The term “once in a lifetime” tends to get bandied about a lot – especially in travel. Everyone wants to go on a once in a lifetime trip, but few experiences truly live up to the moniker.
Gorilla trekking is one that does.
There are a few reasons I consider gorilla trekking to be such a one-time-only experience, the most obvious one being the cost. The Rwandan government charges a cool $1500 per person per trek. I took solace in the knowledge that the funds are being used toward conservation and the protection of the endangered mountain gorillas.
Another reason is the overall travel time required. Although a new USA-Kigali direct route on RwandAir is rumored, for now most travelers will have to connect in Europe. It is then a 3-hour road transfer from Kigali out to Volcanoes National Park. The scenery is awe-inspiring as you curve and swerve through the Land of a Thousand Hills. (Multiple times on my trip I was asked, “How many hills are there in Rwanda?” and the answer is always, “A thousand… but it looks like there are more!”) My stomach of steel held out until the last half hour when I started to get a serious case of car sickness, and I heard that more delicate guests have to make use of a baggie if their stomachs can’t withstand the ride.
An overnight at the lodge is required before an early start the next morning to Park Headquarters. Gorilla Trekking Permits are handed out there, and then trekkers wait (somewhat inexplicably) for a couple hours until they are assigned to their group of eight or fewer to visit a specific gorilla family.
Here is what really makes it Once in a Lifetime: the various gorilla families. Each family has a name, history, and personality. There’s no predicting who exactly you will find or how long exactly you will trek to find them. So even if you were to trek every day for a week, each experience would be completely different from the day before.
I opted for a medium difficulty level trek and was assigned to the Sabyinyo Family, which is led by the oldest and largest Silverback in the Park. My group drove from the main congregation point to the starting point of our trek (about a 10 minute drive) and were then assigned porters and given a briefing by our gregarious and hilarious head tracker, Francoise.
Francoise was an ideal head tracker to have and quite famous in the area. He has been tracking gorillas since the 60s and worked directly with Dian Fossey. Whenever the Rwandan President Paul Kagame visits the gorillas, he requests Francoise to be his guide. I was amid greatness – and I hadn’t even gotten close to the gorillas yet.
After walking through farmland to the base of a mountain, the trekking began. There is a reason the term is “trekking” and not “hiking” – our guides took machetes to cut through bamboo, tree branches, and tall grasses to make a path. We had to climb over piles of leaves, duck through tunnels of branches too thick to cut, and shimmy around jungle vegetation. (All at a somewhat quick pace mind you – this jungle, after all, is the trackers’ office and they wielded their machetes cavalierly.) It felt great to be out in the open air, pushing myself and using my body to explore somewhere new, and to really work for it.
The minute we got close to the gorillas, it began to rain. A fine mist coated the land as a mother and baby gorilla came into view, peacefully eating bamboo balanced on a pile of vegetation. We approached them on a descent, so we ended up being slightly above, and they were completely unconcerned by our appearance (although the baby was much more curious about us than his mom).
It was a lovely moment. And then with the blink of an eye, they had decided to move and everything immediately changed. With swift grace, our head tracker rounded us up and led us deeper into the forest, following in the gorillas’ wake. The branches and leaves had become slippery with the rain, but any difficulty of movement failed to register in my mind as we approached the Silverback, sitting alone in a copse, protected from the rain, methodically eating thick bamboo stalks.
The group gathered round, and Francoise escorted me to the front, where I sat on the ground mesmerized by this enormous, powerful, intelligent, and yet incredibly gentle being. Everyone in the group snapped pictures to their hearts’ content and a charged silence permeated around us. We knew we were in the presence of a king.
Francoise warned us that the Silverback was getting ready to move on and we had strict instructions for what to do – head down, no eye contact, no photographs, and for the love of God get out of his way. And as if the Silverback had communicated directly with Francoise (well, he had – Francoise very clearly knew how to speak gorilla), he stood and came at a great clip directly into our group. Heads down, we pressed up against the trees to make a clear route for the Silverback. He brushed through us so closely we could sense his power, feel the heat from his body, and could’ve easily reached out to touch his fur.
As he headed off into the trees with ease, we continued to trek on toward other family members. The rain was still coming down as we machete-hacked deeper into the forest and came upon a clearing. Another Silverback rested there, with a mother, baby, and two adolescents (many more gorillas were in the trees, teasing us, contemplating if they would deign to make an appearance). Francoise led me to a pile of discarded bamboo stalks where I precariously balanced for the next half hour, watching the family and taking pictures.
When it came time to leave, I was astonished that an hour had already passed. Permits allow for only one hour with the gorillas, with absolutely no exceptions, and yet it is without a doubt not enough time. I couldn’t stop thinking for the rest of my trip, “That was the quickest hour of my life.”
As the group filed out of the clearing, I found myself at the back. I stopped and turned around for one last glimpse. The Silverback finished chewing a piece of bamboo, then turned and made eye contact with me. We looked at each other and I felt a surge of love for this place and these beings – these relatives of ours that are endangered and need our protection.
I’ve had many mixed emotions about my time trekking with the gorillas. It has brought up questions about the role of tourism in conservation as well as the ethics of using animals for entertainment, even in the wild. But ultimately, Rwanda as a nation has provided a wonderful home for the gorillas and is taking steps to ensure that it remains their home forever – and that is a goal I can get behind.