On the day of our gorilla trek in Rwanda, we awoke to heavy downpour and thick fog. Guides had warned us that in drenching rain the gorillas typically move deeper into the forest to shelter among the thick foliage. In that case, viewing them would require a vine-clinging, strenuous hike up the slippery mud slopes of Volcanoes National Park, a challenge my husband, David, and I hoped to avoid. If any of the majestic primates stayed low on the mountain, we worried that the dense haze would conceal them.
Nevertheless, our pre-reserved permits were for that one day. Because of the hefty $1,500-per-person fee, we had not, as the staff at Wilderness Safaris’ Bisate Lodge suggested, purchased permits for two days. It was trek or forfeit. We wondered whether it would be “gorillas in the mist” or “missed gorillas.”
Each of the 12 habituated gorilla families may be viewed for one hour only by up to eight people. At Kinigi, the park’s trekking headquarters, rangers assigned visitors to groups. Because staff tracks the gorillas daily, the rangers can estimate the location of each troop. The “easier” trek led to the nearest gorilla family, and the “difficult” hikes headed to those situated farthest away.
Fortunately, the Muhoza family, named for the 460-pound silverback leader, had kept its position low on the mountain. A New Jersey woman traveling with her 25-year-old son had endured a nearly six-hour roundtrip slog the day before to view other gorillas. She grew deliriously happy when she was assigned to our “easy” group.
By the time we arrived at our departure point, the rain had stopped. We picked our way over the fallow potato fields, trying not to trip on the lava rocks or slip in the mud-filled furrows. At one point, Sabyinyo, a dormant volcano whose cloud-covered peak rises 11,959 feet above sea level, towered in the distance. Its slopes marked the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the three countries whose national parks make up the Virunga Massif, an ecosystem of about 174 square miles that provides habitat for 604 mountain gorillas, according to a May 2018 census. Add the 400 gorillas counted in 2011 in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and the wild population swells to 1,004. When zoologist Dian Fossey was killed in Rwanda in 1985, fewer than 300 mountain gorillas remained in the wild.
Soon we reached the black lava rock wall that demarcated the park’s boundaries. The ranger reiterated the rules: Speak in whispers, stay with the group, don’t use flash, don’t touch the gorillas even if they touch you, and make eye contact but don’t stare.
Three trackers met us and led us through thickets of bamboo so tall it reminded us of enchanted woods in storybooks. After about 10 minutes, the shady bamboo gave way to dense bushes entangled with vines. The trackers cut a small path through the growth with their machetes and we followed. In five minutes, we arrived at a small sunlit glade.
That’s where we saw the gorillas. Muhoza, the silverback, rested on his belly, supporting his huge head with his catcher’s-mitt-size hands as a female methodically — and it appeared to us, lovingly — picked the insects off his back. Muhoza acknowledged us with the smallest movement of his head toward our group. Far from being scared, as we anticipated, we were calmed by the gorillas’ peacefulness.
An older female momentarily opened her eyes to look at us, then went back to dozing. Near her a mother and another female shared care for a 3-month-old infant. Like little ones everywhere, he couldn’t sit still. He scampered up his mother’s chest, climbed back down again, began digging in the ground, then jumped over to his “aunt” before moving back to his mother, who cuddled him before he wriggled down again.
All of a sudden, we heard a rustle of leaves as a juvenile, hidden from us on the far hillside, swung on a vine to the bushes behind us. He examined a leafy branch before disappearing into the thicket for food.
Then, Muhoza sat up, positioning his back, as broad as a VW Beetle, toward us. With the help of the trackers, we navigated the edge of the clearing to plant ourselves across from Muhoza. Trying to gaze — not stare — we looked at him and he at us. His eyes were soft and regal and filled with intelligence. We felt a humanlike connection. Gorillas, after all, share some 98 percent of their DNA with humans.
There was no chest-thumping or baring of teeth. Content and willing to let us into their world for one hour, the gorillas’ serenity surprised us, their acceptance humbled us, and their seeming understanding gave us a new perspective on animals and humans. It’s an encounter that we will long remember.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.visitrwanda.com/interests/gorilla-tracking
It’s wise to book lodging and obtain permits well in advance because the number of people allowed on each day’s trek is limited.