Gorillas in our midst

After hours of hiking, I turned a corner and there they were.

A family of mountain gorillas lounged under the forest canopy, in the midst of an afternoon siesta. Two baby gorillas tussled beside the Silverback, who measured twice the size of the largest female.

This was the Hirwe family of gorillas, a 21-member troupe named “lucky” in Kinyarwanda by the guides and trackers who love them.

Part of the Hirwe family relaxing on a sunny day.
Part of the Hirwe family relaxing on a sunny day.

My day had started at 5 a.m. when I woke up in Musanze, a town about two hours northeast of Kigali. Musanze is the tourism hub for adventurers who want to climb into the Virungas and experience the thrills written about in Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist.

The Virunga mountains are a chain of volcanoes stretching across national parks in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s possible to track the gorillas from any of these countries though Rwanda is generally considered to have the most well-organized tourism options.

Gorillas are an endangered species, with less than 1,000 alive today. Though poaching decimated the population, conservation efforts mean that the numbers are growing every year.

When I arrived at Rwanda’s national park, volcanoes loomed on the horizon, and the entire landscape was smudged in morning mist. It was a good omen.

The beginning of the trail into the Virungas.
The beginning of the trail into the Virungas.

After choosing a gorilla family to track, my guides, Ferdinand and Elaine, explained the major rules. Don’t run away from the gorillas, sit down if one runs at you, and treat the family with the general respect you would if visiting someone at home.

I lucked out — I would be tracking a gorilla family with a set of two-year-old twins. The Hirwe family’s history began with a Silverback gorilla named Munyinya, who is now 35 years old. The story goes that Munyinya was a solitary male, who had been kicked out of his original family after failing to submit to his father. He roamed the jungle and won over a few females from different groups to form a new family, which often boasts new additions. There is no shortage of baby gorillas in the Hirwe family.

Dad grooming two of his babies.
Dad grooming two of his babies.

To reach the family, it would be about a two hour hike. This was relatively short as it can take almost six hours to reach some of the other groups.

The hike itself was steep and muddy, with the guides using machetes to make new trails when necessary. One perk of Volcanoes National Park is an abundance of stinging nettles, which can reach over your head. They are best avoided unless you want to deal with an irritating rash the day after your hike. I also crossed over several elephant footprints, but unfortunately they are quite elusive so it’s unlikely to see both gorillas and elephants in one day.

As I climbed further into the gorillas’ habitat, I noticed large scattered nests above me, signaling that we were on the right track.

Then I heard noises that could mean only one thing. We found the gorillas.

It’s so startling to see a group of gorillas in the forest, that I almost forgot it was the reason I was hiking.

Only meters away from the leader of the Hirwe family.
Only meters away from the leader of the Hirwe family.

I spent an hour watching the Hirwe family play, eat, climb and groom each other. One enthusiastic young female threw sticks at certain members of our group, and I was one of the lucky targets (she missed).

A baby gorilla starts to climb.
A baby gorilla starts to climb.

The gorillas are incredibly docile creatures — a quality emphasized by the fact they allow daily visitors into their secret world.

Even days later, I can’t contain my excitement when people ask about the experience, because it really was the most amazing thing I have ever seen.

I will often think about the Hirwe family, and hope that they are alive and well in the thick forests of the Virungas.

It was, in one word, magical.

One of 1,000 gorillas on Earth.
One gorilla, of less than 1,000 in the world.

***

Rwanda’s tourism in Volcanoes National Park is impressively organized. There are 18 gorilla families. Ten are visited by tourists, while the other eight are left to researchers. A maximum of eight people are allowed to visit one family of gorillas per day. This ensures that tourists are always outnumbered by the gorilla family, keeping the balance of nature as much as possible. The one-hour time limit minimizes the intrusion. Gorillas recognize the guides and trackers, who know each gorilla by name and make gorilla-like sounds to introduce each new tour group.

The Hirwe family.
The Hirwe family.

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