My second encounter with Gentle Giants took place in Rwanda, and specifically in Virunga National Park on the border of Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
We were picked up at 06.30 in the morning to be driven to get the permits to trek the gorillas. I did not know what to expect and thought that my adventure would be similar to the rawness of the experience from Uganda from 4years earlier (https://kasiasteps.com/2016/01/17/gentle-giants/). What lay ahead, however, turned out to be quite a different experience!
The office where the permits are signed looks more like a big gathering place for all the tourists, complete even with free access to wi-fi and free coffee. While I have to admit that the short musical performance by the local school at this place was a nice touch by the organizers, it was only a matter of time, when an American tourist jumped to the front and started dancing with them, just to get some pictures. The mysticism of my trip was gone.
Then we were picked up by cars and driven through local villages to the drop off place. The Other Me and I curiously looked through the car windows as we drove by local markets, houses, small gardens and many kids running on the side of the streets. We managed to buy local kinds of avocados, which we ate with gusto later that day.
We were part of a group of 8 on the trail marked as difficult. Except the main guide, there were 5 trackers and few guards joined us as well. Given the close proximity of Democratic Republic Congo’s border, there was a necessity of the presence of armed guards. The reason is that the border area is still restless, and it can be very dangerous. We were given the instructions on how to behave around the gorillas, what distances we should keep, and of course what noises not to make.
After a two hour hike up to 3 000m above the sea level, we entered a thick, lush forest where the largest group of mountain gorillas in the area is located. The group we tracked was named Pablo due to the name of the main silverback leading the pack. It included 36 members, with the main silverback, Pablo, two younger silverbacks, and rest females, younger males, and baby gorillas.
And they there were.
Unfortunately we arrived almost around noon, so gorillas were lethargic, and they were hardly moving around. This was with the exception of the little ones, who were strolling from bush to bush or they simply stretching on the back of their mothers, peaking through the bushes, and playfully posing to the cameras.
The other negative side of tracking with a group of strangers was that one never knew how the rest would behave. Unlucky for us, half of our group consisted of people who simply had no idea about the respect to the nature. They were loud, disrespected all instructions given by the guards, and agitated the animals. The rawness of the experience in Uganda was replaced by a mass touristic approach in Rwanda.
Despite my frustrations with humans, I observed in wonder the wonderful creatures in front of me. I stood mesmerized by their gentle nature, curvy bodies, and the curiosity in their eyes. Pablo decided not to show up that day, but two younger silverbacks showed their backs, and fronts to us, and they made sure that they were properly spotted. One was surrounded by three females, and few small babies. He did not seem disturbed by a group of humans with Canons and Nikons, and continued cleaning a female lying closest to him.
The other one was shortly after spotted lying on the grounds, just a few meters lower. Even in his sleepy state he was full on modelling. He was turning from left side to the right, stretching his legs, showing his belly, and yawning, presenting the mouth full of teeth, posing and in simple terms, enjoying all the attention from the crowd he could have gotten.
We were allowed to spend 1,5h with the gentle giants. Despite Pablo not showing himself to us, it turned out that he was closely observing our group from a hill, not far where we had been trekking. While we were called to turn back quietly, the main silverback, was heard loud and clear, as he wanted to say not to disturb his family any longer.
The trek was full of mixed feelings. I loved seeing the mountain gorillas again, but the behviour of humans caused some frustrations. I was glad that my first encounter with these beautiful creates was in Uganda, and it was without overeager tourists, without wifi, and it was “raw”. We had to work and sweat to see the animals.
As much as I enjoyed my time in Rwanda, its lovely people, the volcanos, and witnessing the amazing progress of the last 25 years, I could also see that the originality of the mountain gorilla trekking had been turned into a mass tourism, mostly targeting wealthy North American tourists.
However, I still have one place left to see my gentle giants… Stay tuned!