When I initially made my itinerary for this trip, I was certain it would not involve gorilla tracking in Rwanda. At $500 for a permit, there was nothing budget about it. And besides, can’t you see gorillas in a zoo? But I continued to read and hear testimonies of how it was an essential part of a visit to Rwanda. Everyone I had talked to that had done it said it was an amazing experience. So, with a wad of 59 bills in hand, I walked into the tourism office and hoped to get a permit. Only 56 people are allowed to go per day and during peak season, permits can be weeks out. I was lucky that they had a permit for May 27th; so with my muscles tensed, I looked away and handed over 291,000 Rwandan Francs.
Depending on which gorilla family you are assigned (there are 7 families with 8 people visiting each group) you will start tracking at different parts of the park. You need to have your own transport, and a 4×4 vehicle is essential. Therefore, most trekkers go through a safari company. I was fortunate enough to go with JK Safaris. A safari company catering to visitors in East Africa, Kris and his partner Jonas have over 20 years of experience. They run classic and lodge safaris in Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda.
On May 26th, Kris met up with me and two other trackers. He introduced us to our driver John, and we set off. From the start, it was an enjoyable experience. John has this jovial air to him and an irresistible smile (which came in handy at the park office). I got to know the other two on the trip, and we exchanged travel stories. Our first stop was at the Kigali Memorial Center, but since I had bummed around Kigali for a few days, I had already been. While my fellow trackers went in, I stayed in the car and got an education on the genocide from John. As tough as it is to hear personal accounts of the genocide, it’s an eye-opening discussion.
Two hours later we were heading to Musanze at the base of the park (formerly Ruhengeri, as the government changed towns’ names after the genocide). John gave us a lot of information along the way about everything from Rwandan culture to what types of crops were growing alongside the road. He made a couple of stops for us to take photos (something we were all keen on!) including a source for the Nile River. On a bus, you can’t just tell the driver you would like to stop for a photo-op so it was a nice change.
We arrived around lunchtime and were dropped off at our respective hotels. I enjoyed the afternoon by resting and doing a little work. It was early to bed for me, as I had to get up at 5am the next morning!
7 hours later:
Groggily, I dragged myself out of bed, but the anticipation of the gorillas were quick to lift my mood and get me going. I packed up my gear and was happy to see John in the JK Safaris Land Cruiser waiting for me out front of the hotel. We drove towards the park, picked up the other two trekkers at their hotel, and were at the park office a half an hour early. I took advantage of the complimentary tea and watched a video about Dian Fossey’s work. As other trekkers filtered in, all of the guides and drivers gathered to determine who would be going to see which family of gorillas. Like I said, there are seven families and your fitness level plays a role in which family you will be assigned. My group was hoping for a medium trek. John corralled with the other guides and came back 10 minutes later to tell us we were tracking Group 13, the second largest family with 23 gorillas and a medium trek. We were all excited, and he laughed. Seeing how Group 13 is one of the most popular families, we knew it was that infectious smile that must’ve worked in our favor! John drove us to the starting point where we met up with the other members of our group to set off for what would be a once in a lifetime experience.
For more information on JK Safaris and the many safaris they offer, visit their websites:
Disclosure: JK Safaris supplied me with complimentary transport.