Hello everyone! My name is Lily and I’m a Fellow at the World Affairs Council of Connecticut! This past month I had the good fortune of traveling to East Africa. One of the highlights of my trip was gorilla trekking in the oldest national park in Africa, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park – also home to some of the 400 remaining wild Mountain Gorillas in the world.
Before the trip, I was open to do gorilla trekking in either Rwanda or Uganda on the condition that I was able to organize the permits and transportation myself in order to cut down on costs. Permits in Rwanda cost a whopping $750, while those in Uganda come in at $500. Each country typically recommends reserving permits months in advance, but I sent an email to the Park and Wildlife Authority of Rwanda and Uganda inquiring on permit availability for mid-December just a mere 3 weeks before my arrival in East Africa. By the next afternoon, I had a response from the Rwanda Development Board informing me that two permits were available for one of the dates I requested! Score! After a bit more research into transportation and accommodation, my friend and I came to the conclusion that the higher cost of the permits in Rwanda was offset in other areas. We would save a LOT of time and money due to the well-developed highway infrastructure and dependable and organized public transportation system in Rwanda.
And, for the record, I never received a response from park officials in Uganda anyway.
The Big Day:
On the afternoon before our trek, my friend and I hopped on a bus headed for Musanze, the closest city to the park headquarters. We settled in for the night and prepared for an early wake up call the next morning.
We arrived at the National Park headquarters at 7:00 AM – as required by the Park Headquarters. It was a beautiful morning – all sunshine and cool, crisp air. Only 80 permits are available to see the gorillas on any given day, so there was an atmosphere of pure excitement – and perhaps adrenaline – among those present. As visitors arrive to the park, they are divided into groups of 8 based on their fitness and willingness to trek a particular distance to reach the gorillas. Some families can be reached in an hour of relatively easy walking, while other families can only be reached after 4+ hours of intense jungle trekking. Our guide returned and informed us that he got us the best deal – a medium/hard hike and a big gorilla family (23 gorillas!) with two silverbacks and several babies!
After a short briefing with our guide on park rules and how to act around the gorillas, we hopped back into our cars to head deeper into the park and onto our respective trailhead.
Our hike began at the base of Mt. Bisoke, a volcano that rests on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and rises to an altitude of 12,175 feet (3711 m). As we ascended into the jungle, the trees and undergrowth thickened and the rain began to pour. Despite December being known as a mini “dry” season, it tends to rain daily. The “trail” was pure mud and you only had two choices; either walk through mud up to your ankles or attempt to stick to the side of the path and risk the stinging nettles. I chose a combination of the two, which left me muddy, wet, and stung.
After almost 3 hours of battling the terrain we slowed down and entered a thicket of bamboo forest where we met up with the gorilla trackers, who are responsible for staying close by the gorilla families on the mountain almost 24/7, enabling guides to take the most direct route to find them. We left our bags and walking sticks with the trackers so as not to frighten the gorillas, many of whom still have powerful memories of poachers attacking and murdering them with spears and guns.
We crept the final 100 meters through the bamboo shoots and entered a tiny clearing as the rain finally abated to see our first gorillas – and some of the only 400 remaining wild mountain gorillas in the world. The next hour was magical. We simply sat and quietly enjoyed the presence of beings that share 98% of our DNA. A life that could have been ours.
Stay tuned for more on gorilla trekking and sustainable animal tourism! If you have any questions in the meantime, feel free to ask in the comment section!