Meet the relatives: Martin Roberts’ ‘mind blowing’ encounter with Rwanda’s gorillas
So often adventure holidays don’t match up to either your expectations or their hype. On whitewater rafting trips, when you are encased in lifejackets, you can look like the Michelin man. And on jungle explorations, the pathway can be so flat that it puts the pavement outside your house to shame.
And so it was with mild trepidation that I set off to see the mountain gorillas of northern Rwanda, made famous by naturalist Dian Fossey and immortalised by Sigourney Weaver in the film Gorillas In The Mist.
King of the jungle: One of the silverbacks in the Volcanoes National Park
You can head to Rwanda on a specialist package trip, but they can cost a small fortune. Admittedly, you get luxurious safari accommodation and every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed. But I was in Rwanda anyway doing charity work, so I wondered if there was a way to ‘do it yourself’ and get up close and personal with our nearest primate cousins for a fraction of the cost.
The first hurdle is the permit. Visitor numbers to see the gorillas are (thankfully) strictly controlled, and limited to about 80 people a day. If you want to visit on a particular date, you may have to book up to a year in advance. I enlisted the help of a local travel agency in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and they worked some magic with the local permit office so that I was able to get a place to coincide with my stay in Africa.
Tours start at 7am at the entrance to the Volcanoes National Park, a huge, cloud-shrouded range spanning Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. You can stay in a selection of accommodation nearby, but it’s not cheap. Instead, I booked a taxi driver for the day and set off somewhat bleary-eyed from my lovely (and very cheap) Kigali guesthouse at 4am.
‘Best wildlife encounter ever’: Martin pictured during his trip as the gorillas frolic behind him
After a hair-raising, knuckle- whitening trip lasting two-and-a-half hours, I tumbled out of the taxi and vowed to blow the budget and stay overnight locally next time. It’s not just that it was dark and the road dotted with tortuous hairpins, but that even at 5am, locals were ambling down the roadside herding goats, pushing bicycles laden with building materials, or carrying entire commercial kitchens on their heads.
Thankfully, we didn’t hit anybody – or if we did, the driver didn’t notice as he was cleaning his glasses or peering through a small hole in the condensated fug that passed for a windscreen at the time.
A noticeboard at the park’s visitor centre contained a breakdown of visitor numbers for last year – nearly 10,000 from the US, 3,000 from the UK, 2,500 from Canada, right down to one each from Jamaica, South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia.
In total, 22,000 people came here. By comparison, some 3,000 pass through Madame Tussauds in London every morning. It’s confirmation, if you need it, that you are joining an elite band by trekking to see the gorillas.
For our trip we were separated into groups of eight. There are 19 recognised gorilla families in the Rwandan section of the park, totalling about 380 individual gorillas, while the park as a whole is home to close to 1,000.
Proud: The mother and five-day-old baby that Martin encountered on his trip
Of those 19 families, ten can be seen by tourists, and the rest are studied by researchers who continue the work so memorably championed by Dian Fossey. Each tourist group is told about the designated gorilla family it will be seeing. Some live relatively close to the park entrance – two to three hours away – while others require up to six hours’ trekking to reach.
You might have expected to see the word ‘hopefully’ before ‘seeing’, given that these magnificent creatures are free to roam the countless square miles of densely vegetated mountain at will. But no. There’s a 100 per cent guarantee that those who enter the park will encounter gorillas. We were shown pictures of the family we would be visiting and immediately felt privileged.
Not only did it contain the oldest gorilla on the mountain – a majestic 42-year-old silverback – but also the latest addition, a five-dayold infant. We were informed about the differences between the elder statesmen (silverbacks), young, troublemaking adolescent males (blackbacks), and the playful youngsters, who are totally reliant on their mother for the first three years of their life.
Gorillas share 98 per cent of their DNA with humans, which explains their uncanny human-like expressions and actions. That said, we also share a third of our DNA with daffodils, though I’m not sure where that leaves us!
And so we set off on our quest, which began with a 30-minute walk through gently upwardly-sloping farmland to the entrance of the National Park, designated by a seemingly inadequate dry stone wall – and a man with a machine gun. Here we were taught the social etiquette of meeting gorillas.
Generally tolerant and passive, these mammals can nevertheless weigh more than 30st. ‘They may come up to you and playfully punch you,’ said the guide to his increasingly concerned audience. ‘But it’s only pretend fighting,’ he added reassuringly. ‘That’s why we need to teach you a few words of gorilla language first.’
Each of us then very carefully copied the guttural ‘Gummmmmmm’ noise that a friendly gorilla makes to another on first meeting. That is followed by another slightly deeper ‘Mmmmmmn’ noise with an open-mouthed ‘MO’ sound in the middle, which means: ‘I’m a friendly gorilla, not a threat.’
I was sweating. I remembered a particularly unfortunate secondary school French class when I accidentally propositioned the teacher in an overtly sexual way when trying to say ‘The cockerel went cock-a-doodle-do’ in French. God forbid I made the same mistake when speaking gorilla.
The terrain soon turned to steeply inclined bamboo forests as we climbed from the park entrance up the mountain. It wasn’t arduous, but certainly strenuous, although we were given regular chances to stop to catch our breath and learn about the various plants and animals of the park at the same time.
High excitement: Visitors make their way up the mountain on their way to meet the gorillas
After another 45 minutes, we met up with a scouting party – three machete-wielding locals who are the key to the gorilla encounter guarantee. Having initially located the animals, they follow them to their home for the night. Since the gorilla family will stay there until the following afternoon, they can then guide visiting groups to pretty much exactly where the gorillas will be.
But how do they find them? By looking for broken bamboo shoots? Tracks in the soil? Using a sixth sense passed on through the generations? ‘No, we have GPS,’ explained one of the scouts. We were then led through even more unbeaten terrain.
If any of us were worried beforehand that it would be sanitised, well-trodden routes through the forest, we were pleasantly surprised. Jettisoning bags for the barest of photography essentials, we ducked below branches and over creepers as we made our way towards the last known location of the gorillas.
‘In the bush there,’ said the guide, pointing at an absurdly close piece of the forest. Leaves rustled. A tall bamboo plant swayed eerily and then a particularly large shoot was snapped off as if it were a matchstick. And there, just 2ft from the path we were walking along, was a blackback chewing a twig.
Special bond: Sigourney Weaver played Dian Fossey in the film Gorillas In The Mist
Most of our group did a cartoon-style leap upwards before relaxing into the seeming naturalness of it all. On we walked into a small clearing, spotting the family who were gathered like any group of relatives: dad was sleeping, kids were playing, mum was breastfeeding her baby, teenagers were play-fighting.
They watched us with mild interest as we tried to subdue hoots, hollers and squeals of delight at what we were seeing. I don’t know what I expected, but to be accepted into a community of gorillas without so much as a sideways glance; to be able to stand within feet of them and get the kind of images usually reserved for a Sir David Attenborough special; to hear them, smell them, watch and laugh with them, was simultaneously awe-inspiring, humbling, mind-blowing and tear-jerkingly moving.
The mother of the five-day- old baby seemed to be proudly showing it off to us. Older ones seemed to be playing adorably for our benefit. And as the various gorillas moved about the clearing, they strolled past us as if we were part of the vegetation.
And so it continued for our allotted hour in the clearing. Then, as if knowing that our time slot had lapsed, the silverback made a guttural growl, and the rest of his family stopped what they were doing and followed him into the forest. With that, they were gone. However, the memories of the experience will linger long. Why? Because it is my best wildlife encounter ever.
Because it is in my top ten life experiences ever, hovering just below the birth of my children but above getting a kiss from Danielle Noble at the fourth-form Christmas disco (believe me, that was a VERY big deal at the time!) No trip like this can ever be free, but my DIY version proves it can be done on a budget. In terms of value for money, I’ve not experienced better. Mmmmmmn.
KLM (klm.com, 0871 231 0000) operates daily flights to Kigali from Amsterdam, with connections from various UK airports. Prices start from about £784pp return.
Visitor permits to visit the mountain gorillas cost around $750pp (£450), including park entry and the services of a guide. The permits need to be booked well in advance of your visit.
Martin stayed at the Solace Ministries Guest House in Kigali (solacem.org), where simple but clean bed-and-breakfast rooms cost about $50 (£30) for a single and $70 (£42) for a double per night. Evening meals cost approximately $10 (£6).
A taxi to the park entrance can be booked locally and will cost about $150 (£90) for the return journey.
Source: Mail Online