Meeting Mountain Gorillas: My Most EPIC Experience Ever!

Like most travellers I have a mental bucket list that I am constantly updating. As a travel blogger I have been very fortunate to regularly check off items from that list.  Take a look at my Top Travel Adventures of 2012 and my #1 travel adventure of 2012  and you’ll see what I mean. But the #1 thing on my bucket list, remained, chewing away at me….until recently.

It will probably come as no surprise to those of you that know me and even those of you who don’t – my blog is named Monkeys and Mountains after all, that the #1 thing on my bucket list was to observe Mountain Gorillas in the wild. I had studied Western Lowland  Gorillas during my Bachelor of Science in Primatology.  I went on to work in environmental education at a zoo and designed and taught primate environmental enrichment programs. But still I had never seen a gorilla in the wild.

Bleep, bleep, bleep. That was the alarming sound I woke up to at 5:23 am. Normally I would have turned it off, and then hidden under the covers, but not today.  Today I pulled the covers aside and leapt out of bed, my feet hitting the cold floor of Amahoro Guest House in Musanze, Rwanda.  Today was the day I would be seeing Mountain Gorillas in the wild!

Flash forward 30 minutes later and Omar my friendly guide at Amahoro Tours has picked me up and I’m now in a group with six other gorilla enthusiasts. Our trek to the low stone wall marking Volcanoes National Park has begun.

One of three silverbacks in the Sabyinyo troop in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

One of the three silverbacks that comprise the Sabyinyo troop.

Our guide repeatedly spoke softly into his 2-way radio, speaking in his native tongue of Kinyarwandan. I didn’t understand him, but I did notice the worried look in his eyes as he exchanged glances with our other guide before brightly announcing that the trackers couldn’t find the gorillas but not to worry.

What? No gorillas?  My pulse quickened. Don’t worry, he assured us, the gorillas are moving fast in search of bamboo shoots.  He repeatedly assured us that the trackers would find the gorillas, but even he sounded less and les convinced as we waited just outside the park border to Volcanoes National Park. Half an hour later we were still waiting. Finally he got the call we had been impatiently waiting for – the trackers had located the gorillas, but we would need to hurry to catch up with them.

Drunk gorilla in Volcanoes National Park  playing with his belly button.

Drunk silverback playing with his belly button.

But first, he had to warn us of one other thing….bamboo shoots make the gorillas drunk! And there were not one, not two, but three silverbacks, including Guhonda, the largest and oldest silverback in the entire  Volcanoes National Park! We had to be prepared for….drunk gorillas!

It turns out that a drunk gorilla might parade around a bit more, beating their chests, showing off how strong they are, intimidating other males, or (gulp)…us. Doesn’t really sound all that different from drunk men does it?

We began to hike the steep muddy trail. I was full of adrenalin and could have raced up the hill, but we could only go as fast as the slowest member in the group.  In other words not nearly as fast as I would have liked given the fact that I knew Mountain gorillas were waiting for us. 90 minutes later we reached the trackers. We dropped off our backpacks and took out our cameras as we followed the trackers to the gorillas. I smelled them before I saw them. It wasn’t a bad smell, but a distinctive gorilla smell.

Two of the Sabyinyo troop's three silverbacks in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Two of the Sabyinyo troop’s silverbacks.

A branch snapped, i looked up and saw the behind of a huge male gorilla – one of the silverbacks who was obviously suffering from stomach problems as evidenced by his backside. Then he was gone, disappearing into the bush, despite his massive size! We moved quickly, deeper into the bamboo forest. Then out of nowhere, I saw him….Guhonda, the largest and oldest silverback! I quickly started snapping pictures, but he was moving quicker than we were and just as quickly he was gone too. The next 20 minutes are so consisted of playing hide and seek with the gorillas.  One second you would see them, the next second they had vanished!

Kampanga, the mother mountain gorilla who melted my heart.

Kampanga, the mother mountain gorilla who melted my heart.

Then IT happened. By IT I’m referring to one of the most magical moments of my entire life! A female gorilla (who I later found out is named Kampanga) stopped long enough to  look up and acknowledge us before going back to searching for bamboo shoots, but she moved slowly carefully…Perhaps it’s because Kampanga had a baby on her back!  YES A GORILLA BABY!

Mountain gorilla mother and baby in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Kampanga and her adorable son or daughter (the trackers didn’t know yet).

And not just any baby, but a baby who seemed to know how cute he was! He played it up for us as we snapped photo after photo. We stared. He stared back with his massive curiosity filled brown eyes. Kampanga decided to move on, coming closer and closer to us. I was in her way and she gingerly took her hand and brushed my leg, as if to say Excuse me. OMG, I had just been touched by a mountain gorilla! And a very polite one at that! It took every ounce of willpower not to reach out and touch the baby on her back who was literally just inches from me. I was so close that had I extended my arm half way I would have touched him.

Baby mountain gorilla posing for photos in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

He’s a star and he knows it!

After passing, she let out a low grunt, which I interpreted as Thank you in gorilla language. She proceeded to climb up a tree, her baby’s expression changing from one of curiosity to that of fear, his eyes growing even bigger as his clutch around her fur tightened….Then they were gone.  Words cannot begin to express how I felt….elated….dizzy with excitment…thankful….beyond grateful for the opportunity….Words are simply not enough.  Even now as i write this, several weeks later, my breath has quickened.  It was truly one of the most memorable moments of my entire life!

Our time with the gorillas had not yet come to an end yet though.  We moved on and caught a glimpse through the bamboo forest of Big Ben.  Big Ben is famous in his own right, for despite being a juvenile gorilla.  He is bald! The Gorilla Doctors have examined him and he is perfectly healthy…but bald.  Poor guy!  Wonder if that impacts his chances with the ladies?

We passed Karema, another female who is easily identifiable by her missing fingers, caught in a snare.  Snares are not common in Rwanda any more due to some impressive initiatives by the Rwandan government (to be discussed more in an upcoming post), but that wasn’t always the case.

Guhonda, the largest and oldest silverback in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Guhonda taking it easy, perhaps his bamboo buzz had kicked in?

Next we stumbled upon Guhonda again, the park’s largest silverback. He was settled down, perhaps his bamboo shoot buzz kicking in. PFIFFFFF PFIGGGGHHH. Yes that is the sound of a silverback having gas! Something that gorillas have a lot of.  Given the fact that Mountain gorillas are predominantly herbivores, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but still I found it entertaining.

Me posing with a silverback of the Sabyinyo troop in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Me posing with Guhonda (well kinda)….he did have bad gas after all!

As a FYI gorilla gas doesn’t stink when you’re standing 3 meters away. All too soon, our hour was up.  It was time to go. To leave the gorillas in peace. To be gorillas again without a group of tourists snapping pictures, oohhing and ahhing…. or poking fun  at their flatulence. I was the last one to leave and did so only at the urging of our guide. I waved goodbye to Guhonda and mouthed a silent Thank you and until next time….

Know Before You Go Gorilla Trekking in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda:

  • It’s not cheap.  A one hour permit will set you back $750 – but it’s worth every penny!
  • Amahoro Tours can purchase your gorilla permit for you.
  • Book as far in advance as possible. There is a maximum of 80 people a day and spots fill up quickly, the exception being in May, when I went, during rainy season.
  • Once you arrive at Volcanoes National Park, your guide will ask you how far you want to hike and then try to find a gorilla troop to match your abilities.
  • Porters are also available to help you and carry your back pack.
  • Photography tip:  Flash is not allowed.  Set your ISO settings at 1600 or 3200 so that the gorilla’s faces show up.  I got this excellent tip from a guy on my tour who got it from a professional photographer on his previous tour.
  • You can see more primates (including chimps)  in Nyungwe National Park in the south part of Rwanda.  I highly recommend it.

Comments

  1. says

    Wow, this looks absolutely incredible. I would love to see gorillas in the wild, especially if there was a chance to see a little baby like this!

  2. says

    What an incredible experience! So amazing that you not only got to see a baby, but that the mom also touched you. I’m sure you’ll remember that vividly for a long time to come.

    • says

      @Katherine – I was so grateful for the photography tip so that I could enjoy the gorillas and not be fiddling with my camera settings.

  3. says

    Wow! I’m super jealous. I’d absolutely love to do this. Gorillas are such fascinating animals, and it would be amazing to see them up close in the wild. So cool.

  4. says

    Hi Laurel, Wow! That’s an epic experience indeed. I’m so thrilled for you. It must amazing seeing them in person. I love your encounter with Kampanga and her baby. They were almost human-like. I can’t believe how expensive the permit is. As you said, I’m sure it’s pretty worth it. I hope to experience it someday.

    • says

      Thanks @Marisol. My encounter with Kampanga and her baby was definitely the highlight. I was shocked at how expensive the permit was as well. It used to be $500, but the government increased the price a while ago.

  5. Deb says

    AMAZING! Great photos! That would be an incredible experience — So jealous! Would love to experience that!

  6. says

    What a fantastic experience Laurel – and one that will be hard to follow. One hour must have slipped by so fast and just felt like seconds. Do the high prices for guiding you to the gorillas go towards protection of the gorillas? You’re photos are great and that baby is a real cutie.

  7. says

    Sounds like my kind of gorilla. So pleased you realized this lofty goal on your bucket list. The enthusiasm is obvious in you post and the photographs are excellent. Thanks for sharing.

  8. says

    That’s a really nice post! It’s definitely also on my bucket list to visit the gorillas in Rwanda. Like you said it is quit expensive but I can believe it’s worth every penny.

    I personally really like Orangutans. I saw a few wild ones in Malaysia (borneo) and this encounter was really amazing. One of the things on my to do list is volunteer in an Orangutan shelter in Indonesia….

    Nice blog! I will keep following it!

    • says

      @Bastiaan – Thank you. I hesitated because of the cost, but definitely worth every penny. Three people on my tour were there for the third day in a row they liked it so much.

      Would love to see orangutans, that must have been amazing as well. Volunteering with them is on my list as well, think it would be an incredible experience.

      Thanks for your kind words and for stopping by.

  9. says

    A wonderful wonderful journey, and some fabulous photographs. I was fortunate enough to see mountain gorillas in Bwindi on the Ugandan side – I can’t find my photos, and I wasn’t anywhere as close to them as you were. But I remember how special it was when after a day and a night of tracking we finally found a family (it took as that long because there was no one ahead to let us know where they were – WE were the ‘ahead’!)

    One thing I remember is being reminded that people may walk AROUND hills but gorillas walk up and down them so when you’re tracking, you have to go up and down too. That first night I was so exhausted I fell asleep on the ground, my feet in the mud, in the rain. I think your trip sounds like heaven compared to mine – I’d love to try it again in a more organized way.

    But… was once enough? Or are you hooked and ready to return? :-)

  10. says

    I am so jealous of you!! This must be an amazing experience and also a reminder to non animal lovers that the planet does not belong to humans, we belong to it

  11. says

    Pretty cool. I am surprised you got close enough for one to brush by you. Wild that they get drunk on bamboo.
    I had no idea there were different types of gorillas. I will have to pay more attention next time I go to a zoo and see them.

    Seems like something totally up your alley.

    • says

      @Andrew – Me too. Technically you are supposed to stay 5 meters away, but they let us get closer since the bamboo forest was so dense. I was surprised to hear about the bamboo as well. I visited golden monkeys the next day and they were getting drunk from the bamboo shoots as well. In a zoo you’ll most likely see Western Lowland Gorillas. Mountain gorillas don’t do well in captivity.

  12. says

    I am really surprised that they aren’t more aggressive. I’ve only seen them in zoos. And they always scare me. So I cannot imagine what they would be like in the wild. I’m not sure I can do it. But I’m glad you did, as “monkeys” are so important to you. Looks like a lot of fun for someone who isn’t afraid.

    • says

      @Sherry – I was a little concerned when our guide said they might be drunk from the bamboo shoots, but they were really calm. Had I tried to touch the baby, I’m sure it would have been a different story :). If you’re afraid, you can always hide behind one of the guides :)

  13. says

    This is incredible. ‘Epic’ seems like a bit of an understatement. Would love to do something like this one day – sounds unreal.

  14. says

    Incredible, what a truly epic adventure! I kinda love that gorillas get drunk, though might not start distilling bamboo anytime soon. Great pics and the narrative really puts me there. I’m totally jealous but thanks for sharing your adventure.

  15. says

    Laurel, this sounds awesome! I can’t imagine being this close to gorillas in the wild. And the drunk thing? Hilarious! I’m so glad you got to do something like this you’ve been dreaming about!

    • says

      @Ali – I know, who knew that gorillas also liked to get drunk. It was truly a trip of a lifetime and I am so grateful for the opportunity.

  16. says

    WOW, what a fantastic experience this must have been!!! Very well written, and stunning photos!! I almost felt like I was there with you! :) Awwww, and that baby gorilla is soooooo cute!!! Seeing gorillas in the wild is one of my biggest dreams too, it is high up on my bucket list. Some day we will go there too!

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