Gorilla trekking

Written by on July 21, 2010 in Africa, Blog, Reviews, Rwanda, Travel - 28 Comments

I looked up at the volcano, towering above our group.

It was really high.

When I had accepted the trip to Rwanda, I knew there was a gorilla trek. But, like a rain cloud, it hovered over my not-in-nearly-good-enough-shape ass. Maybe it will be easy. Maybe it is like in a zoo … and poof!, they just appear.

Right?

Nope.

Yes, I wanted to see gorillas. No, I had no desire to trek in order to see them. Just the word trek has negative connotations in my mind … I imagined being dressed in khaki safari gear, knee-high rubber boots and sunglasses attached to croakies, spending countless hours with a map and compass in hand, silently listening for gorilla sounds.

But, at 7 a.m., our little group of journalists were packed into the SUVs and headed back to the park, to meet our guides and go trek, trek, trek.

There were about 100 other people who were doing the same thing on that misty Sunday morning. The night before, it dropped buckets of rain, surely soaking the already saturated jungle ground.

Mud. Lovely.

And yet, there we all were. Dressed in our hottest hiking gear (AKA gross side-pocket drawstring pants, layers of shirts … at least me), ready to ascend some volcanoes or something. I had no idea what to expect.

I surveyed the people around me. They looked fit. They looked ready to go and trek the large mammals.

Pan to me, standing nervously, unsure of myself. On a good day, making it without tripping, falling or looking completely ungraceful is a blessing.

“Over here,” William, our fearless guide directed us.

The six of us, plus some British actress who “befriended” another reporter in the group, walked over to our two guides, Denise and Fidel.

“Welcome,” Fidel said and then proceeded to give us the basics … don’t get more than 8 meters in length from the gorillas; no flash photography; don’t feed them; don’t smoke; if you cough, cover your mouth and turn away … you know, the basics.

“Today, we are trekking the Lucky Group,” he said. “It is five babies, one which was named yesterday [Celebrity], five adults and one silverback.”

The silverback is the head honcho, the one who broke off from another group to be a bachelor and start up his own group. (I like that idea.)

“Where are they?” We questioned. “Is it far?” “Is it up a mountain?” “Is it a difficult trek?”

Denise and Fidel smiled.

Oh, crap.

“They are in a valley,” Fidel offered.

Right, a valley. Whatever that means.

So, once again, we jumped into our SUVs and headed for the meeting point.

At least we tried.

The drive to the point was some serious off-roading after the previous evening’s rain. So serious, in fact, our SUV didn’t want to make it. Sure, it tried. Real hard. But, we had to get out … twice, to push the massive hunk of metal. Farmers even came by to help push, and nothing.

Finally, we were told we needed to walk the rest of the way. Uphill. Well, uphill in the sense that it was a nice, steady slope. But, in the high altitude, it would make even the healthiest of person need a little more air.

Another 20 minutes later, with porters and our trekker (complete with gun and machete) in tow, we began to hike the volcano.

None of this trek was easy.

Sure, if you are in great shape, you could do it, but after a certain point, the altitude hits you. Just ask the girl in our group who got ahead. The rush up the mountain only left her sick.

So, the rest of us walked through massive farmlands, stopping to “oooh” and “ahhh” (catch our breath). As we walked past some of the huts, children poked their heads out greeting us with “Hallo … good morning … how are you …” following us until they probably grew tired of watching the Americans huff and puff their way up a hill they could run up and down twice without so much as a second thought.

By the time we had traversed the farmland, we were pretty beat. We stopped for a few minutes while Fidel explained more of our trek to us.

“We will walk for about 1 1/2 hours, then we will meet the trekkers. They have been monitoring the gorillas all morning and we are in constant contact with them through our radios. We know where the gorillas are. Once we meet them, we will go spend an hour with the gorillas, take photos, and then come back down.”

Right. 90 minutes of my life trekking. up a volcano. Let’s do this.

Thus, our real trek began.

First, it was the bamboo forest, with shoots touching the mid-morning sky, barely allowing any light to penetrate the thickness of it all. Then, it was the jungle. Vines. Mud. Red ants. Nettles.

The trek was probably the most difficult hike of my life. When I wasn’t finding myself shin-deep in thick mud, I was snow-plowing down steep valleys of dirt, clinging on to vines for dear life, straddling the sides of mountains … but always had a porter within my reach.

For something that sounds so scary, I was never really scared. Sure, I bit it. I think every single person in the group had mud caked to their ass and hands from all of the times we fell, nearly fell or had to literally pull ourselves up steep ravines.

The hardest part of the entire trek was when we finally arrived to the trekkers.

“We have to go down a valley and up another one,” Fidel informed us.

Oh, crap.

“You should probably leave your walking sticks here.”

So, we did.

And, then we began the difficult, muddy trek up and down. Some of us slid down on our behinds, others tried to maintain the human form. Me? If gorillas can walk on their hands and feet, then so will I. They seem to get by just fine.
We were to our necks in jungle growth and vines when we were hushed.

“There,” Fidel said.

Just like that, in the midst of big green leaves, was a gorilla, just munching away.

Oh my god. Beautiful.

They cut some of the leaves back so we could see. And then, she was gone.
We continued on a few more meters.

A baby. Doing cute roley-poley baby things. As if on cue, after a few minutes, it looked at its audience and swung its little furry legs and shiny feet over its head and rolled down the hill, disappearing into the jungle.

We continued on our hike.

“Stop here,” Fidel said.

We craned our heads to see what we were stopping for, and that’s when we saw three more gorillas … children … huddled into a group below us. Two of them sat and cleaned each other, the other rolled around on its back, legs in the air, eating the food it clutched in its feet and hands.

And we just stopped. And stared. And took photos.

“Over there, that’s the silverback,” Fidel said.

And, just like that, the silverback appeared.

He was magnificent. Enormous. Beautiful.

The silverback sat encircled by jungle grasses and low trees, watching us. Holding onto hand-fulls of grass and lazily eating it as he lounged.

Then, another gorilla walked through some trees and joined the babies. And, then another came up behind us and found a spot to eat.

One of the babies, curious to see who we were, began to walk towards us.

“OK, we move back now,” Fidel instructed.

We stood,  motionless, enthralled.

A rustling in the trees.

We all swung around.

Right behind where Anna sat, another gorilla emerged. Walking behind us.

We all cleared our throats (it is the sound a gorilla makes when it is talking friendly). She was close.

Then, Daddy began to move.

“OK, we are too close,” Fidel said. “Move back.”

This time, we listened. The last thing any of us wanted was to be mauled by a big gorilla because we were encroaching on his territory.

We stood on the slope of the volcano for a long time, taking in what we were experiencing. Whispering our admiration for these animals. Surveying the steep slopes around us which touched the sky, shrouded in mist. Documenting every second with video, photos and Twitter updates (well, the lucky ones who had iPhones and wifi — yes, you can get it in the jungle!)

This … this was phenomenal.

Too soon, it was time to go.

But there, staring at those gorillas, it hit me just how small we are in this world. How magnificent these creatures are. How life really is this amazing thing we take for granted. I never expected to be so close to these animals. I’ve seen them in the zoo, but that’s it.

Somehow, I was fortunate enough to be standing there, in the heart of such spectacular creatures … it overwhelmed me with emotion.

Needless to say, the hike down was pretty difficult too, especially since the ravines we had slid down, we now somehow needed to be pulled nearly vertical.

At the bottom, the feeling was exhilirating. I had made it. No broken anything. A little tired, a lot achy, but that’s nothing. I had experienced something so rare, so blissfully awe-inspiring, it made the entire trek worth every moment.

This was worth every second of toiling up and down hills, hoping footing didn’t slip in the wet earth, clinging to roots as we flirted with the edge, pulling ourselves up drops, falling, slipping, getting pricked with stickers, tucking our pants into our socks to avoid red ant bites, getting slight altitude sickness … I would endure all of it again to be a part of the gorillas lives for that hour.

Disclosure: Lodging, activities, meals and travel in Rwanda were courtesy of Rwanda Development Board.

About the Author

Diana Edelman is a travel writer and expat currently residing in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In 2010 she quit her job in PR to go on a solo backpacking adventure and tackle her 30-Life-Crisis. After seven months abroad, journeying throughout Europe and Africa, she returned to America and relocated to Las Vegas. Following a year-long stint back in PR, she once again quit her job to follow her dreams; this time her journey took her to the elephants and Elephant Nature Park where she is involved with raising awareness about responsible elephant tourism. Recently, Diana was named a finalist in the Destinology Travel Bloggy Awards for travel writing. She has been a regular contributor to Viator and recently served as the Las Vegas contributor for OneTravel.com and CheapOair.com. Her work has appeared in print and online, including The Huffington Post, Matador Network, Travel + Escape, Vegas Seven, World Nomads and more.

28 Comments on "Gorilla trekking"

  1. Gray July 21, 2010 at 11:35 am · Reply

    This is a wonderful piece, D. I felt like I was right there with you. I could especially relate to your internal dialogue. :-)

  2. JasonsTravels July 22, 2010 at 11:52 am · Reply

    I most certainly was caked in mud from head to toe, but I didn’t huff and puff my big butt up the mountain! Although, in all honesty, it was the most difficult hike I’ve ever done. I just was able to breathe since I’m used to the elevation here in Colorado.

    Nice piece, D!

  3. Megan P July 27, 2010 at 3:59 pm · Reply

    Awesome story! I couldn’t have made the trek. Go D!

    • The Adventures of D July 28, 2010 at 7:21 am · Reply

      I didn’t think I could. I didn’t want to. But, the thrill of seeing the gorillas and coming back down was worth it. Absolutely amazing.

  4. Sara July 27, 2010 at 6:44 pm · Reply

    Still laughing out loud. I could almost hear your voice telling me this lovely story.

  5. ayngelina January 2, 2011 at 5:44 pm · Reply

    You know I hate to hike but I’d get off my butt to see this. I would LOVE to go to Rwanda, but alas it must wait until I have the cash.

    • The Adventures of D January 2, 2011 at 5:51 pm · Reply

      I am not a fan up difficult hikes, but this one was one I could have never said “no” to. It was worth every moment of hard to see the gorillas. Rwanda is absolutely incredible … but it is expensive. I think prices are on par with America/Western Europe, even if what you spend isn’t what you necessarily get. The trek would have cost upwards of $500 USD for the three-hour experience.

  6. Laura January 2, 2011 at 6:57 pm · Reply

    I’m so glad you got to experience this as well! I tracked Group 13 back at the end of May. It’s so expensive yet the experience is just magnificent! I only had about an hour trek so yours sounds quite a bit more adventurous :)

    • The Adventures of D January 9, 2011 at 4:57 am · Reply

      It really was magnificent. It was a VERY challenging trek for me … I was very thankful I didn’t topple to my death. ;)

  7. Abby January 2, 2011 at 8:31 pm · Reply

    I love reading what you write about the “big” experiences. So life-changing. Additionally, I’m very impressed you survived this trek!

  8. Dave and Deb January 3, 2011 at 12:08 am · Reply

    Trekking to see the Gorillas is at the top of my list of things to see in the world. You are lucky that you got to do this on a press trip. You probably had one of the best experiences that way and didn’t have to worry about the cost:) I can’t wait to go back to Africa and explore Rwanda. Hopefully next winter. Your post has made me very excited about it.

    • The Adventures of D January 9, 2011 at 4:53 am · Reply

      It truly was a blessing. It is nothing I would have ever done if it wasn’t a part of the trip. Let me know how Rwanda goes. I remember waking up there and just being so mesmerized by the fact that I was even there. It is truly an amazing country.

  9. Erica January 3, 2011 at 3:51 am · Reply

    Talk about an epic experience! I get winded just walking around with a backpack, I couldn’t imagine hiking up a volcano in mud!

  10. Margo January 3, 2011 at 7:32 pm · Reply

    What a beautiful experience you shared – thanks!! I love it that Fidel told you to cover you mouths and turn your heads if you cough – I’m sure the gorillas wouldn’t like that, but the way you put it, you all being dressed in your hottest hiking gear, etc… is just cute.

  11. Federico January 15, 2011 at 7:35 pm · Reply

    So happy you had the chance to do this as a press trip! The trek todays is around 700 USD and getting there is not cheap at all either. I loved the emotions behind the writing…I am pretty sure I’ll be thrilled when I get to see them!

    • The Adventures of D January 19, 2011 at 7:30 pm · Reply

      Thank you!! I count my lucky starts every day for the press trip. It was such a phenomenal experience!

  12. Katie August 16, 2011 at 8:08 am · Reply

    Wow what an amazing experience! I agree, meeting gorillas in the wild is a really humbling experience when you realise how similar they are to us. I hope to catch a glimpse of this beautiful animal when I go on a Uganda Safari safari next year. I hope I’m lucky enough to have the same experience you did!

  13. Kaustubh April 24, 2012 at 1:52 am · Reply

    This is one of the best read reports I have read about the famous Gorilla Sighting Treks in Rwanda. I am traveling to Rwanda next month and I really hope to be able to do this! Diana, your expressions in the article is fantastic and feels like a well written story which is being narrated! Thanks.. :)

    • Diana April 25, 2012 at 2:12 pm · Reply

      Thank you so much!! The experience is amazing — I hope you can do it!

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