David Roth, ElderTreks Social Media Manager and Tour Leader was recently in Rwanda to trek with the mountain gorillas. This is the first of a 2-part article on his experience.
“When we enter the park you can take only a jacket and your camera. Leave all other essential items with the porters. This is not a zoo. These are wild animals in their natural habitat. Anything can happen. Also, you may wish to tuck in your pants to avoid the sting of fire ants,” says our guide Placid.
I glance at the seven others in my group to see if anyone else has any last-minute doubts as to what we are about to embark upon. They all look more confident than I suddenly feel. Then I notice that they are all wearing gaiters over their pants and the tops of their boots. I quickly fold my pants and pull my socks up as high as they will go.
One hour earlier we had entered the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda where I had finally arrived to fulfill a dream of trekking to see the famed mountain gorillas. The Volcanoes National Park is the name for the Rwandan section of the mountains straddling Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is Congo, which uses the name I am more familiar with: Virunga National Park.
We were met at the Park Ranger Station early that morning with hot coffee and tea as a local tribal group officially welcomed us with song, dance and drumming. They finished the performance with a cry of “you are welcome here” as the sun rose over the mountains behind them. Moments later we split up into small groups where we were introduced to our guides and briefed on the trek.
“We have been assigned the trek to find the gorillas in the group known as ‘Agashya’. It is a group of 26 gorillas with countless babies, young and females and only one silverback male. You are very lucky today as this is a special group,” says a smiling Placid.
What quickly follows is an almost violent 30-minute drive to the head of the trail where we meet our porters and guards. It looks like an entire village has come out to assist us on our adventure. The guards are easy to identify, as they are all carrying automatic weapons. I decide that the toughest-looking guard is the lone female. I can’t help but wonder what the weapons would be needed for.
Each of us is told to assign our bag to a porter and I choose the tallest person to carry my tiny daypack. I feel slightly embarrassed as I hand him my light load. I hope he realizes that I am hiring his services more to support the local community rather than because I don’t have the strength to carry my own bag. Waving goodbye to our drivers, we set off on foot, one long column marching across soft farmers fields as we make our way to the base of the mountains.
As we set out the sun is shining strong, however I know that the clouds and rain are a mere hour or so away from descending upon us. I find myself walking up front with one of the guide/trackers and willing the group to make haste. After only 30 minutes we arrive at a stone wall. A new guard peers his head over the wall from the other side with a walkie-talkie in his hand. Placid quickly emerges at the front of our line and after a brief conversation turns to face our group.
“The gorillas are near. Very near!” I can see smiling and eager faces all around. “First we must climb this wall to enter the forest”, he announces further. We all line up to take our turn at scaling the wall. Helpful hands are offered and one by one we climb up and over. Soon enough it is my turn. Climbing the wall I hop down on the other side and find myself suddenly standing in the forest. A guard herds the few of us who have climbed over to a small clearing.
We are all alone.
Suddenly I hear a rustle in the leaves and quickly turn only to see two purple/black hairy backs race by. I need a moment to realize that they are the gorillas I have come in search of. I didn’t expect to find them so fast. I am not ready; it is too soon, I almost shout out loud to no one in particular. It is with an unusual feeling of both exhilaration and fear that I stand in the jungle path watching the gorillas run and leap in the air through the trees around us. What do you do when the realization hits that something you have always dreamed of doing may actually be quite terrifying? Part of me wants to hop back over the wall while the other half, heart beating strong, wants to follow. The decision is made for me when the rest of our group makes it over the wall and we are herded into a tighter circle. Placid steps forward and motioning with his hand waves us on.
And then just like that the sunlight disappears as we enter deeper into the forest.
End of Part one.