Kings of the jungle – gorilla trekking in the Virunga Mountains
Written by Steve Davey
Nothing can prepare you for your first sight of a silverback mountain gorilla in the wild. The first thing that strikes you is their sheer size and bulk – they are truly massive in a brooding and almost malevolent way.
But then you notice their gentleness and the precision with which they pick things up, feed, or even scratch and then inspect what they have removed under their fingernails. Next you will probably notice their eyes. Not to get all anthropomorphic, but there’s a humanity and a curiosity in their eyes. Don’t hold the look for too long though: maintaining eye contact can be seen as a sign of aggression, and you certainly don’t want to pick a fight with a silverback.
Gorillas are large, and as their diet is not particularly nutritious, they tend to lounge around in positions of exaggerated repose, continuously grazing on the plants that surround them, whilst letting out a series of low grumbling belches and grunts. A troop of mountain gorillas typically consists of anything up to 40 family members under the protection of a dominant male, who greys as he matures, hence the moniker ‘silverback’. As they feed, they spread out into various thickets and bushes, and are soon out of sight of each other. The constant noises help them to stay in touch and gauge where they are all feeding.
Initially you will generally see only a few gorillas, but you will quickly become aware of others loitering around in the bushes nearby. Sometimes you will find yourself surrounded, as various family members amble out of seemingly deserted sections of the forest.
The rules say that you have to keep seven metres from the gorillas to avoid disturbing them or passing on any human diseases. No one has told the gorillas this though, and they will sometimes approach you with great curiosity – especially the very young babies, who seem to have a lot more energy. As they approach, you should back away to maintain your distance, but this can encourage the younger gorillas further as they swagger towards you, emulating the confidence and domination of the silverback.
There are sadly thought to be fewer than 900 mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) left on the planet, and they are listed as critically endangered – at risk from poaching, conflict, and habitat loss. Half of their population lives in the Virunga Mountains, which straddle the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The other half lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.
In Rwanda, the Virunga Mountains are incorporated into the Parc National des Volcans. There are currently 10 habituated groups of gorillas that can be visited, and only eight people a day are allowed to visit them. To access the park, you need to get to Musanze, a 90-minute drive from the capital Kigali.
Getting to one of the groups of gorillas then involves a tiring and sticky trek through dense vegetation. If you go outside of the June to September dry season, you will most likely also have been soaked by one of the frequent rainstorms that keep this region so lush and green, or by brushing past the seemingly permanently dripping vegetation.
Depending on which group you are allocated, it can take a good few hours of hard trekking to reach them. Generally, though, there are park guards in contact with groups the whole time, and so your guides should have an idea where to find them. Once you have made contact, you are allowed to stay for a precious hour before leaving the gorillas in peace.
The trekking fee (US$750) not only pays for the gorillas’ protection, but it also pays for the guides, trackers, and porters who are employed in the trekking industry, many of whom used to eke out a living as poachers. This can seem odd, but employment gives the former poachers a way to look after their families, and it also gives them a stake in the future of these endangered animals.
The mountain gorillas were brought to the attention of the public in the West by the work of the naturalist Dian Fossey, who studied them for almost 20 years until she was murdered by poachers in 1985. Fossey was portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the filmGorillas in the Mist, and it is possible to trek to see her memorial at her old research centre within the park.
Photographing the gorillas
Sadly, many people are disappointed by the pictures of their gorilla encounters. The combination of low light levels, dark subjects, and difficult conditions can lead to over-exposed and blurred images. There are a few things that you can do, though:
Low light levels can lead to slow shutter-speeds and camera shake – especially as you will be forbidden from using your flash! Depending on the performance of your camera at high ISOs, consider increasing the setting by a few stops to 800, 1600, or even 3200 ISO. If you encounter the gorillas in a sunny clearing, then you won’t need such a high setting.
Dark subjects, such as dark green foliage, shadows, and obviously the black of gorillas, can fool your camera into over-exposing the pictures. This means that they come out too light, and as the camera is fooled into using a slower speed than it should, this can make camera shake worse. Set the exposure compensation on your camera to –1 stop for more accurate results.
On the trek to the gorillas, shoot a couple of shots in typical light and foliage conditions to check that your settings are correct. You won’t feel that you have time to pause for breath when you are actually with the gorillas.
It isn’t called ‘rainforest’ for nothing. Consider bringing a plastic camera raincover. Optech makes disposable ones for around US$10. A lens hood will help to keep raindrops off your lens element, but bring a lens cloth to wipe off any drops.
Lastly, don’t be so caught up with taking pictures that you forget to actually enjoy and appreciate the encounter.
More than Gorillas
Rwanda has a lot more to offer than its amazing mountain gorillas. Here are five other top attractions:
Kigali – the pleasant capital city of Rwanda boasts numerous restaurants, and even its own film industry and festival. Don’t overlook the haunting Kigali Memorial Centre, one of many places in the country that commemorate and educate about the terrible effects of the 1994 civil war.
Golden monkey trek – there is more to the Virungas than mountain gorillas. You can also go on a trek to see endangered golden monkeys (Cercopithecus kandti). There are two habituated troops with around 80 monkeys in each.
Nyungwe Forest – if you haven’t had enough of primates, Nyungwe Forest is home to some 500 chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). If you don’t manage to spot any, it is also home to the world’s largest troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza). There is even a 50m-high canopy walkway where you can embrace
your inner ape!
Butare – when you have had enough of monkeying around, head to the intellectual city of Butare, home to the National University and the National Museum, with its stunning ethnographic collection.
Lake Kivu – Although landlocked, you can still find beach life in Rwanda on the shores of Lake Kivu, one of the lakes of the Great Rift Valley. Check out the beautiful town of Kibuye with its colourful local market, or the busy town of Gisenyi. Apparently high methane levels in this volcanic lake mean that you don’t have to worry about hippos or crocodiles when swimming!
Distance: 3,801 km
Flight Time: 7 hrs, 20 mins
Frequency: 4 flights a week via Entebbe