If you missed yesterday’s introduction to my gorilla tracking, catch up here. After hearing that my group from JK Safaris would be tracking Group 13, we drove to the starting point of our trek. There were 8 trekkers, 2 guides, and an armed guard. It was lovely scenery as we were walking to the park and through a small village. The massive hills of Rwanda surrounded us. We reached the stone wall, signaling the edge of Parc National des Volcans. It goes for about 6 kilometers and keeps buffalo from leaving the park and destroying the local community’s crops. The second guide gave a speech here about rules when we are with the gorillas and also to warn us of stinging nettles. My tragic childhood experience with nettles was suddenly recalled. The guide said, “If you are stung by nettles, don’t cry out. It will scare the gorillas. Instead we ask that you suffer in silence.” Ha, given my track record that wasn’t going to be so easy.
There was an immediate change of atmosphere once we stepped into the park. The air was moist, the forest was thick, and because of the previous night’s rain, it was extremely muddy! The guard led the way so that he could use his machete on anything in our way. My brother-in-law owns two machetes (no, I don’t understand it either) so I think I may have found him a new career path. What do you think Adam? We initially entered the forest on a traveled route, however, we soon had to veer from it and venture into the thick forest. When we came upon the nettles, the guide warned us, and I tucked my hands in my pockets. Unfortunately, I was stung through my pants in two places on my leg. I kept my mouth shut, but now I know why I screamed my head off as a child- it really does feel like something is burning you! Once inside the park, it was only about a 30-minute walk until we came upon a set of park rangers. These rangers stay with the gorillas from early morning until they make their resting place in the evening. This way, they know where the gorillas have settled for the night and can locate them in the morning. We had to leave our bags and walking sticks with them, taking only our cameras to where the gorillas were.
When we first came upon them, we could only see two gorillas. It was in a thick area of brush, so it was difficult to see. Slowly, they relocated a little further away to an area of bamboo. As we were snapping photos, more gorillas started to join us. We were right in the middle of the action. A baby gorilla even brushed past a couple of people. We witnessed juveniles being so playful, with one of them just swinging around a tree. A mother was cradling her baby. Some were playing in the treetops. The lighting was low, and without a flash, it was difficult to capture them. Luckily, they moved again to an open field, and this spot is where we really got to observe the gorillas together. The silverback (who is the leader of the gorilla family) was massive. I thought, ‘My what big hands you have. What big feet you have…’ He was intimidating and large, and at one point, faked a charge at someone.
You can only spend one hour with the gorillas, but it felt like a matter of minutes. Even though you hear stories, it’s still hard to believe how these amazing creatures act until you see it for yourself. Their interactions with each other and how they behave are similar to that of a human. They are gentle and come within feet of you. Gorilla tracking is definitely an experience that a zoo cannot replicate. After seeing these gentle giants in their own habitat, I can see what drew Dian Fossey to fight so hard and ultimately lose her life to save them.
After the gorilla tracking was over, I was taking a bus to Gisenyi. However, I had some time to kill so I invited my driver John to go to lunch. It was only then that he told me that his prior gorilla tracking experience was with Group 13- and the silverback gorilla pushed him over and sat on him! I thought it made for a great story to tell, but apparently not all of his clients have felt that way :)
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