so book early.

Tribal drummers celebrating the birth of an endangered mountain gorilla

A Final Word on Rwanda

Finally, it is worth saying that while Rwanda is beautiful place, it does have a history of violence, and vigilance is recommended. Check the FCO's Rwanda travel safety page for the latest information, and ensure you also check on the status of the Democratic Republic of Congo too if you are planning to travel near to the border.