** In December 2010, I returned to Africa for a Rwandan adventure with college friends. Here’s an account of the trip’s highlight – hiking to see mountain gorillas! **
A silverback gorilla surveyed his 41-member family. They munched bamboo, rolled repeatedly down hills and peered curiously at my group of gawking humans.
We were acutely aware of our vulnerability to these powerful creatures. Instead of visiting them in a controlled environment such as a zoo or wildlife park, we had hiked two hours into Rwanda’s volcanic Virunga Mountains to sit among this family of wild mountain gorillas, some of the few remaining in the world.
Hope, our cheerful and appropriately-named guide, led us through a bamboo forest to the 10,000-foot altitude where we found the Susa family of gorillas. This was the same area where Dian Fossey – featured in the film “Gorillas in the Mist” – lived and studied these animals for 18 years.
Though we’d been told gorillas are mostly vegetarian and unlikely to harm humans, Hope instructed us to stay at least seven meters away from the animals at all times. This rule is actually for the gorillas’ protection, though – some of our germs can infect them. Still, keeping the distance became a bit difficult when adorable adolescents approached us with friendly faces – I fought the urge to hug them and instead backed away slowly.
Other rules included keeping a submissive stance (also known as “bad posture”) and refraining from flash photography, eye contact, pointing or chest-drumming.
The most hazardous life form my group encountered was stinging nettles, which repeatedly pained us as we waded through the dense underbrush on the mountain top.
We were allowed one hour to gape at the gorillas, and only one group can visit each of the mountain’s seven tourist-specific gorilla families per day. The rest of the time they are tracked by a group of men that make sure they are safe from poachers who want them for meat and trophies. The Rwandan government makes significant money off gorilla tourism – each non-Rwandan person pays $500 USD to visit the gorillas – so they are motivated to keep these animals alive and thriving by employing these armed body guards for their protection.
To learn more about visiting Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, please visit http://www.rwandatourism.com/primate.htm.