Three hours from Kigali by road and we arrive to the edge of the Volcanoes National park encompassing the Virunga Massive range. This is the home of the mountain gorillas. The mountains are shared by four countries Rwanda, Uganda , DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Burundi.
Despite this being the rainy season we wake up to a cloudless perfect day.
We are welcomed by a performance of the local community with a wonderful dance first performed by the women then the warriors all to the beat of drum rhythms and the voices of the women singing.While this is happening our guide negotiates which gorilla family we will be allocated. It is an extremely well organized process, only eight tourists are allowed per family for a total of one hour once the trackers find the family.
This is an Impenetrable forest and the gorilla families range in size of members but all have a silverback who is in charge of the family group and typically the father of the babies . There are 18 families and 10 have been allocated to be visited for the one hour, the remainder attract an international group of researchers that respectfully apply to be included in the research .
Our allocated group is the Muhoza family , there are 17 members , one silverback and this family has one set of twins that are now 5 years old. We are told this will be a medium trek through the rainforest , final location of the group is only confirmed by the park staff sent to track the family once we head out. Female members become mature at 8 years of age at which point they leave the family to make sure there is good genetic diversity. A baby is nursed for up to 3.5 years but closely watched by the Mum for the first 8-12 months. We are told that the distance we should keep is 7m and if a silverback decides to approach lower your eyes , don’t run , don’t challenge and give him space as you might be standing in front of a particularly favourite bush of his.
It takes us an 1.5 hours to find the Muhoza family. I manage to slip crossing a creek as we head out and land square on one of my carbon walking poles snapping it in half, thank goodness André comes to the rescue with his and we have the assistance of local porters to carry our reasonably heavy packs. This is a project to help the local communities with foreign funds and there is a very fair system of rotation as to whose turn it is to be available in the morning. We are encouraged to have a porter, I don’t have any problem with that. His name is Emmy and he is a real ambassador for his country!
Once the trackers have found the family, we leave all our gear behind bringing just camera stuff, all food, water and poles are left behind. The family members spend a large amount of time eating, they have to get through about 30kg of vegetation and in between snacking they rest and pass some wind as they process. By sunset they make a new nest to sleep in and stop their other activities.
The first member we come across is the silverback, called this because of his hair going grey with maturity and ranking him the leader. He weighs about 200 kg. At first he is resting and we are about 7m from him. I sit on the ground and start taking my video, but then he gets up and heads straight for us. There is no time to get up, I just hear the guide saying “don’t run, don’t run”, no chance of that. I keep the camera rolling and have the silverback walk within 0.5m of me. He was in fact after the bush which was behind me. There were no aggressive sounds or threatening moves made, I am in awe.
As we watch the silverback munching, we have juveniles who are 3-6 year old feeding in the canopy above us. One of the females comes down giving us a very long curious checking out and as she leaves she gives the South African man standing next to me a little shove. We hear more noise in the bushes ahead and it’s a Mum with a 7 month old baby. She is comfortable with us sitting and watching while the little guy looks completely mesmerized by us.
We finish off by seeing some more juveniles and before we know it the hour is up. Grins from ear to ear we make our way back to the packs and then the car, how privileged are we we. There are only about 450-500 mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Rwanda has the largest number of families compared to the surrounding countries.