THOMP­SON

Sunday Mirror - - PUZZLES -

The ra­dio crack­led into life and Ranger Ed­ward beamed at us. “They’re just half an hour away,” he said, re­lay­ing the news from the track­ers deep in the for­est.

Ex­cite­ment rip­pled through our small group. We were about to en­counter the fa­mous moun­tain go­ril­las!

We’re in the mys­ti­cal Virunga Moun­tains, a chain of vol­ca­noes shared by Rwanda, Uganda and the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo and home to just over 1,000 moun­tain go­ril­las – and more than 600 of them are here in Rwanda.

There are 12 fam­i­lies ha­bit­u­ated to hu­mans in the Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park on the Rwan­dan side – a fur­ther eight groups are stud­ied for re­search pur­poses only. And this is the only place on earth where you can see moun­tain go­ril­las, as they don’t sur­vive in zoos – if you’ve seen one of these great apes in cap­tiv­ity, it was prob­a­bly a western low­land go­rilla.

To­day my party of eight tourists (the max­i­mum al­lowed on each trek) is head­ing to see the Kwitonda fam­ily. de­lighted to dis­cover that this is one of the big­ger groups with 33 mem­bers – in­clud­ing TWO sil­ver­backs and sev­eral ba­bies.

Ed­ward – who has worked in the park for 18 years and yet was as ex­cited as we were about em­bark­ing on this ad­ven­ture – gath­ered us round to go over the rules one last time: stay at least seven me­tres away from the an­i­mals, no eat­ing or drink­ing in front of them, turn away and cover your mouth if you sneeze or cough (they’re sus­cep­ti­ble to our germs), no run­ning, no cam­era flashes, no loud noises – and no star­ing down a sil­ver­back.

There is a strict one-hour time limit with the go­ril­las, so Ed­ward gave us his best piece of ad­vice: re­mem­ber to put your cam­era away and just en­joy the mo­ment. The phrase “once in a lifeWe’re time” is of­ten overused, but go­rilla trekking per­mits cost $1,500 per per­son, so this isn’t go­ing to be an an­nual ac­tiv­ity!

I kept check­ing my watch as we headed fur­ther up the slopes, fol­low­ing paths deeper into the bam­boo thick­ets. As the 30-minute mark neared, my heart was thud­ding in my chest – and not just from the ex­er­tion and the al­ti­tude.

We stopped in a clear­ing to meet the track­ers who had been out since dawn find­ing the go­ril­las for us, and we left our stuff with our friendly porters.

Even if you don’t need a bag-car­rier (we just had small day­packs), many of them are for­mer poach­ers and they run pro­grammes here to teach the guys that the go­ril­las are more lu­cra­tive alive than dead, so it’s good to sup­port them.

Armed with just our cam­eras, Ed­ward led us through the last bit of for­est... and sud­denly there they were!

Ten mag­nif­i­cent go­ril­las just chill­ing on a flat­tened bed of bam­boo, ig­nor­ing us as we stood there in stunned

SPE­CIAL MO­MENT

CLOSE EN­COUNTER Karin meets the Kwitonda go­ril­las SHORE LUX­URY Lake Kivu Ser­ena Meet­ing the go­ril­las

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