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Gorilla Trek in Parc National Des Volcans (Rwanda)

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Address: Nansana Hoima Road, Plot 64, 203 P.O. Box 22754 Kampala, East Africa

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      11.10.2011 13:50
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      A once in the lifetime experience

      We came to Rwanda specifically to see the Mountain gorillas that live in the mountains shared between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact the hotel we stayed in 'The Mountain Gorilla View Lodge' looked out to the mountain that had the border of these three countries at the top. The area where we saw these wonderful creatures was in the Parc des Volcans National Park near Ruhengeri in Northwest Rwanda.

      BE PREPARED
      Prior to leaving home we were given a list of dos and don't s for the gorilla trek. We were advised to wear strong walking boots, warm clothes, a waterproof jacket and trousers if you wanted and to wear long socks to tuck your trousers in. We were advised not to wear blue or black as these colours attract Tsetse flies and also not to wear camouflage colours as the army wear those. A pair of gardening gloves or thin leather gloves are also suggested as being handy when in the forest to protect your hands.
      The gorillas are not found below 3000 feet and so you are walking at altitude which is more tiring and it is also quite cool and very often raining or damp and misty.

      ON THE DAY
      We were collected at 6.30 am from our hotel and driven to the Mountain Gorilla centre for a briefing and to be put into our groups. This seemed to take ages but we were entertained by a group of local dancers who were very good. While we were waiting there was coffee on offer, toilet and a small gift shop with postcard, books and some T shirts. We decided to forgo the coffee because we knew there were no toilets on the trek so it was a quick hide behind the bush if you needed to go.

      After what seemed ages but was probably just over half an hour we were called together into our groups. We were introduced tour guide, and then each other then told which group we were going to visit. Our group was called Ugenda named after the silverback who was the boss of the group. This was quite a small group as two of the females had died. I believe there were about ten in total as a couple of the group moved between this and another group depending on their loyalties at the time. The group had two silverbacks which was unusual but the younger one had to obey Ugenda as he was the alpha male in the group.

      A maximum of eight people are in each group and they assess your fitness by a quick look at you, and probably from information passed on from your guide too. We were put in the medium level group and one couple also supposed to be in our group decided they were better than that and asked to be put in a higher level group. Frankly so long as we saw gorillas we really didn't care which group we were in but they were put in another group so we only had six people in ours which was even better. There were some pretty enormous Americans and also quite a few elderly looking fold but none were turned away and they all went off to see gorillas. Our guide did say that he saw a large woman being helped back into the lodge by a lot of people but they must have gone to the closest gorillas as this woman struggled to even walk on flat ground around the restaurant.

      WE SETOFF
      We got back in our own vehicle with our Rwanda guide and he drove us to the village where the trek begins which was an hour away over fairly rocky dirt roads. When we arrived at the village we met the porters and these lovely people carry your bag and help you along the way. You give them a tip of $5 at the end of the trek, as we only had one we gave her a bit more as she was very sweet. One lady in our group had a walking stick as she had a muscle wasting disease and her porter held her hand/arm the entire way and supporter her all along the route. She did very well but the guide took it pretty slowly so she could sit and have breaks as we climbed upwards. At the village they offer you a wooden walking stick to help with the walking but we declined as it was something extra to carry but the other people accepted and said that it was handy.

      The first 1000 metres is all up hill and out of the National Park, it is quite a steep trek and over stony paths and rough ground. We stopped just outside the wall of the park to recover and take photos of the view. The wall entrance has a very narrow long gap so that large animals such as buffalo and elephants do not get out of the park and destroy the villager's crops. Anyone fat might actually have difficulty squeezing through as it was a very tight fit for us and I wouldn't describe either of us as fat!

      Once in the park you are in a bamboo rainforest and initially there is a path or trail of sorts which is muddy and rough. Once you get close to the gorillas you leave your porter and everything except your camera and what you are wearing with them. You then continue with the guide and the tracker who has a gun in case you meet an angry buffalo or similar. You then are no longer on a path but you follow the guide through the bush as he machetes his way through.

      I had naively imagined the gorillas would be in a clearing and we would watch from afar but no they are in the forest moving through eating as they go and we followed them, stopping when they did. We were so close we could have touched them. Obviously you do NOT touch them and in fact if you have any illness such as cold you are not allowed to go to see the gorillas as they are susceptible to human illness. You are also instructed not to spit anywhere in the National Park so many footballers would not be invited in! They also tell you not to eat near the gorillas but you can take food into the park so long as you bring back what you don't eat. Sometimes it can take up to three hours to get to the gorillas once in the park so you could be away a long time.

      Once you find your gorilla group you stay with then an hour but no longer and this is so that the gorillas do not become stressed. All the time we were with our group the guides made happy gorilla noises to keep them feeling content. You are told that if one charges you then you should sit down and look away - easier said than done I would imagine.

      Our group were perfectly happy and ignored us most of the time. They continued to eat and move through the forest with us behind. Then a couple of them found a tree with huge round squash and climbed up to pick them. They then sat and turned their backs on us to eat them. A mother and her baby sat and ate close by them baby went off with her sister and Mum took a rest almost under our feet. She lay flat out and stretched her legs then had a scratch, closed her eyes and slept. At the same time the younger silverback was just to our left and he watched us for a while then decided it was all too much of an effort and he went to sleep too. He slept a bit like a cat or dog and had his nose on his arm and his back legs sort of under him so not quite as relaxed as Mum on her back spread out.

      The hour we were with the group went really quickly and then we machete our way through the forest and back to the porters to collect our things. We were so lucky as we had bright sunshine all the way up the climb and with the gorillas but as we began to come down thunder could be heard. The mist came over and just before we got back to the village the rain started. The way down was quicker and less breathless making but I found it was much harder on my knees and quite slippery at times. Had it been raining I think it would have been even more slippery and certainly in the park it was very muddy in places so you do have to be prepared to get wet, muddy and also be quite sure footed. A good strong pair of walking boots is essential although one woman in our group did have trainers I think she would have really had trouble if it has been very muddy and wet.

      Some tour agents seem to give better advice than others. We booked with Rainbow tours who are very knowledgeable about this part of the world and they use local tour companies such as Magic Tours in Rwanda (our guide was from Magic Tours) and Za Tours in Madagascar. We were given excellent advice on clothing, temperatures, what to expect, visas, and so much more. They other people in our gorilla group were with different companies and neither had been told about the gloves and the Australian couple hadn't realised that walking boots were really needed so she was very lucky.

      My husband said he wouldn't bother with the gloves but as you are sliding your way over the vegetation there are some pretty big thorny plants and sting plants so I was quite glad of mine. I just took some thin leather gloves and they were perfect. The advice about blue and black clothes was pretty irrelevant as the porters all wore blue so presumably they were not bothered by tsetse flies. Some people at the meeting place were wearing bright coloured clothes and they were not turned away but I would suggest this was pretty thoughtless as they must stand out like sore thumbs to the gorillas.

      WHAT DOES IT COST?
      To get a gorilla permit costs $500 US per person for one visit to the park so that this is not a cheap visit. You obviously have to get to Rwanda or Uganda and stay in a hotel too. If you want to visit Diane Fossey's grave it is a six hour trek and you have to pay $75 US so we decided to give that a miss as it was up on top of a mountain hard trekking and expensive. Gorilla trekking is not something you would do every year as it is VERY expensive but they charge that to limit the numbers and also to pay the trackers and all those employed to protect the gorillas.

      GORILLA CARE
      Within the park there are three types of groups. There are some groups who are protected but are pretty much left without human contact. There are those like we saw who are free to wander and live wild but are used to people visiting, they have vetinary care when needed and are pretty closely watched. There are others who are tagged and used for research they are still allowed to roam pretty freely but are much more closely monitored.

      Vets from overseas often come and volunteer to work with the gorillas for the experience and presumably there are some who are on site at all times to put the volunteers in the picture.

      WOULD I RECOMMEND?
      Well yes whole heartedly this is something we have wanted to do for some time but the price and the difficulty getting here has always been a bit off putting. It would not be everyone's cup of tea and certainly wouldn't suit those whose idea of a holiday is sitting on a beach all day then the bar at night. This is the sort of holiday for people prepared to be flexible, pretty fit, and put up with a few inconveniences. However if you are keen on wildlife then I would say this is a dream holiday. The chance to spend an hour with a gorilla family in the wild and be so close that you could touch them is an experience that cannot be bettered in my view.

      If you are planning a trip then do PLAN it carefully. Take the right precautions, the health advice; be prepared for less than perfect food, possibly no electricity and wifi and not least some very long flights, lots of waiting at airports and then long uncomfortable drives along very bumpy roads.

      Having said all that if you are happy to be adaptable and you love wildlife and seeing creatures in the wild then this trip would take a lot of beating. Save up and go for it!

      Thanks for reading and hope this might be useful for someone going on a gorilla trek and of interest to others. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.

      ©Catsholiday

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