DISCOVERY: Day out with the gorillas

Saturday September 7 2019

The tour guide and porters at the start of the hiking trail in Volcano National Park.

The tour guide and porters at the start of the hiking trail in Volcano National Park. PHOTO | JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA | NMG 

JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
By JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
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Mountain gorilla trekking has always been on my bucket list. So, I jumped at the chance when opportunity came knocking and joined a group of tourists bound for the Volcanoes National Park.

We set off for Kinigi from Musanze at 6am after breakfast to see where the gorillas call home. Located in North-western Rwanda, the park is part of Virunga Massif, a chain of 8 volcanoes spanning across Rwanda, Uganda and Congo.

At Kinigi, we were briefed by the park warden, Mr Olivier, a seasoned guide who has worked with the park for 20 years.

The guide was well trained, informative and friendly. We would be visiting the Agashya group, one of the 12 habituated gorilla groups in the park.

Agashya is a family of 24 gorillas with a good mixture of Silverbacks (male adults), female adults, juvenile and baby gorillas.

I hired hiking boots. Warm clothes are recommended, for it can get cold and wet at high altitudes.

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We drove out through the trail before diverting to a dust road laden with volcanic rocks locally known as Amakoro. The drive took half an hour through farmer’s fields and past houses and escorted by a crowd of local children, clearly excited to see our huge cars.

A group of porters handed us walking sticks to aid us up the mountain. Half an hour later, we were winded even at that unhurried pace.

We were briefed about gorilla etiquette and safety. The guide even taught us some gorilla-speak, which would help us understand their sounds and gestures.
The edge of the forest was boarded up with a stonewall that stretched out 74km from the Uganda border through Rwanda to the Congo border, separating the animal population from human settlements.

We had armed guards with us at all times to protect us from buffalos and elephants within the forest. The rainforest is filled with bamboo trees, one of the gorillas’ favourite foods, especially bamboo shoots.

The walkthrough was accompanied by chirping birds, stridulating of crickets and rustling leaves. Fresh elephant dung and footprints informed us of their presence. We navigated through the dense foliage for half an hour before we spotted a gorilla through a trail of its dung.

The first gorilla we encountered was a dominant Silverback (male adult) partaking of breakfast unbothered by humans encroaching on its turf.

Female gorilla at breakfast at Volcano National

Female gorilla at breakfast at Volcano National Park. PHOTO | JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA | NMG

The guide made vocalisations announcing our presence and to indicate that we did not mean any harm. The Silverback got the message and carried on eating.

As part of the etiquette, we stayed 7 metres from the gorillas. If they tried to get closer, we edged away. We watched them clear everything in sight as they searched for fleshier shoots. Straddling high up on the trees was a baby gorilla reaching out for leaves on the periphery.

We watched them for 10 minutes and proceeded to track other gorillas in the family. One juvenile ate in the open air.

Gorillas do not stay in the same spot so we had to track them down in order to spend the magical hour allotted to us.

Half an hour later, we found more members of the Agashya group. A Silverback, a female and two babies who were constantly play fighting.

We tracked down one more Silverback eating solo. This time, we managed proper selfies as this fellow gorilla was a real poser and seemed at ease with the cameras. Well, perhaps too busy enjoying breakfast to mind about us.

After an hour spent marvelling at our closest cousins, we began our descent back to camp.