Our six hour trek began at the base of a dormant volcano about three hours northwest of Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. Our 4×4 vehicle, filled with friends and our guide, has taken us as far as Volcanos National Park will allow this particular combustible engine to pass. At 7,700 feet of elevation and on relatively flat land, we took our first steps on our way to the park entrance navigating through a small village followed by a series of nutrient rich, agricultural fields. This was our first glimpse into the daily life of a rural Rwandan farmer. Distant, and repeated, calls of ‘hello’ were heard from many high-pitched and scattered voices. A quick look up from the narrow and muddy trail we spotted the young farmers with wide smiles and flailing hands making their way to our trail. Without losing pace, we were able to return a few high-fives and make some new friends.
At this point, there were many emotions heightening our senses. Being the first time to this region, we are experiencing a positive sensory overload as we absorb the new scenery, new culture, new food, new smells, and an ever growing excitement of encountering our first mountain gorilla tribe.
Two hours into our ascent we arrived at the park entrance. It was a six foot tall rock wall with a small opening. We were instructed to leave our back packs at the entrance and only bring essential items moving forward. I left a small bag and ensured I had my camera equipment and extra batteries. Passing through the park boundary instantly put us into thick brush and a narrower path. We teamed up with the full-time, friendly gorilla trackers who wielded sharp machetes, necessary for clearing new paths to the always migrating tribe. Another 30 minutes of dodging branches we began to hear some murmurs, followed by a quiet dialogue spoken in the local language, break out between the guide and trackers. Looking and listening expectantly, our first sighting of
gorillas seemed to materialize very quickly. The density of the jungle moved us into a position much closer to the tribe than expected. Feelings of caution, awe, exhilaration and intimidation rapidly replaced all anticipation. We were surrounded by a gorilla family from babies up to a dominant, 400 plus pound male silverback. As a young-adult gorilla walked by, nearly brushing against me, I recalled our orientation prior to the journey when guides mentioned to keep a distance of 7 meters. Apparently, some rules did not apply in that situation. At that time, it was confirmation that we were now in gorilla territory, abiding by their rules. We were only to remain calm, quiet and observe.
It was heartening to learn how serious Rwanda was about protecting the gorillas and their habitat. Not all gorilla families are habituated with human encounters. Many families will never see a tourist and the families that do encounter outside visitors are limited to small groups, only one hour per day. It was reported to us that there are only about 880 mountain gorillas alive today and only live in the high-altitude, volcanic regions within Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Our hour with this Rwandan gorilla tribe, without a doubt, was well worth the travel and cost to this remote area and exceeded all of my expectations. And, that was only Day One.
To be continued…