I have been aware of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda since I started going there in 2013, but I have not had a strong urge to visit them. First of all, I am in Rwanda for the service-learning projects, which require all my attention and energy to manage. Secondly, they are quite far away from where we work. Thirdly, it is expensive. Then, a year ago, I became aware they are the same gorillas that Dian Fossey studied and literally lived with.
This year, after the project was finished and students were sent home, I went to visit them. It was quite an encounter.
They live on Mount Besoke, an active volcano part of which is in Volcanoes National Park to the north west of Rwanda. We had to book ahead through a travel agency, registered when we arrive at the park early in the morning and then drove to the launching point in a village half way up Mount Besoke. From there we hiked up Mount Besoke.
The slope became steeper and steeper, the grass got longer and the mud got wetter and more slippy. Worst of all, there were more and more stinging nettles. After an hour and a half, I suddenly went face to face with my first gorilla. It was no more than 10 feet away and it was eating.
At first, it didn’t seem too too big, half hidden in the tall grass.
Only after my initial excitement did I realised that its head was bigger than mine, that its arm is bigger than my thigh, and its shoulders are much broader than mine. I was told this was only a female, which is much smaller than the dominant male. A silverback dominant male can weight 600 pounds!
We were told to stay 7 meters away from them. But they often went straight at us.
We could do nothing more than give way. Or to stand still while they brush our legs. It was exciting, to say the least!
They were certainly aware of us being there. Often they would look at us for a bit, without obvious interest, and then look away. We were told not to stare, which can be interpreted as a challenge, and to lower our gaze.
During the hour-long encounter, we met young gorillas, females and a silver back dominant male. A total of perhaps 5 or 6 individuals. They would munch on the vegetation, walked on all fours to another spot, and munch some more. Sometimes they would simply roll sideways, sit up, and munch again.
My observation is that the gorillas eat often. Sometimes they just sit and think. Other times they just sit.
At the foot of the volcano are rich fields and the people who farm them. The tidy, intensively cultivated fields reached up to the edge of the national park. We were told that the villagers often went up the mountain to collect fire wood and do other tasks. Dian Fossey set up rules to protect the gorillas which the villagers didn’t appreciate. Some said the resentment might have something to do with her murder, yet unsolved.
Nowadays gorilla tourism brings in enough economic benefits to keep the place peaceful.
We were told that sometimes the gorillas would venture outside the park. The villages would just shoo them back, knowing that the gorillas’ existence is of benefit to them.
Down in the town a hotel advertised itself as the place where Dian Fossey used to stay.
A Dian Fossey style steak is available. To see her room? You have to come up with 10 US dollars.
Seeing the gorillas is quite an adventure. Highly recommended, despite the stinging nettles.