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