tracking golden monkeys
Up before the sun, S vacillated about her decision to go see the golden monkeys. The road up to Virunga, where we were staying, is treacherous – an impossibly steep ascent up a rough track that is all ruts and boulders leads up to the lodge – and S had some misgivings about navigating it downhill alone in the darkness. Plus there was the fact that she prefers shared experiences to going it alone. The hour she spent with the golden monkeys made it more than worthwhile.
Primate tracking in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is extremely regimented. Each visitor has to have a tracking permit and must be accompanied by both guides and trackers – the latter stay in the forest and monitor the endangered primates at all times. What’s more, from the moment of first contact, visitors are only allowed to spend one hour with the primates.
Whereas gorilla-tracking permits are incredibly expensive – $750 for foreigners, and half that for East Africa residents – golden monkeys are a lot more accessible, financially-speaking. S had visited the former twice — in 2010 and 2013 — and the scene that greeted her at the national park entrance was all too familiar. Intore dancers played their drums and danced, showing off their craft for the crowds of tourists, who stood around drinking tea and coffee while their guides jostled each other inside the cramped park registration office.
Most of the visitors to Volcanoes are there for the gorillas. The day of S’s visit only three out of about a hundred other tourists had come to spend the morning with the park’s golden monkeys. After receiving the customary briefing, visitors piled into their own vehicles and drove half an hour into the countryside. S wound up giving one of the park rangers a ride in our car. From the little village where the cars had to be parked, it was another half an hour by foot to the forest boundary.
S was incredibly fortunate. Ordinarily, the monkeys spend the bulk of their day hopping along through the treetops, but S and her group arrived early enough that the monkeys were still foraging at ground level – snapping off bamboo shoots, jostling and wrestling with each other like kids at a playground, and displaying the full range of their acrobatic motion as they swung around the bamboo forest.
Best of all, the monkeys were completely unperturbed by their visitors’ presence. S could come right up to them as they tussled or sit mere inches away, snapping pictures while the monkeys foraged for food. Once or twice, one of the more curious monkeys even brushed by her leg. The other bit of good fortune for S was that she visited during the birthing season – a number of the monkeys had babies, the youngest of whom was only three days old!
S could barely contain herself when she returned, trying her best not to gush about what an amazing experience she had just had to D, who had spent the morning with Munchkin and had yet to go primate tracking. Although she let a few words slip, she was subsequently glad she didn’t build up the experience too much before D had a chance to go as well.
D’s visit to the golden monkeys the following morning was nowhere near as fortuitous. For one, there were twice as many people in his group. More importantly, one of them had some sort of payment issue that took an impossibly long time to resolve. Already delayed, the group took an even longer time to reach the forest because it turned out that one of the visitors could barely walk. He literally had two porters along supporting him under each shoulder who all but carried him to the forest boundary.
Although D made the most of the slow slog to the forest, taking advantage of the leisurely hike to do some birding, the cumulative delays meant that by the time the group reached the park boundary, the golden monkeys had long finished their breakfast and had moved off into the treetops.
What’s more, whereas S had encountered the monkeys in a relatively open bamboo field, D’s group had to navigate a thicket to approach them. D did see a handful of monkeys cavorting around on the ground, but there was a large ravine separating them from the group of visitors. Sensing the visitors’ frustration, the guides tried an encirclement maneuver. The group hiked out of the forest and reentered it, but by the time the guides reached the place where the monkeys had been, the primates were long gone.
It’s a good thing S took hundreds of photos and a dozen videos. Although D spent roughly the same amount of time observing the golden monkeys, he did so at a distance and his visit yielded only a couple dozen photos – most of them of much poorer quality.