An encounter with these charismatic creatures is a highlight of a trip to Africa for many visitors. An encounter with a silver back male gorilla at close quarters can be hair-raising experience, especially if you have only ever seen large wild animals behind the bars of a cage or from the safety of the car, yet despite their intimidating size, gorillas are remarkably non aggressive animals, entirely vegetarian, and usually quite safe to be around.
There are ten gorilla groups in parc national des volcans, including the Susa group, which has 32 members and a set of twins born in 2011. Although nearly every one who shows up at the park headquarters is most likely gunning to track the Susa group, the rangers select the most able- bodied and all-round fit individuals. Even though it’s the largest group in the park, it’s also the hardest to reach- you need to trek for three to four hours up the slopes of kirisimbi at an altitude of more than 3000m.
The sabinyo group (12 members) is a good choice of any one who doesn’t want a strenuous tracking experience as it can usually be found in less than 30 minutes. Agashya (27 members) and Amahura (18 members) are also popular with visitors, although no matter which group you end up tracking, you are most likely going to have a memorable experience.
Rwanda Gorilla trek
Make no mistake about it – gorillas tracking is no joyride. The guides can generally find the gorillas within one to four hours of starting out, but this often involves a lot of strenuous effort scrambling through dense vegetation up steep, muddy hillsides, some times to altitudes of more than 3000m. at higher altitudes, you will also have to contend with the thick overgrowth of stinging nettles, which can easily penetrate light clothing. As if fiery skin rashes weren’t enough of a deterrent, it also rains a lot in this area, so the going can certainly get tough (and muddy) in parts. At this altitude, the air can thin out quickly, so descend to lower altitudes if develop an intense headache.
Visits to the gorillas are restricted to one hour and flash photography is banned. While you are visiting the gorillas, do not eat, drink, smoke or go to the bathroom in their presence, if you have any potential air borne illness, do not go tracking as gorillas are extremely susceptible to human diseases.
In theory, visitors are requested to remain more than 5 meters from the gorillas at all times, though in practice the guides (and the gorillas) tend to flaunt this rule. Although no tourist have ever been harmed by the gorillas, you should give them the respect and wide berth you would give any wild animal.
Upon sighting the gorillas, the guides will make their presence known through a series of loud calls and grunts. This is an important part of the habituation process and also helps to alert the gorillas to the presence and whereabouts of their visitors.
Fees are now a hefty us$750 per person for a gorilla visit, which includes park entry, compulsory guides and guards. Numbers of people allowed to visit each of the groups are limited to a maximum of eight people per day, limiting the total number of daily permits to an absolute maximum of 80. Children less than 15 years are not allowed to visit the gorillas.
Bookings for gorilla permits can be made through the RDB tourist office in Kigali or a Rwandan tour company. Those visiting on a tour package will have everything arranged for them, while independent travelers can secure permits if they make reservations early on. Frustratingly, it’s not always easy to deal with the RDB by phone or email from overseas, so it’s some times easier to book a permit through a Rwandan tour operator.
While demand exceeding supply you will need to book well in advance if you want to be assured of a spot especially during the peak seasons of December- January and July- August. Bookings are secured with a us$100 deposit (via bank transfer), and full payment must be made upon your arrival in Kigali.
Independent travelers who have only decided to visit the gorillas in Rwanda once in east Africa region can turn up at the RDB office in Kigali and try to secure a booking at the earliest available date. During the high season waits of several days to more than a week are not un common. If you are desperate, cross the border to Congo (DRC), where permits are more readily available.
You will need to present your self at 7am on the day that your permit is valid at the park headquarters in Kinigi. It’s worth emphasizing that if you are late, your designated slot will be forfeited, and your money will not be refunded.
What to bring
You need to be prepared for a potentially long, wet and cold trek through equatorial rain forest. A study pair of hiking shoes is a must, as is plenty of warm and waterproof clothing. The stinging nettles at higher elevations can really put a damper on the experience, so consider wearing plants and long-sleeve shirts with a bit of thickness.
Despite the potential for high altitudes and cold temperatures, you also need to be prepared for the strong sun. Floppy hats, bandanas, sunglasses and lots of sun screen are a good idea, as are plenty of cold water and hydrating fluids. Sugary snacks are also good for quick energy boost.
When you check in at the park headquarters, you may be asked for identification by the park rangers. To avoid any potential hassles, carry your passport with you at all times in addition to your gorilla tracking permit.
Poters are available (Us$10) are available for the trek, though they are not absolutely necessary. The guides, guards, drivers and any poters will expect a tip – the moment is entirely up to you, and ultimately depends on the quality of the service. However, keep in mind that the locals know you are paying us$750 for the privilege of gorilla tracking, so try not to be too stingy.
GOLDEN MONKEY TRACKING
Golden monkey tracking is a relative new comer on the wildlife scene of East Africa. But it is rapidly rising in popularity both in parc National des volcans and across the border at Mgahinga gorilla national park in Uganda. More like chimp-viewing than a gorilla encounter, these beautiful and active monkeys bound about the branches of bigger trees. If you are looking for a reason to spend an extra day in the park, don’t miss the chance to track these rare animals.
Golden monkeys, which are subspecies of the wider-spread blue monkey, are endemic to the Albertine Rift valley and are distinguished by their gold body colouration, which contrasts sharply with black patches on their extremities. Classified as an endangered species, golden monkeys can only be seen in the Virungas, as deforestation and population growth in the Great lakes region has greatly affected their home range.
Permits to track the golden monkeys are easy to get hold of- simply enquire at the RDB office in Kigali or Musanze, or at the park headquarters in Kinigi
CLIMBING AND TREKKING THE VOLCANOES
Dian Fossey once declared: ‘in the heart of Central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat, are great, old volcanoes towering up almost 15,000 ft and nearly covered with rich, green rainforest – the Virungas;
Indeed, these stunning volcanoes serve as an evocative backdrop for a guided climb or trek. As you make your way along the ascents, you will pass through some remarkable changes of vegetation, ranging from thick forests of bamboo, giant lobelia or hagenia on to alpine meadows. And there’s a further reward in store: if the weather is favourable, you can enjoy spectacular views over the mountain chain.
There are several possibilities for climbing to the summits of one or more of the volcanoes in the park, with treks ranging in length from several hours to two days. A guide is compulsory and is included in your trekking fee; additional porters are optional. Note that it is forbidden to cut down trees or otherwise damage vegetation in the park, and you are only allowed to make fires in the designated camping areas.
One of the best parts for climbing and trekking the volcanoes is that you will be awarded ample opportunities to view wild life (gorillas and golden monkeys). The most common herbivores in the park are bush backs and black-fronted duikers; buffaloes, bush pigs and giant forest hogs are infrequently spotted. Also be sure to inspect the hollows of trees for hydraxes, genets, dormice, squirrels and forest poached rats. The richest bird watching zone is in the hagenia forests, where you can expect to see turaco, francolins, sunbirds, waxbills, crimson-wings and various hawks and buzzards.
Climbing kirisimbi, the highest summit in virungas, takes two long and taxing days. The track follows the saddle between Bisoke and Kirisimbi, and then ascends the northwestern flank of the latter. Some five hours after beginning the trek, there is a metal shelter under which you can pitch your tent. The rocky and some times snow-covered summit is a further two to four hours walk through alpine vegetation.
To do this trek, take plenty of warm clothing, your own food, a sturdy tent and a very good sleeping bag. It gets very cold, especially at the metal shelter, which is on a bleak shoulder of the mountain at 3660m. The wind whips through here, frequently with fog, so there is little warmth from the sun.
The return trip up Bisoke takes six to seven hours from parking Bisoke. The ascent takes you up the steep southwestern flanks of the volcano to the summit, where you can see the Crater Lake. The descent follows a track on the north western side, from where there are magnificent views over the parc National des Virungas.
Dian fossey’s grave
A popular trek is to the site of the former karisoke research centre, where Dian fossey is buried a long side many of her primate subjects, including the famous Digit. From the park headquarters it’s about a 30-minute drive to the trailhead, followed by a two-three- hour hike to the ruins of the camp.
The return walk to Ngezi (about 3000m) takes three to four hours from parking Bisoke. This is one of the easiest of the treks, and at the right time of the day it is possible to see a variety of animals coming down from the hills to drink at streams and springs.
Gahinga and muhabura
Climbing gahinga (3474m; in Uganda) and muhabura (4127m) is a two day trip from Gasiza. The summit of the first volcano is reached after a climb of about four hours a long a track that passes through a swampy saddle between the two mountains. The trip to the summit of Muhabura takes about four hours from the saddle. It is also possible to climb these separately.