On the Trail of Rwanda's Mountain Gorillas

RÓISÍN SORAHAN felt like she was starring in ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ as she trekked through dense jungle in pursuit of an elusive prey, armed only with her camera.

IT FELT LIKE I was watching an old cinema reel. Thick mist cloaked the volcanic peaks. Trackers with machetes led the vanguard. Exotic plants with exaggerated genitalia leered drunkenly. Dense vegetation threw up its almost impenetrable shields. All the while, a cricket banged on about the silence.


Even the nettle stings, scratches and ankle-deep muck could not dispel the sense of unreality as we battled through rainforest in north western Rwanda in pursuit of the mountain gorilla, one of the world’s most elusive primates.


We were in search of the Susa group – the largest in Parc National des Volcans and the one that was studied by the American anthropologist, Dian Fossey, for 18 years and dramatised in the film Gorillas in the Mist. Normally the trackers can locate a group within one to four hours, but this particular family tends to range to higher altitudes.

The dominant silverback of the group. Photographer: Will Chin

Time dissolved as we ducked under the trapeze of flying branches and wedged our bodies through spaces carved by machetes. Breaths laboured as we steadily climbed to about 3,000m and started to feel the physical impact of the altitude gain. The cultivated terraced fields on the lip of the park seemed very far below us. We had entered virgin territory, shielded by clouds and draped in legend.


Our apparently random path was carefully chosen by our guide who maintained radio contact with the highly skilled trackers. Slowly, slowly we continued upward, breathless for word of a trampled clearing, a heap of dung, anything that would offer a clue to the whereabouts of our quarry which moved their nest from night to night.


The radio crackled. Our guide’s face tensed. He picked up the pace. The gorillas had been located. After a few more minutes we were instructed to leave our bags and walking sticks and continue, armed only with cameras. Our guide told us that the gorillas were accustomed to humans, but unfamiliar with some of our trappings, so anything that might startle them was discarded in a pile.


No sudden movements, we were warned. No shouting, gesticulating, or attempts to touch the primates. I recalled Sigourney Weaver’s performance as the extraordinary Dian Fossey, so I knew the drill if charged by a silverback. Curl into the foetal and squeeze the eyes shut . . . in theory. If tested I planned to kick up my heels and run as fast as my fear could take me.


Cameras were either buckled across shoulders or dangled dangerously from wrists before we stealthily inched forward. Sweat burned our eyes and anticipation prickled the air. Once faced with the animals, we would have one full hour to observe them. No more.


Anxious not to disturb the silence we cautiously entered a trampled clearing and the movie reel spun forward as the fastest 60 minutes of my life played before me.


Two young gorillas broke from the vegetation and plummeted towards us. They veered off and careened around a tree, in hot pursuit of each other. A parody of a Laurel and Hardy movie as the pursuer and pursued became obscured in their circular chase. They beat their chests in a wild performance, yet remained utterly unconcerned by our watching presence. Finally, they fell in a heap of dispassionate love-making.


I hardly knew where to look as we wandered into the heart of the group. Mammas breast-fed their babies, while youngsters brushed past our legs in play. I had never imagined we would come so close as to feel the touch of a shoulder as it ambled by. Others tumbled from trees above my head while the older members of the group chewed thoughtfully on celery sticks and stared at us with disquieting awareness.


A silverback sat in their midst, the leader of the group and potent with strength. The saddle of silver hair was the stamp of his authority and his stillness did little to dilute his sense of latent power. Almost three times the size of an average man, he must have weighted about 250kg. He never paused in his feeding, focused as he was on satiating his huge bulk, a task which consumes an adult gorilla’s most active hours between 6am and 6pm.


We kept our voices to a whisper to ensure that we didn’t startle these fascinating creatures who, despite the devastation wrought on their numbers by humans, accepted our presence with surprising gentleness.

Members of the Susa Group in Parc National des Volcans. Photographer: Will Chin

Mountain gorillas are peaceful creatures and will only respond with aggression if they believe that a member of their group is being threatened. They live in a stable family cluster which is led by the dominant silverback, who is overlord to a harem of females and their youngsters. The younger males will, however, try their luck with the ladies when the grand daddy of the group has his back turned.


There are about 655 mountain gorillas left in the world today and all of them are found in the wild. There are just three areas in which they can be located, all of which have been preserved as national parks: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwest Uganda, the Virunga Volcano region which straddles northwest Rwanda, bordering eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. The wild forested terrain in which the threatened species roam covers approximately 630sq km.


The population of mountain gorillas has catastrophically dwindled due to a number of man-made threats to them and their habitat. These include poaching, lax governments turning a blind eye with the argument that the money earned through illegal trading is important to the indigenous people, and pressure on the land for farming, fuel and construction.

Mountain gorillas also suffered during the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s and on-going civil strife in the DRC. Landmines and settlement of land by fleeing Rwandan refugees in the Virunga Volcano region on the Congolese side of the border resulted in the deaths of a number of gorillas as their habitat was stripped and the transmission of human disease became a very real threat.


Since then, gorilla conservation programmes have worked tirelessly to disarm the mines and minimise the pressures presented by humans. There is also greater awareness among policy- makers of the value of the mountain gorillas in terms of tourism revenue in countries that have struggled to present a positive international image.


The opportunity to observe these creatures at close range in their natural habitat is a rare privilege. The hour I spent with them didn’t even shave the edge off my curiosity. I couldn’t imagine what they thought of our prying eyes, or understand why they accepted our intrusion so graciously.


As we watched they shared intimacies, played, preened, stroked and nurtured their young and each other. And all the while the reel spun and our time, too soon, played out.


We retreated down the Karisimbi Volcano to the border of the national park, after which the scenery gave way to the terraced fields that characterise Rwanda’s landscape. Subsistence agriculture is the mainstay of Rwanda’s economy and the town of Ruhengeri, which is the staging post for the gorilla trek, is surrounded by lush cultivated countryside and overlooked by a ring of volcanoes. The idyllic setting and friendly people overcome the vestiges of poverty that cling to a town that has suffered greatly by its border location.


However, resilience appears to be an emblem of the Rwandan nation. Arriving in the capital Kigali, I was struck by the level of optimism and opportunity in the city. Cranes dotted the skyline and I met a number of people who had moved there to open up businesses. The city sprawls across hills which overlook its spreading suburbs, and its greatest attraction is its lively street life. It is determinedly looking forward and outwards and the scale of its physical recovery from the insanity of the 1994 genocide is remarkable.

The genocide museum in Kigali, which is a must for every visitor, displays the emotional scars the country carries. Its informative displays catalogue the background and build-up to this bloody nightmare in which more than one million people were murdered; while life-sized photographs of victims and video testimony from survivors give voice to the screams.


It is harrowing, emotionally draining and frighteningly challenging. It forces the question of how the world ignored the promise of “never again” after the Holocaust and idly watched the slaughter unfold, night after night, on its TV news broadcasts.


The progress of the city and the beauty of the country are not diluted by the brutality which tore through its population. However, most visitors remain cautious about visiting Rwanda and mainstream tourism has been replaced by aid workers and UN personnel. For many, Rwanda remains yoked to their memories of headlines and horror.

Woman carrying firewood at the base of the Karisimbi Volcano in the Virunga Volcano Region. Photographer: Will Chin

What they have never seen are the fertile terraced hills, the forest reserves and the densely vegetated volcanoes that are havens for some of the world’s most elusive and threatened primates. It is described as Le Pays des Milles Collines – The Land of a Thousand Hills. It is a country for window gazing from a bus, or for hiking volcanic trails. It is also the land in which I spent one of the most memorable hours of my life, observing a group of the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas.


Tourists to Rwanda are almost as rarefied, but those who do take the time to peel back the edges of this country are rewarded many times over.


What to do and where to go on a visit to Rwanda


All permits to visit the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys are booked through the Rwanda Tourism Board offices (ORTPN) in Kigali or Ruhengeri. Office Rwandaise du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), Boulevard de la Révolution 1, PO Box 905, Kigali, Rwanda, rwandatourism.com/primate. htm, e-mail reservation-@rwandatourism.com. Cost: $500 (€377) per person.

There are a number of different gorilla groups in the national park. We requested to visit the Susa group to ensure maximum hiking time. Other families can be viewed with less trekking and so are suitable for people of all ages and moderate fitness levels.


Anyone suffering from a cold or flu is requested to defer their visit to avoid spreading the virus to the gorillas. Spaces are limited to eight in a group, so be sure to book your permit in advance.


For further insight into the conservation of the gorillas visit the Karisoke Research Centre in Parc National des Volcans, which was founded by Dian Fossey in 1968 and is now run by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Funds, gorillafund.org.


There are endless trekking opportunities in Rwanda. The terrain ranges from small hillside farms cultivating coffee, tea and bananas, to volcanic chains in the northwest and rainforest in Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southeast.


Lake Kivu, on the western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, is as close to beach chill as this land-locked country gets. Rural idyll is tempered with three resort towns, the most developed of which is Gisenyi, which makes the most of its sandy shoreline and colonial era hotels.


Nyungwe Forest National Park is the largest area of montane forest remaining in east and central Africa. The park hums and thrums with the din of monkeys and more than 270 bird species.


Go there


Klm (klm.com) flies from Dublin to Nairobi via Amsterdam. Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com) flies from Nairobi to Kigali. Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) flies from Dublin to Addis Ababa, via Frankfurt, continuing to Kigali with Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.com).

Article originally published by The Irish Times