Silver Backed Mountain Gorillas, Rwanda, 23 July 2012

“G” day, gorilla day: experiencing a silver back gorilla up close and personal – that was the one thing that brought most of us to Rwanda.

It was an early start from the Central Pastoral Notre Dame De Fatima Lodgings we were staying in.  We didn’t put up tents here; there were dorms with triple decker bunks but some of us upgraded to a room.  The promise of hot and cold running water was too much for me so I opted for a room.  My room was on the third floor, and you guessed it, the water failed to get to the lofty heights.  I was brought a 20 litre plastic container of cold water and told everything would be OK in the morning.  You guessed it again, no such nicety happened so you make do with what you have and splash cold water around or pad down stairs to a communal bathroom where copious quantities of hot water flowed freely.

After an early breakfast we piled into Landrovers or Landcruisers for the around 40 minute drive to the park headquarters.  Here we were placed into groups of six, sometimes with somebody from another tour group, sometimes not.  Whilst all this was going on we were entertained by a singing and dancing cultural group.  All very African and very energetic with many drums and stamping feet beating out the rhythm.  Apart from getting organised into our groups this gave the trackers time to locate the gorilla groups we were to visit.

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Dancing while rangers located the gorillas and guides processed the trekkers     (P1090753  ©  DY of jtdytravels)

There are an estimated 480 mountain gorillas in Rwanda with some 300 in Uganda.  In Rwanda there are 18 groups that have been habituated a process that takes about two years.  Ten of these groups are visited each day by just one group.  A maximum of one hour is spent in contact with the groups.  The remaining groups are solely visited for research purposes.

We were allotted the Ntambara group which has three silver backs as family members.  The alpha male can be expected to live for between 40 and 45 years and is at present 27 years old.  These males can be expected to eat 30kg of food each day and get most of their water from this foliage.

Once the group had been located we piled back into our vehicles for the drive to the road-head where we began our trek.

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We begin our climb     (P1090879  ©  DY of jtdytravels)

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The long haul ever upwards     (P1090855  ©  DY of jtdytravels)

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Mother and child     (P1090875  © DY of jtdytravels)

This was at an elevation of 2600 metres.  It was a bush bashing trek to get to the 3200 level to get to the spot where the gorillas were resting after their early morning feed.

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The rangers and armed guard      (P1090996  ©  DY of jtdytravels)

Eugene was our guide and we were accompanied by two rangers and an armed guard. They came along as there are buffalo in the area and they don’t want to be disturbed at all.  The gun is not to harm or injure the beasts just to scare them away should we stumble across them.  We didn’t see any.

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Patrick, my helper!       (P1090912  ©  DY of jtdytravels)

Our first contact was with a sleeping male who was a bit difficult to get to so we bypassed him and left him rest in peace.

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Our first encounter – How good can it get?     (P1100010  ©  DY of jtdytravels)

Within metres we came across the rest of the family group who were a little more active, but still resting.

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Who is looking at whom with more wonderment?    (P1100063  ©  DY of jtdytravels)

The rangers cut some brush away from around the animals to give us all a better view.  One last cut was too much for our dozing mate who sprang up and charged towards the ranger grabbing him and appearing to bite his side.  The rangers know what to do so he took a totally submissive posture, lying on the ground in the foetal position.  The gorilla was happy, he was still boss so returned to his snoozing position.  Now the excitement for me was that I didn’t expect this reaction – I guess the rangers have encounted this before.  And, where did I happen to be, but standing right next to the ranger.  This silver back was only a foot away from me, but took no notice of me, much to my relief.  I wasn’t overly perturbed as the other rangers didn’t interfere and certainly the gun was not fired!  That would have provoked a nasty situation.  Once everything settled down the females and a baby went about their playing and resting.  One of the females pounded her chest a number of times as she went from place to place.  The ground shook when she performed.  It was awe inspiring.

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This is how close we actually got!     (P1100076  ©  DY of jtdytravels)

Our hour with these magnificent animals was up all too quickly but we knew we had to leave them in peace and quiet to go about the daily business unbothered by us.  The gorillas will be visited by another group of tourists tomorrow – I hope they have a wonderful time – just like us.

Walking back down to the drop-off point     (P1090822 ©  DY of jtdytravels)

The trek back down the mountain was so much quicker than the hard slog up. We wanted to meet up with the other groups and tell them our stories. Of course, they had stories much like ours and we all agreed that it was worth the USD500 the permit had cost us.  In fact, I reckon I’d happily pay twice as much, climb twice as high and expend twice or more effort for the experience!  Words like, unique, surreal, emotional and spiritual were heard being bandied around.

From our drop-off point we had walked through some fields which we hardly gave a glance at as we were all marching upwards to our goal for the day.  On the way back down more time was allowed to survey the scenery.  A white daisy was being cultivated and everything fell into place when we came across a long building with racks in it.

Pyrethrum daisy – the source of an organic herbicide     (P1090819 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Small plots produce the pyrethrum flowers      (P1090785   ©  DY of jtdytravels)

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Lady drying pyrethrum flowers      (P1090890   ©  DY of jtdytravels)

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USAID sponsored drying shed      (P1090842  ©  DY of jtdytravels)

The sign on the building proclaimed it was a USAID initiative to grow pyrethrum daisies for the production of organic herbicides.  The flowers were picked and dried on the racks before being sent away for further processing.  A nice little good news story – a project that actually gives the villagers another source of income to augment their normal subsistence farming.

The striking green & purple foliage of a forest plant      (P1090899   ©  DY of jtdytravels)

I did have time to find a couple more interesting plants and flowers while trekking.

Small unidentified flower      (P1090902   ©  DY of jtdytravels)

On the drive back to our accommodation we stopped off to collect a certificate to proclaim our achievement.

What a day!

And one that made all the rough dusty roads, cold showers (if there was water at all) and difficulty of the whole trip well worthwhile.

Can anything beat this?  D

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