Primate Safaris
November 2, 2010

With school teachers on holiday for the week and my presence not required at the second installment of VSO in country training, which is only relevant for long-term volunteers, I have planned to make good use of some free time to explore a little more of Rwanda.

On Sunday afternoon I travelled up to Ruhengeri in Northern Province, gateway to the Volcanoes National Park, in preparation for a two-day primate safari in the Virunga Mountains.

The Volcanoes National Park is 91 km north-west of Kigali. On this occasion I opted for the comfort and extra expense of being chauffeur driven in a four-wheel drive booked through a local travel agency. My driver, Aloys, remained with me for two days making sure I arrived everywhere on time and with the requisite paperwork and permits.

It was an enjoyable two and a half hour drive through the beautifully terraced hills, which are so characteristic of rural Rwanda, to the town of Ruhengeri which like many has undergone a name change post genocide and was formerly called Musanze.

The Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel, where I was staying, had good views across to the Virungas, which are not actually a mountain range but a chain of free-standing volcanic cones, three active, six inactive, straddling the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC and all exceeding 3,000m with the tallest Karisimbi at 4,507m.

Tracking mountain gorillas in the Virungas is one of the great wildlife experiences and indisputably one of Africa’s travel highlights. It was therefore with great anticipation that I left the hotel at 6.00 am on Monday morning.

Aloys drove me to the mountain gorilla centre, at nearby Kinigi, where I met up with 55 other lucky people. In order to minimize behavioural disturbances to the gorillas only 56 permits are issued  daily, eight for each of seven habituated groups in the Volcanoes Park, at a cost of US$500 each.  As a temporary Rwandan resident with a green card I was eligible for a half price permit, still expensive but bearable!

At Kinigi I was allocated ‘Group 13’, the second largest gorilla family, consisting of 25 members led by one silver back. Francis our guide gave us a briefing on how to behave in the presence of the gorillas. Once we had located them, with the help of trackers who go ahead and maintain radio contact with the guide, we would be in their presence for one hour at a minimum distance of seven metres.

I had feared dismal rainy conditions but the sun was shining  as we set out from the trail head. One and a half hours later, following a steady climb through semi deciduous woodlands and bamboo forest – having reached a height of around 2,700m, we made contact with our trackers. The gorillas were just a head!

Most people have seen David Attenborough’s wonderful BBC documentary Gorillas in the Mist and somebody actually asked me how I could expect to get a better view of them than that? In truth I had been ready for a big let down but needn’t have worried.

It is extremely difficult to do justice in print to the exhilaration of encountering these gentle giants at such close quarters, other than to say it was a once in a life time experience that exceeded expectations and was worth every last cent.

For an hour we watched the huge silver back munching stoically on bamboo (a gorilla’s daily intake is roughly 15% of is body weight so in his case about 30 kg) whilst keeping a watchful eye on his extended family. Young gorillas thumped their chests and frollicked around engaging in rough and tumble whilst the very small literally clung to their mothers.

Although we started off at the requisite 7m distance from the gorillas they carried on regardless moving around and about us. At one point we were encircled. The guides would occasionally ask us to stand still or step back as one of the gorillas passed through often within a metre or so of where we were standing!

The gorillas are obviously the stars of the show in this neck of the woods so this morning’s treck to see the much smaller and little known golden monkeys (an endangered species) might have been an anti-climax. It turned out to be another great spectacle.

There are around a hundred golden monkeys in the troop and a fair few of them showed up to  treat us to a display of acrobatics, flying through the tree tops and swinging from creepers. Once they had accepted our presence they came very close scampering around at ground level as well as performing their aeronautics while some of them were seemingly posing for the benefit of their visitors’ cameras!    

Our enjoyment was heightened by Francois, a guide who actually worked with the legendary Dian Fossey. He is extremely knowledgeable and a huge character, who is clearly very in tune with his primates, and treated us to some wonderful gorilla impersonations.