Here are a few more pictures from our gorilla treks to give you a better idea of what went on.
Here are a few more pictures from our gorilla treks to give you a better idea of what went on.
Time to wake up at 5 AM, breakfast at 5:30, meet Robert at 6 AM and head off to Volcanoes National Park Headquarters. Even if we weren’t going trekking, it was good to see all the activity in the towns in the morning. Adults and children were out and about walking to work or school, taking potatoes, bananas, eggs etc. to market.
After yesterday, we were very glad we’d booked two treks to have another opportunity to see gorillas. This time we were assigned the Sabinyo group with Big Ben, the bald gorilla; and Guhonda, the oldest Silverback gorilla in the park. and our trekking guide was Fernando with Placide to help. Fernando made Susan into Queen Susan and Susan and Jane from Australia led the way. No one could go faster than we did. At least people were kind enough to tell us that we were going just fast enough – ie. SLOWLY!
This group was much better than yesterday’s group:
Susan and Mark each hired two porters again and Josse (female) and Andreus were the best for Susan. I think the drivers should do a better job of explaining what the porters can do and the importance of the employment to the economy. I can testify that their assistance in walking in mud and crossing rocks and little wooden bridges is immeasurable!
Today’s walk was much easier than yesterday’s hike, at least on the way up to see the gorillas. We found them after a nice walk through a relatively good trail and only a bit of trekking through cleared brush. Susan must have looked pitiful again because the ranger and trackers helped her through the brush after we left the porters.
Our first encounter with a gorilla was to see Big Ben sitting in the middle of the trail as Susan came around a corner. He was easily identifiable as he is noticeably bald on top! He moved a bit off the trail and we all watched him for 5 minutes or so.
Next encounter was in a clearing with the Silverback wanting to move down the trail. When a silverback wants to move, you move! We all cleared the trail but the silverback charged the group as he moved. Another male (teenager) stopped to play with bamboo tree and threw it, hitting the Australian in the knee. Then he rolled down the hill in sommersalts!
We saw a mom holding on to her baby tightly.
We followed the gorillas for a bit and found some playful little ones.
Then the rain started, and we learned that gorillas don’t like rain. They all try to find some place to hide and several ended up under a tree’s rout system. The gorillas sat and stared at us! By this time our hour with the Sabinyo family was up and we moved on to trek back to the start.
Remember, it rained, right? The rain stopped but now the trail was mud and more mud! Thank heavens for the porters who helped Susan through the mud and held me up when I had to slide down a little hill and helped me up the steps of mud!
Mark and I thought the hike was easier than yesterday other than the mud but the MA couple said this was harder than their previous trek. The MA couple only walked 6 minutes the day before because our silverback had chased their silverback and his family out of the park.
After the trek Robert stopped at the gift shop for us to get our certificates, use the toilet and buy t-shirts of the family we saw!
Poor Elie at Virunga Lodge when we got back! He took one look at our hiking boots and knew we’d had a messy hike. He laughed and asked if we wanted a picture of our boots before he cleaned them!
If you ever get a chance to visit Rwanda and the Gorillas do it. Rwanda is a beautiful country and the people are very proud of how clean and safe the country is after the 1994 genocide. We can attest to both as we never saw a piece of trash and we will talk about security at the airport in another post. BTW, people are hired in Rwanda to plant flowers, pull weeds, and pick up trash. This isn’t their full-time job; it’s a part time job. The last Saturday in every month is national clean-up day and even the president participates.
How to describe this adventure? This post will be rambling as was the hunt for the Muonza Family, a family that has been an easy hike to see since June (important point).
Let’s start with the Group members:
DCM, DCW, ALM, ALW had trekked the day before on what turned out to be a steep hike in the forest for 2 hours. That was their description of that hike and they made sure to tell the guide, Patrick, and the group about this.
The day before they’d been accompanied by another friend who used eight porters to carry him on a stretcher to see the gorillas. This is an option for $200. Since we never saw the stretcher (“African helicopter” as the guides call it), we have no idea what it looks like. Friend opted not to come on the 2nd trek.
Note: if you do a hard hike one day, you will generally be assigned an easy hike for the next day.
Patrick tells us about our family and its silverback leader and off we go. Mark and I each hire 2 porters and Tom hires one porter (important part of the story). The other four people hire one porter per couple. We trek through farm fields and DCM slips off a ledge about 2 feet and tells the guide he needs to stop. The guide talks with DCM and the DCM continues on the trek. Note – you are told that when the group starts, the group has to stick together since there is only one ranger with a gun with the group and the group can’t be split up. We reach the wall, and start hiking UP the volcano. The whole time Patrick is talking to the tracker about the gorilla family location.
The whole saga goes from bad to ludicrous from here on. When we reach the wall, DCW wants to know how far away the gorillas are because they have to be done with the trek by 11 AM so they can go back to the hotel, pack, shower and drive to Kigali because they have 17-hour flight to get home to the US. “They were promised the trek would be done by 11 AM”.
It’s getting a bit slippery, but Susan’s two porters are amazing in the slippery places and steeper areas. One of Mark’s porter and Tom’s one porter go off to help DCM and DCW.
A bit further on, DCW complains “the trek is taking too long and they have a 17-hour flight home. They can’t keep trekking. They were promised this trek would be short.” The tracker via radio tells Patrick that Silverback Muonza has figured out that another family is in the territory and has gone off to fight with them to chase them off. The rest of his family is scattering through the forest but a few gorillas are nearby. Patrick tells the DCM, DCW we are only 10-25 minutes from the gorillas. He encourages them to continue.
Another note: Before you can visit with the gorillas, you give your walking sticks and backpacks to your porters who stay with them. The only people who go to the gorillas is the guide, 8 visitors, trackers, and ranger.
Anyway, we all stick together and manage to see about 4 gorillas for a short amount of time. To see more of the family, we have to trek through rain forest that is being hacked down by the trackers. At this point we are going straight uphill and walking over very slick plants that have just been cut by the trackers with machetes.
DCM and DCW refuse to go any further so Patrick has to decide what to do about porters, trackers, etc. DCM and DCW stay in a clearing with two porters while the rest of us go chasing through the jungle with trackers using machetes to hack down the undergrowth. Thank heavens they helped me walk on the undergrowth (I must have looked pitiful.) to keep my feet from getting tangled and falling!
We see another two gorillas before the gorillas take off running. At this point we all head downhill to a clearing with Patrick trying to find out where the silverback is. Now, ALM and ALW say it is getting late and they all need to leave and they can’t go without DCM and DCW – remember the 17 hour flight!
The porters bring DCM and DCW to our group and after a bit of discussion, the four of them with their two porters and a tracker leave. We have no idea if or how they got down because at this point Tom and Mark each get their porters back. DCM & DCW asked why the porters weren’t going with them and Patrick said they didn’t hire the porters and the porters were staying with Mark & Tom. With all porters back, we go downhill to try to find the silverback.
Thank heavens for John (an ex-poacher) and Emil who helped me through all the brush and mud and over rocks and down slippery slopes. The three of us were pretty far behind Mark and Tom and Patrick. We all met up in a potato field at the bottom while Patrick checked with the trackers again/continuously!
It’s now been 4 hours of hiking and we are all (probably not the porters) tired. When Patrick hears that the silverback has headed up the mountain to find his family, we admit defeat and head back to the cars.
We could tell Patrick was very frustrated with the gorillas and with DCM, DCW, ALM, ALW. He just shook his head and apologized because we didn’t see the silverback of the Muonza family – it’s nature! The next day, our guide, Fernando, told us that trekking guides have to fill out a report if they don’t see gorillas and the group can come back the next day for a free permit or get another one free the next time they visit Rwanda.
It was an adventure! Our group of three was the last one to return of the day and Patrick reported to the head ranger that Muonza Family needs to be reclassified as hard family because the silverback is moving around trying to add females to his family by fighting. He promised we’d get an easy family tomorrow!
We started out as an easy group, but finished as the hardest trek that day. All the Rwanda people we spoke to knew that our family had become the most difficult trek. We climbed over a 650 feet in a mile so we had approximately a 12.3% grade.
We are in Rwanda to trek with the gorillas, requiring a flight to Rwanda, a visa on arrival at the airport along with $30 US, and a trekking permit for a substantial amount of money. We lucked out because we got our permit about 1 year ahead of time before the permits doubled in price. The additional revenue is used to buy land and increase the size of the park/habitat for the gorillas. Up to 12 groups of eight people each can go out in one day to visit the gorillas and permits can be hard to get in the high season. In low season (now) far fewer groups are here. On the day before our first trek, only 2 groups went to visit the gorillas. There are 20 families total in the jungle, but 8 of the families are for research only and no visitors are permitted.
The gorilla trekking in Rwanda is all in Volcanoes National Park on the volcanoes that are shared with Uganda and the Congo. Gorillas can and do move between countries without a passport or a visa. That is a favorite joke of the guides. Not so much for the humans who want to visit them.
Check-in time for the visits is 7 AM at Park Headquarters where our driver took copies of our passports to check us in. Everyone checks in here if you are doing the Gorilla Trek, Golden Monkeys trek, or a hike.
Before going any further, let me back up a few hours. The 7 AM check-in required us to get up at 5 AM (Yes, it is dark then.), eat breakfast about 5:30 AM and then go with our driver at 6 AM for the hour drive to the Headquarters.
How did we dress for this adventure? Long pants, wool sox pulled up over the pants, hiking boots and gaiters. These are to prevent nettles from sticking to our legs and nasty ants from crawling up legs between the pants and sox if the sox are under the pants (This happened to 3 people on our Golden Monkey Trek.) as well as to collect mud along the way. Leather gloves are recommended to protect hands from the nettles and to grab on to bamboo and plants to pull yourself either up the mountain and to help keep you from sliding down the mountain because of the mud.
All the literature warned us it could be cold at 8000 feet. Being good Coloradoans, we had layers with us – t-shirts, mosquito repellent long sleeve shirts and rain jackets – to go with the pants. Did we need them? We wore some combination of these clothes everyday on the hike but not because of the cold. The volcano is a rain forest – think humid – meaning Mark and Susan were never cold but we couldn’t prevent rain and used the rain jackets during the rainfall; we used the long sleeve shirt to save our arms from getting scratched up.
Back to check-in … the drivers negotiate with the trekking guides for what kind of hike their customers want – easy, medium, or hard. Robert, our driver, was good and negotiated an easy family for the first day. He seemed to know all the trekking guides which is a good thing!
The gorilla group you are assigned is based on the hike difficulty and during high season, it’s tough to get an easy hike. A lot is based on age and even VIP status. It’s low season, making it a bit easier to get the family/hiking difficulty we wanted.
After being assigned a gorilla family, the group of eight meets with the trekking guide who is responsible for getting us to the gorillas. He gave us information about the gorilla family and trekking and we met the other members of the group.
Then it’s time for the last visit to the toilets – VERY clean – before heading out with our driver, Robert, to the trek starting point. Each gorilla family has a different starting point requiring a 10 to 30-minute drive to the starting point. At the starting point, everyone gets a walking stick to use if we wanted and we both opted for one. The porters can be hired there, too, and then it’s time to start the walk!
About the porters – Porters carry your backpacks which should have bottles of water and some snack food or lunch along with all the clothes you have. They also are amazing at pointing out where to step and helping the visitors up and down stones and steep inclines and muddy trails.
The porters dress in blue with a name and number on each uniform. All of them are either ex-poachers or from a family of poachers with these jobs providing an alternative income to poaching. We were told that the average income for a person in Rwanda per month is only $45.
The porters show up each day to their assigned area and are assigned to visitors in a rotation, ensuring that everyone gets a chance to earn money. In low season, porters may only work 1 day a week. The official price to hire a porter is $10 US plus a tip and visitors can hire as many as you want. Mark and I each hired 2 porters each, both to help us and to help the economy. Given the cost of a permit, the cost of a porter is miniscule. We were rather surprised that more people didn’t hire porters given the age of some of our fellow trekkers. (Read that to mean older than we are!)
The trackers for each gorilla family are already in the forest looking for the families and stay in radio contact with the trekking guides to inform them about the family location. Our treks involved walking through potato and bean fields to get to the “wall”, the boundary of Volcanoes National Park. At this point the trek starts to go uphill, either gradually or steeply, and each group is joined by a park ranger armed with a gun. The rangers will scare off any elephants or water buffalo you might encounter (We never saw anything worse than big piles of buffalo poop.)
When the trekking group meets the tracker in the forest, you know you are close to the gorilla family and the excitement builds.
A side note … our trekking guide on day 1 used his cell phone in addition to the radio. We laughed that cell phone reception is better in the middle of the Rwandan National Park than it is in our house in the middle of Ft. Collins!