In mid November my site neighbor Kate and I headed up to Musanze to go see the gorillas. We had purchased our permits back in June, just before the rates went up and aside from checking every once in awhile to make sure I still had my permit I didn’t give it much thought.
Due to a busy schedule, Kate and I traveled from Kamembe, in the very Southwest of Rwanda, through Nyungwe Forest, through Kigali, and up North to Musanze. Luckily the trip went well, except for some drunken ladies in the twege on the way to the hotel. I hadn’t bothered to get directions to the hotel, thinking it would be easy to find from Musanze town, thank goodness for the kindness of Rwandans!
After a long day of travel culminating in a lovely evening moto ride through fields of sheep, the five volcanoes in the background, we arrived at the hotel around 5 pm and were greeted by some friendly staff. The Kinigi Guest House is great by Rwandan standards and they even have hot water that was surprisingly hot. It appeared that we were the only guests there and even though we stayed in the ‘dormatory’ (a room with 4 beds) we got to use the bathroom in the VIP suite which was very generous.
We decided to take a walk into the neighboring village to stretch our legs and I was amazed at the friendliness and English proficiency of the people we met on the road. A byproduct of Volcanoes National Park headquarters being so close no doubt.
We got back to the hotel with the last light of the day to find the electricity was out. Unfazed we went to the restaurant to for dinner. It wasn’t long though before I found myself COLD and went back to the room to put on long johns and socks (a rarity for me in Rwanda). Dinner took forever per usual but was soooooo worth it! We both got steak and it was the best thing I’ve had in a long time. After dinner, I tested the shower, skeptical of the promised ‘hot water’ and unwilling to take even a tepid shower. I was pleasantly surprised at the abundance and hotness of the water. It was glorious. After that it was bed time because we had an early morning.
Miraculously breakfast was waiting for us the next morning. As another volunteer who travels for work once put it, “Hotel employees always seem to wake up surprised in the morning that guests want coffee and breakfast.” Not so in this case. During breakfast we finally saw some other hotel guests, two other groups of young women also going to see the gorillas from the way they were dressed.
After breakfast our driver was waiting for us, an adorable well-dressed older man who came recommended from some other volunteers. We headed down the road to park headquarters where we showed our permits and passports, mingled with other tourists waiting to hear what group we would go see and watching some traditional dancers. At the conclusion of dancing our driver told us what group we would be seeing and connected us with our guides who gave us a background on the different gorilla groups and ours specifically. Then it was back into the car to drive to the trail head.
At the trail head we were greeted by porters who we could hire to carry our bags and ‘help us’ in the mud. Some of the people in our group elected to hire porters and I felt pressured to do the same but ultimately decided not to. We were also given walking sticks and we headed up the trail which first led us through fields of potatoes until we came to a wall of rocks marking the edge of the forest. This ‘wall’ is to protect the crops from ‘bulls’ which I’m pretty sure are elephants. At this point we met up with one of the park rangers who was packing (to protect us from aforementioned bulls). Our guides were in radio contract with the trackers who told us at this point that the gorillas had moved locations so we headed downhill to another entry point into the forest.
Once we entered the forest we were ‘bushwacking’ but it wasn’t too bad at all, a gentle incline and very little mud except for where the bull tracks were. After about an hour total of hiking we met up with the trackers in clearing. Our guides explained to us what would happen next, we dropped our bags, bringing with us only what we needed and then headed off to see the gorillas.
It was incredible! You get one hour with them which begins when you first see them, which is the reason we break to gather everyone together and situate ourselves. First we came across a group of juveniles. Our guides told us because it was the rainy season and bamboo shoots were abundant that the gorillas were drunk from eating the bamboo shoots. It was obvious because the juveniles were beating on the chests and wrestling with each other. After watching them for awhile we moved onto where the Silverback and his lady friends. For the duration of our hour with the gorillas the Silverback just chillaxed between us and the gorillas.
We got to see baby gorillas nursing and playing with their mamas and because they were in dense undergrowth and not in a clearing we were able to get much closer to them than the designated 7 meters. It was so beautiful that I was almost moved to tears. The guides were awesome making sure everyone got a good vantage point of the gorillas and their picture taken if they so wished. They also ‘talked’ with them, making sounds to let them know that we were there but meant no harm.