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In Search of the Elusive Mountain Gorilla: Trekking in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park

Words by Yvonne C Mtengwa

One of my 2022 trips took me to Rwanda – aptly yet proudly described by her people as “The Land of a Thousand Hills. On the agenda was my attendance at the IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC), the first ever continent-wide gathering of African leaders, citizens from across Africa, and special interest groups, largely in the environmental and biodiversity protection space, aimed at discussing the role of protected areas in conserving nature, safeguarding Africa’s iconic yet threatened wildlife, as well as promoting sustainable development in communities across the continent while conserving Africa’s cultural heritage and traditions.

Beyond the excitement of being a part of a Summit that would be as educational as much as it would award me the opportunity to reconnect and network with colleagues from my client organisation, whose collective expertise benefits people and nature through contributions to the continent’s social and environmental protection agenda, I had plans to squeeze in a gorilla trekking adventure somewhere on my 10-day itinerary when I was in Rwanda – and was I glad that plan did materialise after all!

After a decision one of my friend (a colleague in conservation and marketing) and I look to move ahead with going on this adventure, we looked into what it would entail for us to take on this activity. We began conducting some desk research, which resulted in multiple conversations over email and WhatsApp messages on findings; given that she is based in the United States and I in Dubai. Our Rwanda experience turned out to be a trip of a life time, with our gorilla trekking experience easily being one of our highlights. It was also a learning opportunity in so many ways. Here are 5 things you should know about going on a search for the elusive gorillas of Rwanda.

1. You will need a government issued permit to go trekking. You will quickly learn just how seriously the Government of Rwanda takes their national environmental and wildlife protection goals. Individuals who would like to go on this epic adventure are required to secure a Gorilla Trekking Permit, and this can only be done by the individual, separately and through the official government website or via licensed local tour operators. Hotels and lodges are not permitted to book Gorilla Trekking Permits on behalf of their guests.

The permit costs US$1500 (about €1,232) per person per day, and is the most expensive permit for gorilla trekking on the continent. This is nearly three times as much as other countries charge for foreign visitors, such as Democratic Republic of Congo (around $200) or Uganda (approximately $600). I happened to be fortunate to receive a discounted rate as a SADC citizen, putting me out of US$500 to attain mine.

2. You may need to be tested for COVID19 before trekking. As the world stirred from the disruption of the global pandemic, it also brought with it unique learning opportunities on the impacts of COVID19, not only to our day-to-day lives, but also for the global tourism industry. Not only was a vaccination certificate and proof of negative COVID19 results required to enter Rwanda, but we were then advised that we needed to secure yet another negative result certificate 48 hours before going trekking.

The logic made sense: there was need to safeguard the many people we would interact with closely during this excursion, from the National Parks Rangers, the trekkers and anti-poaching units who spend long hours in the mountains collating data on Gorilla movement, health and behaviours, the community members of the villages we would pass through as part of our hike, the tour operators responsible for transporting us to the activity, as well as the gorillas themselves, who possess +90% of human genetic make-up and are therefore prone to many of the diseases humans are!

3. If staying in Kigali, be prepared for a long (but scenic) drive. As I was staying in Rwanda’s capital for a conference, my journey started with a 5am pick up from our hotel. With our breakfast packed lunches ready to go, off we headed up a series of winding hills as we made our way towards Volcanoes National Park, located in north-western Rwanda and covering an estimated 160 km2 of rainforest. Why the early start you may wonder? Well, Rwanda have very strict driving rules and speed limits (60km per hour!!!) to help drivers navigate the steep ascents and descents in and through its hilly landscape. It truly is The Land of a Thousand Hills, from its cityscapes and into the country.

The drive up was quite spectacular as we watched the sun rise from our vehicle, taking in the cool mountain air and changing hues of the sky; from a dark blue-black to the red-orange notes of dawn, and then onto some shades of blue, on what would be a cloudy day with chances of light showers. We arrived 3 hours later, and right on time to begin the registration process, being split into groups, before beginning our hike into the Volcanoes Mountain range.

4. Come dressed and mentally equipped for a long, challenging hike. I have to admit; I had watched countless videos of Gorilla trekking, and they all looked quite glamourous. Models clad in cool, green and khaki coloured safari suites, with wide-rim hats on, a walking stick and gaiters, which if for hiking, are typically lightweight, breathable offer basic protection against rocks, grit and light rain while on mild-weather excursions. This was the image I carried into the hike. I was up for a rude awakening.

At the point of making your booking, you are encouraged to wear long sleeved shirts, warm clothing, hiking boots or strong sneakers you can afford to ruin, the aforementioned gaiters which protect you from the entry of small pebbles and crawly creatures from entering your footwear, water and snacks. You will even have the opportunity to support local community members by hiring rain/waterproof from them for a nominal fee. Do all of the above.

It took us 3-4 hours of hiking up a very steep mountain range, and foliage was dense – really dense, muddy terrain with every type of plant and insect that sometimes tampered with your effort to find your family of gorillas. Prior to commencing the hike, we were split into groups of 7 or 8 people as you do go up the mountains in groups, and each groups is assigned a particular family of gorillas to trek.

5. A remarkable opportunity to learn about these primates and Rwanda’s commitment to wildlife conservation and environmental protection. I was impressed to note that Rwanda endeavours to be a plastic-free nation, such that even when arriving at the airport, should you have plastic bags or containers, you will be asked to either discard them or substitute them with alternatives made from cloth, at a fee. There was not a single piece of paper on the ground on any of the roads we drove through while in Kigali, and the long drive to Volcanoes National Park also revealed just how commitment Rwanda is to cleanliness and sustainability.

We also during our hike, found out that the hefty gorilla trekking permit fees go towards the protection of these gentle primates from poachers, as well as sustenance of the communities that live in the very remote foothills and mountain ranges that make up Volcanoes National Park, which encompasses five of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains, namely Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo.

Our arduous trek lasted what felt like forever and a day before we spotted the “Pablo Family” of gorillas we would spend an hour with. Marked by dense foliage, mist covered forests and slippery slopes with majestic views of the valleys and hills that stretched far into the horizon, it was quite literally one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in the throngs of nature. Seeing 3 silver back gorillas a few meters away in their natural element, along with the adult females and young, at peace and protected, is one such experience that any conservation and wildlife enthusiast will forever carry on their minds.

Ours was a day trip, but looking back, I recommend you make your trip perhaps 2-3 days, booking a stay at either Musanze, the small town which is in many ways the gateway to Volcanoes National Park, or one of the pristine lodges in close proximity to the Park. Because gorilla families are upwardly mobile, and the hikes varied in difficulty, one never knows how long it will take them before they discover the primate family they are looking for. What is guaranteed however, is that finding these fascinating mammals, and the hour you will spend observing them, is absolutely worth every dollar spent and step taken towards discovering these creatures in their habitat. Would I do it again! Yes and yes! I would absolutely head back for another trek and recommend you look into the same for your conservation focused adventure when in you make your way to Rwanda.

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