Rwanda Gorilla Tracking; Gorillas in the mist at Virunga Range

Gorilla tracking is one of the highlights of Rwanda’s tourism. Having been poached for bushmeat and trophies over the years, the world famous mountain gorillas are now an endangered species with only about 880 left in the wild. And so we decided to pay them a visit.

By Suzan Muumbi

It was his first time on a plane and his excitement was palpable. “Will we see the clouds?” he asked.

“We’ll fly right over them,” I replied.

My nine-year-old nephew squirmed in his seat.

“Can I open the window?”

“No, the windows don’t open. If they did, you’d be sucked right out of the plane.”

He mulled the idea, and seemed to think that wouldn’t be so bad, quite an adventure in fact, just like he had seen in cartoons on TV.

We were on our way to Kigali from Nairobi, for a week-long family trip. Three generations, aged 76 to nine. Eight in total. We travelled separately, in groups of five and two, and one solo traveller.

I had been to Rwanda before, first in 2013, for the annual Kwita Izina ceremony in which baby gorillas are named. After that visit, I had raved about the country to my parents, and now, more than three years later, they decided to see for themselves what all the fuss was about.

Our flight on RwandAir took us through Entebbe, where we stopped to drop off and pick up passengers. We flew into Uganda over Lake Victoria.

“Wow, look at all those islands,” my nephew exclaimed. The lake is vast, and dotted with lush green islands.

About an hour later, we landed in Kigali. With four children in tow, we worked our way through immigration with no hitches. Our driver from the Serena Kigali was already waiting for us and we were soon on our way.

Kigali Genocide Memorial

The following morning, after a hearty breakfast of fruit, cereal and countless doughnuts, we sat down to plan our day. We hadn’t figured out exactly what we would do that week, so we were winging it.

My mother and my son wanted to go to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, which I had visited before. The museum is the saddest place I have been to, and I braced myself for this second visit.

Twenty-three years after the genocide, the haunting pictures, stories and videos are a stark reminder of what fear and hatred can lead people to do to each other. It would be the perfect place for all to visit right now, to remind you how careless talk and stoking fires of negative ethnicity can lead to death and destruction.

The following day, we ventured into the city to buy souvenir T-shirts. The last time I was in Kigali I had bought some at the Nakumatt supermarket, so that’s where we headed. Unfortunately, they were out of stock.

Our foray into Kigali took us to the market, where we bought trinkets, and to the new mall — Kigali Heights. President Paul Kagame had opened it earlier that day, and we hoped to bump into him… but he had already left.

We walked around the mall, but only a few shops were open. From the back side of the mall we could see the Kigali Convention Centre, which was not open to the public that day.

Across from the mall and opposite parliament is a lifesize statue of a woman holding a child’s hand. I later learnt that it was erected in honour of women and their contribution to peacebuilding in the country. The area surrounding the statue has well manicured grass ideal for taking pictures, with the convention centre and Radisson Blu hotel in the background. So we stopped and did the obvious touristic thing. We took pictures.

Gorilla tracking

According to the Rwanda Development Board, the country received 26,240 tourists from Kenya in 2015, down from 27,195 in 2014. We were glad to add to the numbers, and hope more Kenyans and other East Africans will follow suit.

Carmen Nigibira, regional co-ordinator of the East African Tourism Platform, says that the Central African nation hosted a total number of about 1.22 million visitors in 2014, 153 million East Africans, and if just one per cent visit their neighbouring countries the region could be well on its way to achieving its tourism targets.

Gorilla tracking is one of the highlights of Rwanda’s tourism. Having been poached for bushmeat and trophies over the years, the world famous mountain gorillas are now an endangered species with only about 880 left in the wild. And so we decided to pay them a visit.

Since it was low season, we were able to get three permits from the Rwanda Development Board offices to track gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in the north.

During high season, it is advisable to book for the permits in advance as only 80 visitors are allowed per day on the mountain.

We planned to go to Gisenyi, and make the trip to the Virunga range, where the gorillas live, from there. Gisenyi is near the border with the DR Congo, and is just 187 kilometres from Kigali. The Kigali Serena hotel arranged our trip to their sister hotel by the lakeside.

No border crossing

Lake Kivu Serena is a beautiful hotel, set on spacious grounds right next to the lake, ideal for a holiday. From the beach, we could see houses just a short distance away across the water, which we were told were in the DRC. We were curious to see the town, so the hotel organised for a driver to take us around.

The children and I piled into a truck and off we went exploring. There are two border entry points nearby. The first one we went to is the proposed one-stop border entry point, with most of the people driving through in large Landcruisers. Our smartphones indicated that we were now in the DRC, so we asked the security guards, really nicely, if they would allow us to step across the border into Goma, but it was against the law as we didn’t have visas. No amount of cajoling would get them to budge.

The other border point, the Poids Lourd border post, just a few kilometres away, is very busy. Crossing here is mostly done on foot by small traders, mostly women.

There are Customs and immigration offices on both sides of the border. The offices on the Rwanda side are neat permanent buildings, but the ones on the DRC side look like rusty shacks, a clear illustration of the different lifestyles on each side of the border.

Old man’s teeth

At 5.30am the following morning, we left the hotel and drove through thick mist to Kinigi. Kinigi is the base from where we went up to the mountains. I had been here before; it is the site at which Kwita Izina is held every year.

Rwanda Gorilla Tracking; Gorillas in the mist at Virunga Range - Volcanoes National Park

Gihishamwotsi’s bamboo chewing session at the Sabyinyo mountains.

Tourists assemble at 7am for a briefing, and are divided into groups of a maximum of eight to visit the gorilla families. After breakfast, packed for us by the hotel, and entertainment by the Sacola Traditional Dancers, we hired raincoats and boots and met our guide, Mr D.

Our group was small, just my parents and I, and Dan Murphy, a tourist from the US. Mr D informed us that we would be visiting the Sabyinyo group, found on Sabyinyo Mountain in the Virunga range. Sabyinyo means old man’s teeth in Kinyarwanda, and the mountain does indeed look like it has teeth.

The first part of the gorilla tracking was through a village, where we picked up porters to help carry our bags (and us if need be!). The porters are former poachers who have been rehabilitated and now make an honest living. Mr D had called ahead to rangers who live near the mountain, to inform them that we were on the way.

At the border between the farmland and the forest, we met with a ranger who knows the forest well. Mr D gave us instructions on what to do when we encounter the gorillas.

“Sometimes the male wants to show who’s boss, and he does this by beating his chest. If this happens, crouch and wait for him to calm down,” Mr D said.

And off we went. We climbed through thick mud and bamboo forest, up slippery slopes, always wary of the large stinging nettle leaves in our path. En route we came across a lone buffalo. In Kenya, lone buffaloes are extremely dangerous and best avoided. This one seemed to be injured, or just tired, and didn’t bother us. But to be safe, we took a different route around it.

Unexpected visitors

We got to a point in the forest where we had to leave our bags behind with the porters, and go into the forest with just our cameras and valuables. The gorillas weren’t expecting us so they were not exactly home. But the ranger knew where to go, and voilà… about two metres away, was a mother and her baby. They walked past us like we were trees, and we watched in amazement, not sure what to do.

Rwanda Gorilla Tracking; Gorillas in the mist at Virunga Range - Volcanoes National Park

Gorilla Mother & Baby of the Sabyinyo Gorilla Group

“Can we take pictures?” we asked Mr D.

“Sure you can,” he assured us. So out came the cameras and mobile phones and we happily clicked away.

Further into the forest, the ranger spotted one of the silverbacks of the family, probably Gihishamwotsi, the eldest son of the powerful Guhonda. Guhonda is the largest silverback measured to date, at 220kg. The silverback is the male leader of the group, and he has silver coloured hair on his back. We seemed to be interrupting Gihishamwotsi’s bamboo chewing session, so he went further into the bushes.

Who’s boss?

Hacking through the bamboo with a machete, the ranger led us to a spot from where we could see him clearly. By now we were confidently snapping away and taking videos until suddenly, he stood up to his full height, and beat his chest. The sight was terrifying! Up close, the chest-beating sounded like a deep threatening drumbeat… and we froze. Fight or flight, our bodies screamed as the adrenaline flowed freely. Fight was not an option, so we turned around to flee for our lives.

Guhonda - Rwanda Gorilla Tracking; Gorillas in the mist at Virunga Range - Volcanoes National Park

Guhonda Silverback – Sabyinyo Group Leader

“Don’t run. Crouch like I showed you,” Mr D called out.

Hearts beating fast, hands shaking, we crouched.

“You can stand up now,” Mr D informed the now meek tourists, after about 20 seconds (which felt more like 20 hours!)

Knees knocking, we stood up and Mr D offered to take photos of us with Gihishamwotsi in the background. Having established that he was still in charge of his turf, the silverback had sat down and resumed chewing his bamboo. The four of us were still quite shaken, but we managed to sit still and have our pictures taken in turns.

Shortly after, seemingly bored of our shenanigans, Gihishamwotsi sauntered off.

And so we continued our explorations, in search of other members of the family. Guhonda was sulking in the bushes and only showed us his back. Apparently he’s getting old, and is not eager to hand over leadership to his son.

Mzungu in the mist

A short distance away, we came across another mother and much younger baby. The mother was preening herself as her baby swung on the low branches and toppled down into her lap. Two younger blackbacks (males between eight and 12 years) sat together, right behind us, calmly watching the show.

The silverback showed up again to monitor our activities, but kept his distance about five metres away. And so our visit came to an end. We wished our gracious hosts goodbye, and proceeded back down the hill.

Lake Kivu, in Gisenyi, western Rwanda

Beautiful Sunset on Lake Kivu, in Gisenyi, western Rwanda

On the drive back to the centre at Kinigi, we stopped by a tourist centre to be issued with certificates for having successfully tracked gorillas. There were brightly coloured T-shirts in all sizes for sale, and we were excited to finally find souvenirs. On the front of the smaller sizes was written, “Someone I know has tracked gorillas in Rwanda.” We selected several. But what’s that written on the back? “Mzungu in the mist,” after the 1983 book (and subsequent movie) Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey, about her life with the gorillas in the Virunga mountains.

There was no way we could buy these T-shirts! Deflated and disappointed, we bought some that were for the few non-mzungu tourists, in bland colours of grey and jungle green. With the drive to promote regional tourism now in full force, through the launch of the East African Tourism Portal last month, I hope there will be more tourists from the region going to track gorillas, and the T-shirts will soon read, “Kenyans in the Mist.”

Because the age limit for tracking gorillas is 15 years, we had left the children at the hotel. They didn’t mind as there was plenty to do. Spoilt for choice between swimming in the lake and the swimming pool, they crisscrossed the hotel grounds several times that day. They also rode on jet skis, and went on a canoe ride in the lake. The adults were clearly not missed.

The following day, we returned to Kigali, and flew back home to Nairobi the day after that, with a lot of memories.

This Article first appeared in the East African Weekly Newspaper by Suzan Muumbi – Kenyans in the mist at Virunga range.

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