Neil’s close Encounter with Gorillas

One of my colleagues Neil recently attended a friend’s wedding in Rwanda (how is that for something different!).  So while he was there, trekking with the endangered mountain Gorillas was a highlight that he could’t miss.  I sat down with him once he was back and asked him a few questions that I thought would be interesting for those thinking about a visit.

Early rainy misty morning views in Rwanda

Any tips for gear to take with you?

It doesn’t matter what season you go (high or low) you are trekking in rain forest so hiking boots are a must.  Long gaiters are also useful, not just the ankle ones, but ones that protect your entire ankle and  lower leg.  All the guides actually wear gumboots – if you have some comfy ones, they are life savers!

Was the walking tough going, do you have to be fit?

There are actually rangers monitoring the various groups of Gorillas 24/7 so they do always know where the troops are.  In other words you are not walking around aimlessly and hoping you will come across them.  You set out to a particular destination and that can either be 1 hour away or 8 hours away.  It is a “round trip” so you won’t have to walk 8 hours there and 8 hours back.  You must remember that you are walking in rainforest so the walking conditions are not easy.  Wet and thick bush – in this way, I would recommend some fitness before you go – just to help with the tough conditions.
The final thing that one doesn’t think about but that you are exposed to – is altitude.  Coming from Cape Town which is at sea level the effects of altitude took me by surprise!

They say you only have 1 hour with the Gorillas once you find them, is this true?

Yes this is correct – someone is timing you from the minute you enter their space.  The guides warn you once you have a couple of minutes left but it is literally one hour.  It goes incredibly fast and you just can’t believe it when you hear that “almost over” warning!
One interesting thing is that you can’t take anything with you  other than your camera (no flash) or video camera.  So as soon as you are close to the Gorillas, your guide stops you, you leave backpacks, sticks, water bottles, food, anything you carrying behind, and only then are you ready for your encounter .

Why do they make you leave everything behind?

The guides are very conscious of anything that the Gorillas might find threatening, or anything that might interfere with their natural habitat.  The Gorillas could see a stick for instance, as a weapon or rifle.  They may also try and take your food or water bottles.  So by not taking anything in with you the temptation for the Gorillas is not there.  The conservation efforts surrounding the endangered mountain Gorilla are huge.
The other thing the guides are very clear on is that you are not allowed within 7 meters (21 feet) of the Gorillas.  If they come into your space that is okay but you can’t encroach on theirs.

Finally – what was it like to be surrounded by these animals?

I can honestly say it was just an amazing experience.  They are so human like in their natures it is just incredible.  They are also huge – the Silverbacks especially – and one coming straight for you, your heart stops!  Despite their size they move so effortlessly up and down the trees.  And then the babies are just so funny to watch – while they still learning they are actually quite clumsy!

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