“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions”.
This was a busy and long-awaited day in the context of our entire journey. Undoubtedly, the experience of close contact with mountain gorillas had been to me one of the potential highlights of our trip. The danger of course was that expectations would be too high, but as with Serengeti and seeing the shoebill stork, my preconceptions were completely satisfied. The time spent with the gorillas was a resounding success and is something that Anne and I will cherish forever. We both had a bad night’s sleep, with me having nightmares of vehicle theft, oversleeping and other disasters. What a great experience when your greatest concerns are oversleeping and missing the gorilla hike!
The scene that morning at the park HQ was one of organized chaos. We arrived at 6H45, 15min before the other gorilla hikers from the lodges and organized tours. As promised the ranger in charge of gorilla group allocations had kept us in mind and booked us for an interesting gorilla family but not needing too arduous a hike. It turned out that many of the chosen gorilla groups were within relatively easy reach. Once the tour groups arrived it was near-chaos as the various tour guides hussled to try and organize the most favorable gorilla groups for their clients. So be sure to go early to the assembly point at the park HQ, or even better pop in the afternoon before if you have the time. Self-drivers could easily loose out in the scramble. Despite the slight frenzy the park staff controled things rather well.
Eighty people are divided into 10 groups of 8, if you are fit then you almost certainly will get more satisfaction out of choosing one of the more distant family groups. The hike through the forest is an experience in itself and will increase the admittedly small chance of encountering forest buffalo, elephant or other of the shy forest animals and birds. The other consideration is which family to choose. As a generalization the larger the gorilla group the better. Also if possible choose a group with lots of females and therefore youngsters. The youngsters are more active, playful and tend to provide the most intimate interaction and entertainment. If the group has more than one silverback, so much the better. That said the actual experience on the day is dependent on the vagaries of nature. It would be exceptional not to see the gorillas at all or in fact not to have a satisfactory viewing.
I was very satisfied when we allocated to the Kwitonda group. This is one of the less well-known groups having crossed from the DRC in recent years but were well habituated and in fact their name means “Humble”. It is the second largest of the groups at present, numbering 24 members, with the youngest infant of all at 3 months and the oldest and largest silverback. There are in addition 3 subordinate silverbacks in the group, with 3 black-back less mature males, 5 mature females and the rest being a large number of juveniles. The dominant silverback was so confident of his control over the group that he most unusually tolerated the presence of the 3 other silverbacks within the group. This news was all very exciting but then again perhaps the group allocated is not at all vital, as the interaction on the day is purely providential, but this was a good start. I think one’s choice of group should mainly be determined by how far you think you would like to hike. Apparently all the groups were in reasonable hiking distance and I think I am correct in saying the longest hike was about 90min.
After some coffee and traditional dancing a briefing is given to the group by the allocated guide. Our guide was Beatrice, both eloquent and amusing, particularly in describing the antics of the 3 non-dominant silverbacks in the group in obtaining a bit of nookie when the boss’s back was turned. In a very French-like unabashed manner, she very directly described how the one non-dominant silverback was a very successful lover. Unlike the other 2 he would copulate without the usual “male” sound accompaniments of pleasure and thus would escape unpunished whilst satisfying his drive to disseminate his genes. During the hike and the one hour (and a bit) gorilla encounter Beatrice was most professional.
The group then drives to the hike starting point which varies for the different gorilla families and their locations. The way was led by one of the lodge vehicles and involved a 20min drive over quite a bumpy road, the last half being done in first gear. If you do not have your own vehicle and are not staying in a lodge and not using the lodge vehicle, you will have to hire a vehicle which will not be cheap. I don’t think you can rely on cadging a lift. Our start point was at the foot of the volcano shaped peak just above Kinigi guest house which, if I remember correctly is named Gahinga Peak. At the parking space the porters are waiting and one is encouraged to use them as the money they earn is a good way of enabling the community to benefit financially from gorilla conservation. We in fact engaged 2 although one was more than enough. Here we were also issued with walking staffs, take one it does help.
There are many instructions on how to dress, what to take and the like, on the internet. Take a light rain jacket or poncho of some sort as sudden rain downpours are not unusual. Because of the very common stinging nettles it is wise to wear long trousers, like jeans and also a long sleeve shirt. Dress in layers as initially it can be quite chilly until you warm up from the physical effort. It is wise to tuck your trousers into your socks as the fire ants are liable to find their way into any gaps to reach those sensitive parts of your anatomy you would rather not have bitten.
The hike to the park’s boundary stone wall and trench took us about 20min at a sedate pace on a moderate uphill. With the guide stopping and briefing along the way, subtly allowing everyone to catch their breath. The farming continues right up to the park boundary. Here the offensive (to me) eucalyptus ends and the indigenous forest begins. In hindsight we could have comfortably coped with a far longer and more strenuous hike but as mentioned I would have been most embarrassed if we had found ourselves in a situation where we held up a younger group of super-athletes. We were then joined by the group of trackers, some of whom are armed in case an encounter with buffalo required a warning shot.
The hike through the forest was far easier than I had feared. Fortunately the ground underfoot was not slippery or muddy as it can be. We were also passing along fairly well-worn paths. Our group mainly consisted of people either older or less physically fit than us so we found the going rather easy. Anne was nipped by one large ant that found a way under a gap in her t-shirt. Fortunately it had not yet found its way into the darker depths of her clothing or we would have had an impromptu strip-tease.
Before we knew it we were between the gorilla family. With a mischievous sense of humor Beatrice had not pre-warned us. We had been in the forest for only about 20min. There was a sudden scramble for cameras carried by the porters and then followed a truly unique experience. These gorillas are huge and when the silverbacks approach closely one cannot help feeling awed by their sheer physical size and physique. They tower over one and have a totally dominant impact. The rule is to keep 7m from the gorillas but of course they do not obey this rule. The whole experience was so unlike any wildlife encounter that I had experienced before that I find it difficult to put in writing adequately. We have had many wonderful wild animal encounters in the past, pursuing this interest of ours, but this gorilla experience must surely be right at the top of the ladder as far as these experiences go. I do not want to exaggerate by labelling it life-changing or emotional but definately, knowing what I know having done it, it would have been unforgivable to have omitted it from this trip.
Is it worth the heavy expense? My only answer to this is that one should definitely and absolutely do it and then decide. Very few would give a negative response. If expense is a major factor then rather cut back on other areas of your trip.
With any group you will get a mix of characters. One of the woman in our group would always push to the front when photographic opportunities arose to the detriment of the rest of the group. Beatrice spent a fair amount of time trying to manage this problem. Great was our amusement when a sizable black-back put on a threat display that caused Mrs Pushy to all but vanish off the radar.
I also cannot claim to have had any major trans-species relevation as others have. I did not find that there was any deep and meaningful staring into my eyes. These animals are very human habituated and in the main tend to ignore one completely. They do seem to respond to the special grunts of greeting at which the guides are expert. Moments that stand out are the dominant silverback throwing a tantrum after some percieved slight from one of the other lesser silverbacks. This involved a series of resonant grunt/snarls and rising to his full height and thrashing down huge branches thicker than a man’s arm from the surrounding trees. A couple of these ripped off and thrown branches narrowly missed some of us. The only other time I had a sense of any physical danger was when the mischievous 3 month old infant wandered between me and its mother, who looked up sharply at me. I backed off rapidly amidst hissed warnings from the guides.
These gorillas are pretty strong willed and when you are in the way of their chosen path you need to back away pretty sharply. The guide and trackers keep a close eye on things at all times and are very quick to advise you what best to do. Watching the gorillas feed and squabble over tender delicacies was most absorbing. The interaction and playing between the sub-adults, as well as their playful tree climbing and head-over-heels tumbles entertained all. On a few occasions the black-backs would role play with attempts at dominance with chest thumping displays. These were usually directed at other members of the group but also at times at us when we were seen to be blocking their chosen route as they foraged.
Photography was difficult in the low-light circumstances and then at times in the clearings the gorilla subjects would be in sunlight. Because of the low light the slow shutter speeds and long exposures made any moving target a blur. I found that pumping up the ISO helped and my cameras seemed to handle this quite well. We were in fact rather lucky in that this was the brightest day of the 3 or so we spent in the area. When our hour was up we had to leave the group, we had some further good fortune. We were most fortunate in that some members had spread themselves along our route back and the guides did not have the heart not to stop for further pics and viewing. In all we probably spent about 90min with the gorillas which seemed a very long time.
Remember to take money along with you as you will be expected to tip the trackers in the reserve and to pay the porters at the car park. It is also expected to tip the guide, all adding to the considerable, but in our opinion totally worthwhile expense. This experience was an unqualified success and fulfilled all our long-nursed preconceptions. Do it if you possibly can!
We were able to reach the park HQ by 12H15 and as we had checked out of the guest house in anticipation, were able to head for the Ugandan border and Lake Bunyonyi. I had decided not to visit the Ugandan side of the Virungas at Mgahinga NP and hope we will not regret this. Certainly having done the gorillas already will mean some curtailment to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest as well.
We headed for the nearby Cyanika Border Post and to our delight we bumped into Wayne Joss. again. He and Nick had, since Kigali been brave enough to cross from Gisenyi to nearby Goma in the DRC and had done the gorillas there and climbed the active volcano to see its lava lake. Wayne immediately decided to link up with us for the next part of the trip to Lake Bunyonyi to our delight.
The border post was quick and easy except that there was again no place for me to buy vehicle third party insurance. They expected me to have COMESA insurance as Wayne had and this issue continues to perplex me. We proceed to the town of Kisoro where we wanted to draw Ugandan shillings and there managed to buy the insurance from an insurance agent, but they only sold this to cover a full year, and not only 1 month which is what we wanted. This cost us the equivalent of about US$20, perhaps a bit of a premium.
Initially the drive from Kisoro was on a lovely fairly newly tarred road, through hilly areas and sweeping mountain passes similar to nearby Rwanda and also through a beautiful indigenous forest. Soon after approaching the northern tip of Lake Bunyonyi, T4A directs one onto another shortcut dirt road around the lake’s northern tip. North of this is an alternate but far longer route which has a long loop to the north before reaching the area of our intended destination. This shortcut was only about 22km in length but was in parts rather bad and narrow. However it was once again a breathtakingly beautiful route on a rough road carved out of the hills descending down to the lake shore, in fact very similar to some of the roads less travelled we had taken in Rwanda. Wayne in particular reveled in the views.
Our next decision was where to stay on the north-east of Lake Bunyonyi. My research had revealed at least 2 good choices and we settled on Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort instead of Kalebask Camping. These are only 1km apart on the lakeshore. We were very happy with our choice. Kalebask has the reputation of being quieter but although the Overland Resort can be very popular with overland trucks there was only one there initially and in any case they have massive grounds and a wonderful, large, grassed, camping area, well isolated from the restaurant, bar and the area where the overlanders usually camp. We all immediately liked the facilities here, you have no idea how luxurious it feels to be camping on grass as opposed to dusty soil. There is place for about 3 vehicles with rooftop tents to park and many more pitching sites along the lakeshore for ground tents. We really had not realized how large, relatively luxurious and scenic this destination was. We all agreed that it was far more pleasant than any part of Lake Kivu. The ablutions are a little bit away up the hill but are in excellent condition, modern clean and with electric geezers for hot water. Birdlife abounds in the grounds and there are lovely large, open-walled huts on platforms overlooking the lake. These have electric lights and plug points. There is free wi-fi at the main buildings and the food at the restaurant is reasonable and the bar is very sociable. Unfortunately there are no facilities for a fire in the grassed camping sites. The resort has a swimming area in the lake and boat rides and canoes. It was surprisingly quiet but they also found their numbers down by about 50% this year. It was really great to be camping again and not in a car park. We seem to sleep better in our rooftop tent than elsewhere. It is also great to have company in the form of Wayne.
The first photo is of Gahinga Peak, at the foot of which we found our gorilla group.
Thereafter after a whole batch of unedited gorilla pics.
Then follows some shots of Lake Bunyonyi as seen on the short cut drive.
Finally there are some pics of the Overland Resort.