following in Fossey’s footsteps
Gorilla trekking must be one of the world’s priciest tourist experiences, at least if one calculates the cost per minute. This year, the Rwanda Tourism Board raised the permit price to $750 for international tourists. Even with the East Africa resident discount, we paid a hefty sum to spend just one hour with the endangered mountain gorillas.
After a night at a B&B in Musanze, we awoke with the sun and took a 4×4 to Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi. Arriving before 7am we found the place already crawling with other tourists. While a group of intore dancers entertained the crowd, the drivers and park guides held a conference. There are 18 gorilla families in Rwanda, numbering from 10 to 40 individuals, but only half of the groups can be visited by tourists while the rest are reserved for research.
Some of the groups reside deep in the forest and require many hours of hiking to reach. The number of visitors per group is strictly limited, so the drivers haggle on behalf of their clients while the park rangers attempt to sort the visitors into small groups to visit the different families. Not that we were aching for a long hike after the ultimate tournament, but we were also severely bounded by time. RwandaAir decided to change our return flight from 8:30pm to 4:30pm, leaving us with a tight window to see the gorillas and return to Kigali.
We were assigned to Titus, a family of eleven gorillas led by one of the descendants, so our guide claimed, of Digit — the first silverback to befriend researcher Dian Fossey. According to our guide, Titus was Digit’s last son, born the year Digit was killed by poachers. Titus himself died of old age a few years ago and the group is now led by his wayward son, who had left the family for five years because he got tired of his dad beating him. Female gorillas all belong to the dominant male, so if one of the younger gorillas attempts “jiggy-jiggy” behind the leader’s back, he gets punished “everyday-everyday,” our guide explained. Titus must have excelled at administering punishment because his son took off for the mountains and lived alone, returning only when Titus was close to death.
The previous day the Titus family had been spotted just five minutes inside the park, but even seeing this “near” group proved a serious undertaking. From Kinigi we drove along a rough road for close to an hour before hiking laboriously for another hour up a steep hillside covered with strands of eucalyptus and small potato patches. After climbing over the low rock wall that encircles the park, we found ourselves in a virtually impenetrable thicket of dense branches and stinging nettles that stood as tall as we did and stung even through our clothes. A couple of park rangers with machetes opened up a semblance of a path and we plunged into the foliage.
After 5-10 minutes we reached a tiny recently made clearing where several more trackers stood. We deposited our bags, grabbed our cameras, and followed the guide further into the bush. The clock starts ticking the moment one spots the first gorilla and the hour goes by faster than it should. Scrambling to take as many pictures as possible while the time ticks down, it’s sometimes hard to stop and appreciate how amazingly like us these animals are. Stretching out for a nap on the grass with their hands clasped behind their heads or hugging their young ones close, each time we smiled at their antics it was because we could see ourselves performing the same exact actions in exactly the same way.
The Titus family was comprised of two silverbacks, two blackbacks, four females, and three babies, the youngest not even a year old. They were completely unperturbed by our presence, walking calmly right by us, though the alpha male did make a point of asserting his dominance once, leading the nearest tourist to cower on the ground. We caught the group at breakfast so they were not particularly active, which made them easier to photograph but did not provide too many video-worthy moments.
Just as most of the family huddled up together our time expired and the guide hurried us out of the forest. We had scarcely clambered over the rock wall when the German tourists who had rounded out our group came running out of the woods. One of them managed to disturb a bee hive, and a swarm of angry bees chased them from the forest. We tried to maintain our distance but did not escape unscathed as one of the bees stung D right below his eye.
We barely had enough time to return to the B&B, load our bags into the sedan that awaited us, and grab a packed lunch. By the time we checked in for our flight several hours later, there was less than an hour left until takeoff. If the gorillas had been any further inside the forest, there is a good chance we might have missed our flight altogether.