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Long trek up to track Rwanda’s rare mountain gorillas

By Tia Goldenberg


Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) : After a four-hour hike through dense jungle, up steep, seemingly endless muddy trails, we arrived at our destination.

A glance to left, a glance to the right. The path was clear, so I continued, following our guide up more paths covered with bamboo shoots, vines and enormous dark green leaves.

But all of a sudden, there was a rustling in the tall shrubs to my left. As I tried to keep up with my group, an immense creature strolled out of the thick greenery and sat herself down just a couple of metres in front of me, blocking my way and leaving me stranded.

I was trekking through the jungle of Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, a two hour drive north of the capital Kigali, and here, just a step away, was one of the world's 700 endangered mountain gorillas.

A few hours earlier, we were waiting around impatiently at the mountain's base, being briefed on how to behave ourselves around the gorillas.

We were strictly told to stay seven metres away from the magnificent beings for our protection and theirs.

And then, several hours and layers of clothes later, I stood wondering if maybe the Rwandan idea of seven metres is a little different from my own.

Despite the fear of being so close to this massive creature, this was the beauty of gorilla tracking: rather than being holed up in a safari car or watching the animal from afar, the knowledgeable and capable guides take visitors on a swashbuckling trip up to spend an intimate hour with an endangered species.

Twelve gorilla groups in the Virunga Hills, nestled on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo are habituated, meaning they are used to seeing humans.

Unfortunately, in Congo, many of those humans carry Kalashnikovs from ongoing civil strife there, which acts as a constant threat to the gorillas' existence. Two males were shot and killed in January.

Rwanda and Uganda, having overcome conflict on their sides of the border, have had more luck conserving the primates.

The Rwandan side has four different gorilla groups, but the most sought after is Susa, which this year has more than 35 gorillas to its name, including two rare twins.

We made our choice, and we were off. But the trek up was definitely not a walk in the park.

You need to earn your hour with the gorillas.

That's especially true with the Susa group, as the bunch lives the highest up, and can take up to six hours to reach.

The hike up the Bisoke volcano begins at around 2,400 metres and there is no time to acclimatize. It's not easy for non-avid mountain climbers, but walking at your own pace is recommended and should get you up, even if it is with a little panting.

The challenge goes beyond the height of the mountain and the steep paths: the region's moistness makes the way up slippery and there is no chance clothes get away clean. Long sleeve shirts are recommended to avoid attacks from the various thorns and stinging plants.

There's no doubt: It's hot. And dirty. And painful.

But for the one hour visitors are allowed to spend with the gorillas, the pain fades and you're left in pure amazement.

Back to my suspenseful encounter with the primate, I now had a few more join my surroundings – a mother with a baby strapped to her waist and a jumpy adolescent – and I had no where to go.

I averted my eyes to ensure I didn't provoke any unwanted attack. I kept still and tried to remain as calm as I could as the gorilla ahead of me munched away on fresh greens, unaware of my debilitating fear.

Thankfully, with some hissing and catcalls, I was able to attract a guide, who had noticed one of his group members was missing and was headed back down the slope to find me.

But rather than manoeuvring me out of harm's way, he pulled me closer to the gorilla and suggested we take some photos since we were so near.

The rest of the hour, once I composed myself, was spent tracking gorillas through their forested habitat.

They played, they ate, they climbed trees, they fell out of trees and the beautiful silverbacks, the males of the group, strutted their stuff to show that they truly did own the place.

Only 32 one-hour visiting permits are sold every day on the Rwandan side of the park to limit the human contact the gorillas have and only eight people can see each of the gorilla groups at one time.

The permits don't come cheap: by June 1 they get upped to $500 from $375.

But visitors won't shy away from calling what may be the most expensive hour of their lives, an experience of a lifetime.

Even after the gruelling hike back down to the foot of the volcano.