by Wendy Fougner
For years I have wanted to travel to Africa and witness mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. This past December on a trip through Southern Africa, Bruce and I embarked on two gorilla trekking tours, one in Uganda, the other in Rwanda. Being just inches away from mountain gorillas was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Gorillas are found in the Virunga Mountain Range bordering the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Following advice from Lesli in our office, we decided to see the gorillas twice, once in both Uganda and Rwanda. There are some differences in how each country handles gorilla trekking. Both countries require you to obtain a permit for your gorilla trek; in Uganda the cost of the permit is $500 USD, in Rwanda the cost is $750 USD. The permit covers a one-day trek including an hour spent with the gorillas. In Uganda there are multiple starting points from which to start your trek, while in Rwanda there is a single starting point. In both countries you can hire a porter to assist you during the trek; in Uganda porter service is $15, in Rwanda the cost is $10. I would recommend hiring a porter as they help carry your bags and it is also a good way to support the local economy.
Our first gorilla trek was in Uganda. We woke early in the morning and were driven to the starting point of our trek. Before setting off into the jungle, we were given a presentation on proper behavior when viewing the gorillas, and then we were divided into small groups. Each group was assigned two guides—one who would stand at the front of the group, one at the back—plus another person with a rifle for protection. We set off on our trek through the jungle, starting on a nice, man-made path. Meanwhile, trackers were already deep in the thick of the jungle, searching for the current location of gorillas. As we ventured closer to the gorillas, the nice path led to a small trail in the brush which eventually disappeared, leaving us in the lush, dense jungle. Our guides cut through thick leaves and hanging branches as we continued further, until all of a sudden on my left I saw them, a family of mountain gorillas, on the side of a bank.
There was a lot of activity on the bank as the gorillas interacted with one another. The little ones were playing, rolling around over each other, climbing up trees and shaking the plants. When we arrived, the Silverback was laying on the bank acting “asleep,” and then slowly sat up and allowed the group to take pictures. It seemed as though the gorillas were engaging us in a performance, were acting for us. That is not to say that they are trained or coerced in any way, or that what they are doing is fake—in fact it is very real. Rather, the gorillas are perceptive animals that have learned what we find amusing and they enjoy performing.
During the first gorilla trek, the experience was so unique and I was so mesmerized by the gorillas, that I spent most of the time trying to capture everything on film, rather than simply watching and taking in the experience. It was still an incredible day, but I was grateful to have another chance to see the mountain gorillas once again. Our second gorilla trek was in Rwanda, and the experience here was more professional than in Uganda. All of the gorilla treks leave from a central point where there is an information centre with real bathrooms and information boards providing pictures and descriptions of the area. The guides were also much more personable than in Uganda, so I could see why the trek cost more.
We drove from the information centre to the starting point of our trek and set off into the jungle, just as we had in Uganda the day before. Again, the guides bushwhacked through the thick of the jungle until we finally reached the family of mountain gorillas. There was a lot more activity amongst these gorillas and I felt more of a connection to the family. There were 13 in the family and I remember the guides describing them as “lucky 13.” The young ones were rolling around, playing in the bush and trying to get our attention. One actually came up to us, played with my shoelaces and grabbed Bruce’s leg trying to get him to play! The guides, who know how to speak gorilla, told the little one “no” and he backed off. The Silverback, again, was asleep when we arrived and then proceeded to sit up and let us take his picture. One mother was posing in different positions, once again performing for the audience. Spending more time just watching the gorillas on the second day, I was able to appreciate how intelligent and intuitive these animals really are.
Reflecting on my encounter with the mountain gorillas, I still feel a sense of awe at their playfulness and intelligence. Mountain gorilla trekking was truly an amazing and once-in-a-lifetime experience, and if it isn’t already on your bucket list, it should be!