As Charles Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I think that aptly describes my experience tracking the Susa silverback gorillas in Parc National des Volcans in Northern Rwanda. It was great fun and it was miserable. It was memorable and there’s much I’d like to forget. It was gorgeous and it was ugly. There was OK weather and there was a lot of cold and rain. But the experience for better or worse was well worth it because most of all there were the amazing gorillas and babies in their natural habitat which is something I will certainly not forget.
I remember seeing Gorillas in the Mist in 1988 when I was a kid and thinking that looks pretty cool. Even back then I knew I would do it eventually. It was tough for me to plan the trek because I never knew the exact dates I would be in Rwanda and they couldn’t accommodate the exact days I had originally asked for because there are only 40 permits a day issued to tourists to track the gorillas.
Finally, as luck would have it, my agent at Kiboko Tours, Rosette, emailed me and said there was one opening on New Year’s Day for the Susa group which was the only group I wanted to do. Susa is the hardest hike and the best gorillas and they recently had an addition of 4 new babies.
There was some confusion (shocker I know) early in the morning (at 3am) as my ride from Kigali was an hour and a half late to pick me up to drive 2.5 hours to the base camp for the trek. When we finally did arrive, they tried to move me to another group which did not please me as you’d imagine. Needless to say, I got into the group I wanted and what a great group of people we had.
There was a Scientist from Boston, a Quebecois couple from Montreal, a Canadian and Kiwi couple who live in Ontario and an Italian and Slovenian couple. Everyone was very nice and excited for the trek. We had all come a long way and spent a king’s ransom for this one day trip.
The permit alone costs $500 per person and there’s nothing you can do about that. If you leave from Kigali like I did, it cost another $200 for transportation to and from via Land Cruiser plus tea and lunch allegedly because I never did get lunch. Then they charge you another ridiculous $50 for a short drive from base camp to where you start the hike. Again, not much you can do about it except if you arrange your own transport to Gisenyi or an area around the park it obviously would be cheaper. I didn’t have the time to do that though. Also, you could double up and lower the fare of transport but bottom line, no matter what you do; you’re looking at $650-$750 easy for one day.
There are only three places on Earth that you can see the gorillas in their natural habitat: Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo; and Rwanda and the Volcanoes National park is known to be the best one and was of course made famous by Dian Fossey and Sigourney Weaver in the movie, Gorillas in the Mist.
When I arrived, I was the most underdressed person at base camp. Everyone was geared up with fancy hiking gear and I was wearing running shoes, sweatshirt and jeans. Not too bright as I would find out but I guess in the end it didn’t matter much because everyone was soaked and frozen no matter how much clothes they had on. The only thing that would have helped me would’ve better hiking shoes with more traction as opposed to 6 month old Nike running shoes with no tread for the mud.
It basically rained the whole time we hiked. Sometimes it was light and misty and other times it was torrential and miserable. After a lovely walk through a bamboo forest (above) you start walking through the densest jungle I have ever been in (including the Amazon Jungle). I was always the first in the walking line and my job was to basically follow the leader guy with the machine gun and the machete who was “clearing” the way. It was no easy task as the bushes and trees and whatever else there was in the way was big, dense and wet which made for many slippery falls into thick mud.
Normally, I would say that sounds like fun but when you’re absolutely drenched to your core, on no sleep, freezing and hiking for 3 hours up to an altitude of about 12,500 feet, you get kind of annoyed. It was tough for everyone with the weather, the elements and the altitude. Additionally, the gorillas had moved since the morning and were at a higher elevation which made our hike up even longer and more grueling.
Finally, we made contact with the trackers whose job it is to go up early every morning and find where the gorillas are and sit there with them until the tour groups arrive. By the way, the groups are limited to 8 and you then have one hour with the gorillas only no matter what the conditions.
As we were right by the gorillas, they make us stop and take off our bags and other things the gorillas could grab. We then make our way about another 100 meters or so through the pouring rain. Then they appear.
Massive, black and imposing; they are literally like 10 feet in front of us. I have to say it’s quite unnerving at first and you aren’t really sure what to expect. The guide tells us to basically line up next to them and stand still. The gorillas are just sitting there when we arrive protecting their babies from the heavy rains. Literally for the first 45 minutes we stood there not moving, getting rained on and we all thought we were developing hypothermia it was so cold and wet. Nobody could feel their hands or feet.
The with about 15 minutes to go, the rain let up to a drizzle which allowed everyone to snap some pictures and videos without fear of losing your camera to water damage. Also, the gorillas began to move around.
Suddenly, one gigantic silverback came rushing from the jungle behind from where we were standing and literally was a foot from the person on the far end. It was pretty frightening but absolutely awesome at the same time. Again, we didn’t know what to expect or what to do. The guide was very calm and collected so that put us at ease.
Then the males started battling for dominance by doing the chest pound that gorillas are famous for. I’ll be honest, I thought that was just for cartoons and didn’t know they actually did that. It was very hard and loud, it was a violent act and again was kind of scary but amazing to witness so close.
They kept looking at us but never charged us thankfully. They basically just lay around and stretched most of the time of the 15 minutes they were moving. Stretched out we could see how massive they actually were. Also, you could really see the resemblance to humans. The obvious differences are that their hands and feet are massive. It’s hard to tell from pictures but their hands and fingers have to be two feet wide with the thickest fingers you can imagine. It was very cool.
After the hour was up, we had gotten so excited we almost forgot how cold we were as the guide told us we had to start heading back. Then the adrenaline wore off and we all thought, “Are you serious, another three hours soaking wet, shivering and freezing”. Well, I’m not going to lie, it was pretty miserable and walking down the steep volcano was nearly impossible to stand up with all the mud and the shoes I had on.
I literally spent half the time on my ass in the mud (which made for good entertainment for my friend Matthieu who was directly behind me). As we made it further down, it got a lot more fun as it warmed up a bit and feeling started to come back to my fingers and toes. But I did manage to sprain my right knee pretty bad one time as my right foot fell about a foot deep in mud and as my body spun to fall, my knee wasn’t able to pivot as it should from the mud constraint and it hurt like hell. I was fortunate it wasn’t worse. I heard that many people get injured from similar things and sometimes the guides have to carry them down. That would be disastrous and I’m just glad it didn’t come to that but it hurt like hell nonetheless.
This all made it a far more interesting experience. It was a struggle but we all made it and looking back it was a great time. I only wish the weather had been better because then the hike would’ve been more fun, we would’ve have been a lot warmer and been able to enjoy the experience more and the gorillas are more playful when it’s not raining. Which leads me to another great Dickens quote, “Regrets are the natural property of grey hairs.” So as the great Victorian novelist would’ve said, I do feel very lucky that we got the 15 minutes we did as I got some good pictures and videos and just being there was super cool.
When we eventually did make it back to the car park, we were all thoroughly drenched and as we stopped walking it became cold again. I had no change of clothes as I was incredibly unprepared for the trek clothes wise which is very unlike me. So as I approached my driver shivering, I basically said “Give me your shirt!” He did and I jumped in the back and literally peeled off my wet clothes-all of them!
I sat bare ass to the seat wearing only his shirt and shivering like a little kid as of course the heat was broken in the car. Anyway, then it was another 30 minutes drive over the bumpiest roads you can imagine to where I could buy clothes at some market. It was closed. I was miserable. However, the driver offered to bring me to his house and give me some of his clothes to wear for the two hour drive back. I was moved by his kindness and jumped at the opportunity.
He parks in front of his house and as usual a group of Rwandan kids congregate around me staring right up at the window. It is very cute but also weird and I am sitting there freezing in only a shirt and it was pretty awkward. But I just started taking pictures of them and that made them happy!
So the driver comes back with a satchel of clothes and gives me some socks, shoes, jeans, jacket and underwear. I didn’t realize they were underwear so I held them up to see what they were and they were old school tighty whities with holes all over them so I politely declined the undies but was more than happy to throw on everything else which is what I did (they didn’t fit but who cares at that point).
I was so grateful to him for doing that when we eventually did make it back I tipped him very well and even gave him all my wet clothes and even the shoes. I wouldn’t have been able to dry them in time and they were just disgusting anyway. He was thrilled so that made me happy. It felt like after hiking Kilimanjaro when my clothes were so vile I just gave everything to the porters. This was pretty much the same thing.
So after about 19 hours in all I was back in Kigali at the Iris Guest House and went to grab some dinner at New Cactus Restaurant before absolutely crashing out. I was woken up at 6am this morning by the hotel desk guy because he got the wrong room by mistake. I was thrilled again and couldn’t fall back asleep so I headed to bus station and drove to Burundi which is where I am now. I won’t be here too long as I am flying from Bujumbura to Malawi tomorrow to relax on Lake Malawi for a few days.